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The NAS solution: managing the explosive growth of data volume on business networks. (Tape/Disk/Optical Storage).

Managing network complexity is a perennial IT challenge. Like weeds in the garden, network problems can creep in whenever a business has to add hardware, tinker with the network architecture, or make ad hoc changes to accommodate new software.

These days, the growth in network traffic within most companies, and across the Internet, means that network administrators have to deal with new storage requirements. They need manageable, cost effective capacity. They want minimal disruption to users. And they want storage solutions that integrate cleanly into existing networks. Simple solutions that also simplify their network management tasks are worth their weight in gold, especially for smaller shops with limited resources and technical support.

The desire for low-cost, highly integrated, easily managed network storage is the reason that network attached storage (NAS) servers are the choice of more and more small and medium-sized companies. Last year, unit sales of midrange NAS servers in the $5,000 to $25,000 range grew by 58.4 percent; analysts project 25.6 percent compound annual growth in the category through 2007 (Gartner Dataquest, "Network-Attached Storage Market Share 2002," March 2003), driven by consolidation of traditional file servers, ease of scaling, and cost effectiveness.

In terms of simplicity and manageability, NAS servers are the dream solution for small and medium-sized businesses. NAS servers cost less, are easier to install, and simplify overall network management. Yet today, NAS servers are installed in only 12 percent of sites that have less than 100 employees and 15 percent of sites with 100 to 499 employees (Harte-Hankes study of SMB market potential, April 2003). What are the rest of them doing? And why do they need to consider NAS?

Network Capacity Requirements are Growing

While they may not all agree on the solution, IT people will certainly agree on the scope of the challenge. Corporate e-mail, which is now a critical communication channel in most businesses, has proliferated with rich content that includes images, presentations, spreadsheets, PDF files and more. Office application file sizes have mushroomed, embedded with high-resolution graphics as well as audio or video content. Internet access has driven explosive growth in the size of corporate websites, which now include customer support databases, file downloads, marketing materials, and online stores (so-called "e-tailing"). Multimedia content editing has entered the mainstream.

Storage Capacity: One Big Problem, Many Possible Solutions

Business systems are increasingly designed around the network accessibility of data, stored on the network and accessed as needed via browser-based interfaces. Workgroup activities have evolved to exploit the pervasiveness and accessibility of the network, providing print services, file sharing, WAN and Internet access, and an increasing range of corporate services ranging from document control to accounting to ISO 9000 training. In short, a lot of data is surging over the network. It all has to be stored somewhere.

Running short of disk space is like running out of oxygen; network applications need room to breathe. However, some of the more common approaches SMBs use to add storage--such as adding a new hard disk to a general-purpose server, or adding a new general-purpose server for a particular task-- can be disruptive and time-consuming. It's not just that it takes hours to configure a new server or install and configure a new disk. And it's not just that users are aggravated when their server goes offline while a new disk is installed. It's that the old system was working before, and now--with some careful manual configuration--it's been taken apart and fixed. Odds are that the fix will work, but the new hardware may also make the network more complicated to administer than before.

The Hard Disk

Adding a hard disk to a general-purpose server solves the immediate storage crunch, but doesn't address all the issues of data growth. The hardware cost of adding the hard disk may be lower, but the added network load on the server will reduce its performance in other roles. Backup and recovery routines will also be less manageable as disks are scattered among multiple servers.

There are other drawbacks. Hard disk space may go wasted on some servers and be in short supply on others, stranding unused capacity on the underutilized server and forcing the administrator to do some drive remapping. Even the disk upgrade that goes well is an added headache, both for the network administrator who installs and configures it and for the business that has to schedule the hours of server downtime. The disk upgrade, which was originally intended to add lowcost capacity, may inadvertently cause an increase in management cost and complexity.

The General-Purpose Server

Adding a general-purpose server can help lighten the load of existing servers, but it also entails extra cost, complexity, and effort. The operating system and disk subsystems will not be optimized for file serving. Many of the server's hardware and software features will go unused. Its OS and applications will require software licensing fees based on the number of users. And after a time-consuming installation and configuration, costing the administrator a day or more, the general-purpose server will also add to the organization's ongoing support costs and the complexity of the network.

The NAS Server

The first impression people sometimes have of NAS servers--that of stripped-down general-purpose servers-is understandable but not entirely accurate. NAS servers actually offer more, not less: more storage capacity, more data redundancy, greater file-serving performance, vastly greater data consolidation potential, and much more ease of use. NAS servers are designed to do one task extremely well: File serving. Plug them in, set them up with a browser-based configuration utility, and in about 15 minutes you can move on to more pressing tasks.

NAS servers work with heterogeneous network clients (e.g., Windows, Mac and Linux) and multiple network file protocols, providing the flexibility needed by today's small and medium-sized companies.

Two varieties of NAS server occupy the low- to mid-range end of the NAS spectrum: those running a Unix variant, and Windows-Powered NAS servers running Microsoft's Server Appliance Kit. Major vendors in the under-$25,000 category include Snap (Quantum), Iomega, Dell, IBM, HP, EMC and Network Appliance. Iomega has just released the first Windows Powered NAS servers at the sub-$1,000 price point, and its NAS lineup includes both Unix-based and Windows-Powered NAS servers, with the Windows-Powered variant ranging from 160GB (gigabytes) to 1 1.4TB (terabytes).

