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Auspex separates controller from disks with new NAS appliance

NAS maker Auspex has finally delivered a NAS 'head' storage controller system that it has been promising since last year. The NSc3000 is designed to bring NAS-like file-level access to SANs from all the major hardware players.

Auspex has now delivered the NAS 'head' storage controller system it's been promising since November of last year. Currently available in limited quantities, with general availability scheduled for April, the NSc3000 network storage controller is the first such product aimed at heterogeneous storage subsystems, according to the company.

Although there are other NAS heads on the market, Auspex has designed its product to work with all the existing major SAN storage subsystems, including those from LSI Logic, EMC, Compaq and Hitachi Data Systems. The idea is to offer NAS-like file-level access to existing SANs. With some difficulty, Auspex has now succeeded in separating its front-end technology from the back-end disks.

Context Auspex claims to have created the NAS market, and it was certainly first to launch storage-based file servers in the late 1980s, which were mostly sold into the Sun user base. After a while, Sun fought back by launching its Netra line of file servers. But it was Network Appliance that later simplified and solidified the NAS model, taking away a huge chunk of Auspex's business in the process.

Director of marketing Mark Ameling says the company is now aiming at customers torn between implementing either NAS or SAN. Now they don't have to choose, he says, but can implement both. In a typical SAN, up to 30% of the capacity is not being utilized. This can now be tapped into using the NAS model.

Technology Unlike a number of emerging startups, there's no attempt to superimpose NAS and SAN technologies. The Auspex box, derived directly from the current NS3000 range, uses unused LUNs (logical unit numbers on a SCSI bus) and assigns them to the storage controller so that unused portions of the SAN can be overlayed with virtual partitions and file systems. Inside the storage controller is Auspex's optimized thin operating system, so all the applications available on full-scale NS3000 machines, such as remote data replication, logical volume management, backup and restore, snapshots and RAID can be used in the same way.

It's likely that Auspex will continue to sell complete NS3000 servers for those customers who want them, although Ameling admits that the front end is where the added value is and the disks themselves are becoming commodity items. The unit fits within a 5U rack-mounted cabinet. Starting prices range from $30,000 to $45,000.

Competition Network Appliance is still Auspex's main competitor, although it doesn't currently have a NAS head product and with its recent Nearline announcement appears to be moving in the direction of selling more, rather than less, disks. EMC has had a NAS head for a number of years in the shape of its high-end Celerra product line ? although it currently works only in conjunction with a back-end Symmetrix. IBM's NAS 300G Gateway is a closer equivalent, and recently IBM has been testing its interoperability with non-IBM storage, starting with Hitachi. Veritas' SANPoint and ServPoint software are functionally equivalent, and the software firm has been experimenting with an appliance approach over the last year.

There are numerous startups working on NAS and SAN integration, among them LeftHand Networks, Maximum Throughput and BlueARC. Auspex says it can get better NAS performance than those companies that use some kind of emulation to run NAS on top of SAN, as it uses native implementations of both the Windows-based CIFS and Unix NFS file systems. Meanwhile, it's joining as many interoperability clubs as it can, including API forums from switch and storage makers such as JNI, Brocade and McData, and storage standards organizations such as the SNIA, to help potential users gain a "comfort level" with mixing and matching hardware from separate vendors.

Financial impact Auspex continues to struggle to revitalize its business. Revenue in its second fiscal quarter of 2002 was just $8.8m, down 46% from the same quarter last year. The average selling price of its products declined due to competitive pressures, and gross margins were down to 14% of revenue, compared with 36% last time. Its older NS2000 products are nearing the end of their life, and Auspex has been heavily discounting in order to clear out its inventory. The loss during the second quarter was $18.9m, compared with $8.6m the year-ago period. Auspex still has $47.9m of cash in the bank, and says that with reduced operating expenses it still has enough working capital resources for at least the next twelve months.

Conclusion The NS3000, introduced during last year after a number of delays, hasn't generated the level of sales Auspex had originally hoped for. Now, having decoupled its intelligent NAS controllers from the rest of the subsystem, the company has at last achieved sufficient differentiation from its archrival Network Appliance. But despite all the hype, are customers really confident enough to embark on the installation of heterogeneous storage installations? If they are and sales of Auspex equipment pick up, it will be interesting to see if Network Appliance will follow with similar products of its own.

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