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Users say choosing the best SMB NAS system has gotten a little easier

Choosing an SMB NAS system has gotten a lot easier, thanks to a plethora of vendors offering full-featured products priced right for SMBs.

Not too many years ago, network-attached storage (NAS) systems for the small- to medium-sized business (SMB) market were practically nonexistent. But all that has changed and now a wide array of large and small vendors serve up a tempting array of capable and affordable SMB NAS systems.

According to Bob Passmore, an analyst at Gartner, the least expensive NAS systems are really intended for workgroups, and still have limited ability to fit into managed networks. “The best known are probably the Snap appliances [by Overland Storage] and the Iomega products [now produced by EMC Corp.],” he said. The next categories are limited functionality devices, which he said could be considered as workgroup NAS. These products typically have the ability to present a file share to a limited number of users, their security features are bare bones and the only storage management available is usually one supported method to back up the device to something else, he said.

Many vendors are in the SMB NAS space

Examples include the Microsoft Storage Server-based NAS products from Dell and Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co., products from Nexsan Corp. and some other small vendors. “For high-functionality NAS, Oracle’s Sun 7000 series and the entry-level NetApp products both serve the SMB world,” he said. These full-featured SMB NAS systems come with extensive security capabilities, support hundreds to thousands of users, have extensive storage management functions like thin provisioning, snapshots with tools to synchronize applications to snaps, remote replication for disaster recovery, deduplication and compression, automatic tiering, and support for many backup tools, he noted.

Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at the StorageIO Group, said there is a lot going on in the SMB NAS space. “When it comes to NAS, SMBs are finally getting the respect they have deserved for a long time,” he said. In the early 2000s, the big vendors mostly thumbed their noses at SMB and SOHO needs, he said. Historically, the growth of NAS mirrors the expansion of NetApp, which pioneered the SMB space, Schulz said. But HP, Dell and EMC quickly realized the importance of the market and now most vendors are giving it a lot of attention, he said.

Schulz said at the SOHO end of the market there is a huge selection of vendors. “EMC has its Iomega family and there are also products from Buffalo Technology, Drobo, Dlink, Gridstore, and many others,” he said.

Many of the NAS products now have features and functionality that would have traditionally been found only in the upper SMB or even the enterprise market, he said. For instance, many vendors offer features like the ability to choose different kinds of disk storage and RAID levels and multiprotocol support. “SMBs really benefit from those features because the smaller SMBs, in particular, may have only one storage system and it needs to cover a lot of different uses,” he said.

What's on your SMB NAS system wish list?

But fundamentally, the SMB market is finally getting its wish list fulfilled, noted Schulz. At the higher end of the SMB market, replication is being enhanced along with storage-efficient snapshots, auto tiering, transparent data migration, leveraging of flash SSD, additional flavors of multiprotocol support including Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) and support for more object-based access.

At the lower end, Schulz points to application-specific access including SOAP and REST, commonly used for accessing cloud- and other object-based or application-accessed storage. Plus there’s BitTorrent, which is used for supporting streams of data including video, audio and e-books. NAS at this level also typically features easy to use and manage interfaces. “SMB NAS solutions are also adding support for VMware APIs and Microsoft Hyper-V hypervisors, along with increased support for data availability [and] with enhanced security,” he said.

But Schulz said while the mantras around the SMB market are price, increased functionality, and ease of use, it is important to think practically.

“The common thing you may hear is that a product is easy to install. But you need to find out how easy it is to use on an ongoing basis. Whether you must work with it daily, weekly, or several times a year, over the period that you own it that time can add up,” said Schulz.

Customers also should determine how easy is it to accomplish specific tasks with any product. “Look at the total ownership and management and how it fits with other applications like SQL, Exchange and SharePoint,” he added.

He said you should also consider how easy it is to implement. “How easy is it to determine what kind of NAS you need—vendors should be able to help with wizards, guides, documents, and tools to help you navigate and configure things,” he said.