Regardless of operating system, NAS servers excel on a number of levels:

NAS Storage Capacity: NAS servers deliver storage capacity by using efficient combinations of hard disks. ATA disks dominate the low end (under $5,000) and are gaining market share from SCSI in the midrange ($5,000 to $25,000), although SCSI is still well entrenched. Iomega NAS servers, for example, use arrays of from two to eight ATA disks, arranged in suitable RAID (redundant array of independent disks) configurations.

Data Backup and Data Redundancy: NAS servers facilitate efficient network backup in two ways. First, they can provide client PCs with online disk-based backup and recovery, making file recovery virtually instant and saving employees from the tedium and delays associated with restoring files from tape. Second, they can also be an efficient attachment point for a high-speed tape autoloader, archiving data for long-term storage that has been consolidated from across the network. Superior backup abilities alone may justify the purchase of a NAS unit for anyone concerned with planning for disaster recovery and business continuity.

NAS servers are generally configured for some form of RAID redundancy as well. RAID-5 arrays, for instance, provide disk striping with parity, guaranteeing that if a disk fails, it can be replaced and rebuilt from the data and parity information on the remaining disks. NAS servers such as the Iomega P400 and P800 series use hot-swappable drives, meaning that the server can stay online while a disk is replaced and rebuilt.

File-Serving Performance: The NAS system is tailored for file serving duties, so its operating system is very lean, including just the services that contribute to fast, efficient file-serving performance. Hardware is optimized for file-serving speed as well, with some models including multiple processors, multiple network cards, and special co-processors to offload network protocol algorithms from the CPU.

Moving the heaviest file-serving duties to a purpose-built machine like a NAS server will typically improve the network performance of general-purpose servers as well. Freed from their file-serving responsibilities, general purpose servers can devote their processor cycles to running other important applications.

Data Consolidation: Storage allocations to client PCs are easier to manage when the storage capacity is consolidated in one device rather than fragmented across various servers. A single NAS server may be able to replace multiple servers performing file-serving functions, improving network performance and reducing support costs. Data consolidation also helps with backup when using NAS servers like the Iomega P800 series, which include an Ultra 160 SCSI port for direct tape backup.

Ease of Use: Perhaps the best argument for deploying NAS servers is their easy installation, configuration and maintenance. NAS installation is virtually automatic; a browser-based management console generally makes installation and setup a simple 15-minute process.

Value: NAS units cost less to buy than general-purpose servers of equivalent capacity. They also save money for the organization because they generally don't require per-seat licenses for the software on the NAS device.

The Windows-Powered NAS Alternative

Microsoft launched its Server Appliance Kit (SAK) in 2001. The SAK enabled OEMs to build Windows-Powered NAS devices based on the Windows 2000 feature set, familiar features that IT managers already know how to use:

* Distributed File System service (DFS), for seamlessly linking additional Iomega NAS servers to the network.

* Active Directory services (ADS), for managing users, servers and policies.

* Persistent Storage Manager (PSM), for creating space efficient snapshots of network data and recovering lost, damaged, or accidentally deleted files.

* File Replication Service (FRS), for replicating system policies and login scripts among Windows 2000 servers.

* Storage Resource Manager (SRM), for allocating storage, filtering files, and reporting on file usage; provides intelligent information on how the storage is being used with two levels of policy.

In addition to feeling comfortable with using a familiar OS, administrators also benefit from the seamless integration of running Windows on both the client and server side. For instance, Windows-Powered NAS servers can use Active Directory to provide strong security, preventing unauthorized users from getting access to files. Distributed file system makes the process of adding storage transparent to the end user.

Iomega has tackled the SMB market with Windows-Powered NAS servers, forming a close alliance with Microsoft, and the user feedback has been exceptionally good. Iomega NAS owners have noted that the Windows-Powered NAS environment is easier to integrate into existing Windows networks, it improves data security, and it vastly improves manageability.


NAS servers offer a scalable, cost-effective, and easy-to-manage pool of storage to existing networks without time-consuming installation procedures or network downtime. Windows-Powered NAS servers also add the benefits of familiar tools, excellent integration, improved manageability, and solid security features. Small and medium-sized businesses, which have historically relied on more complex solutions, are ready for the message that NAS equals simplicity when it comes to network storage.

Among the many factors that will drive NAS acceptance, the most important trend today is data proliferation. The growing load on networks and storage devices means that companies will invest in capacity they can install quickly and easily, without adding to the support burdens of their IT staff.

Another important trend is the growing awareness of the importance of business continuity planning and disaster recovery. IDC's December 2002 security survey noted that 5 5-60 percent of small and medium-sized businesses are still in planning stages or have no plan as of yet; NAS servers will help many of these businesses implement effective disaster recovery strategies.

IDC estimates that in 2002, companies spent $6.4 billion on general-purpose file servers used for file sharing; NAS spending, by contrast, was only $1.3 billion. This disparity suggests that many companies are still buying what's familiar and considerably more costly, the general-purpose server, rather than the best tool for the job; NAS providers like Iomega will have to educate customers on the cost and usability advantages of NAS.

NAS users want product reliability, service and support, ease of maintenance, and value. Brand strength and reseller channel support will also be influential in many buying decisions. Companies that are able to understand their customers and innovate within the category will thrive, making efficient implementation of network storage even more critical to business success than it is today.

Wayne Arvidson is director of marketing, network storage systems, and Chris Romoser is director corporate public relations and events, at Iomega Corporation (San Diego, Calif.)
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Article Details
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Author:Romoser, Chris
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Date:Jun 1, 2003
Previous Article:Are you ready to outsource your storage? (Tape/Disk/Optical Storage).
Next Article:Opening the door to open source. (Enterprise Networking).

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