Bank implements NetGear ReadyNAS system

For Joshua Garcia, a VP of technology operations at CheckSpring Bank, the decision came down to price. When his EMC Clariion got close to capacity and neared the end of its useful life, he began shopping for NAS boxes. But his first choice was priced was too high for his budget, leading him to explore new options. “Then I heard about NetGear ReadyNAS. It was about half the price with all the features and I was able to get it approved quickly—the only thing I sacrificed was some read and write speeds,” he said. In fact, Garcia said he was able to get two NetGear units for about the same price he had expected to pay for one NAS unit, one for company headquarters and the other for the disaster recovery site.

Beyond price, Garcia said the ReadyNAS units had features that he needs, in particular multiprotocol support, built in backup features and Active Directory integration. “ReadyNAS has FTP and all the standard protocols that you would use in a day-to-day environment as well as some protocols that our company never used,” he said. “When NetGear released its ReadyNAS Replicate it was the icing on the cake; it solved many disaster recovery challenges.”

“We are mostly Windows-based but for virtual machines we have found Linux works best; the ReadyNAS allowed us to accommodate both environments, using NFS shares for the VMware storage, and CIFS for our shared drive,” he explained. The NFS data stores allowed for high availability so if an instance goes down it can be brought right back up again.

If there has been one downside to the ReadyNAS 3200, it has been the speed of the read and writes in an intense environment. “Because I’m up to about 12 instances of virtual machines it is time to upgrade,” he said. However, Garcia said after a year of satisfactory operations he hopes to upgrade to the ReadyNAS 4200, which is expected to be eight to 10 times faster. And, he added, growing capacity is easy with the current system and future ones because it automatically reconfigures as new storage is added.

“We currently have three NetGear ReadyNAS devices deployed in our environment and look forward to adding more,” he added.

NAS systems can wear many hats

For many users, NAS systems can fulfill a range of roles. Darvin Malugen, senior systems administrator for U.S. Renal Care in Dallas, adopted a NAS solution to supplement his storage area network (SAN). Several months ago, Malugen selected a Quantum Corp. DXi6520 NAS product. “We use it to backup our main corporate office in Dallas and a remote location in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, and we also use it to replicate backups to our disaster recovery site,” he said. In addition to these larger tasks, the NAS set up also provides file storage for some users. “We are planning to buy a new EMC SAN but this provides us with a storage cushion in the meantime,” he added.

Aside from capacity and cost, Malugen said he has been impressed with the easy-to-use interface and easy set up. “We have been able to use it from day one,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ted Malos of Ventura Unified School District in California, tells a NAS story with a scale-out twist. His organization is responsible for 30 sites linked by a dark fiber network which serve 18,000 students. In 2005, the district purchased Kinko’s former world headquarters as a location for its two data centers. “Although it is one building, the two sites have different A/C, fire suppression and power,” explained Malos.

The district currently runs 100 physical servers and 160 servers in total. Because of the dark fiber capacity, they have very few actual servers at the school buildings. Instead, everything is connected at the data centers over fiber.

A RAID failure that lost nearly all the data for one school led Malos to adopt a SAN, but he also learned about a NAS option from Gridstore which allows many disks, in multiple locations, to become part of a NAS system.

That approach seemed to offer very low cost but tremendous redundancy. “We thought we should have something more behind the SAN and Gridstore was something we could begin to do immediately,” he said.

Plus, Malos expects the cost of addition storage to be low because we can even incorporate donor PCs in the system. “With the Gridstore NAS we have the advantage of storage that is online but it doesn’t clog up our SAN,” he adds.

George Crump, an analyst at Storage Switzerland, said the SMB market is getting more interesting as companies begin to adopt SaaS capabilities for many key activities like email, retain an ample local storage capability for things they do not want to put in the cloud. SMB NAS adoption is also driven by rapid growth in storage requirements at companies that have large CAD or video files.

“That is where the Gridstore NAS product is interesting, because it allows that type of growth. Drobo, which supports expansion through a12-bay unit, has a similar kind of appeal,” Crump said.

About this author: Alan Earls is a frequent contributor to SearchSMBStorage.

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