Is NAS right for your enterprise?

NAS is one possible answer to corporate storage woes, but it's not a silver bullet.

NAS is one possible answer to corporate storage woes, but it's not a silver bullet.

In the Internet era demanding instant accessibility of information for customers, partners and employees, network-attached storage (NAS) can help resolve many of the typical storage-related hassles a company may face. NAS is essentially an updated version of the old file-server concept, meaning that it's a box dedicated to one task. The difference, though, is that instead of starting with a general-purpose machine that the customer needs to retrofit, a NAS server is tweaked from the get-go to be good at only one thing: serving up files and other information. NAS generally consists of a souped-up server and a stripped-down operating system that have been optimized for storage needs. This box then connects to the corporate network via SCSI, Ethernet or Fibre Channel.

This setup is very different from a storage area network (SAN), which basically takes all of a company's storage devices and puts them on a separate network designed to handle that kind of traffic. It's attached to the corporate network, of course, but it is an offshoot. And where NAS is a device or a family of boxes, SAN is an architecture and is much more complex and far-reaching than NAS.

Still, NAS can help resolve many of the storage-related difficulties companies encounter by enabling accessibility of information for a variety of end-users. NAS can help ease both storage-caused network slowdowns and data-management headaches. Because the device is network-connected, all the data in a NAS box can be automatically backed up at regular intervals, for example.

In fact, the more Internet-reliant a company is, the more NAS makes sense over the traditional way of doing storage -- with hard drives or other storage devices that are connected to a desktop PC. "The limitations of direct-access storage become apparent when you look at how applications run today," says Barb Goldworm, an independent consultant in Boulder, Colo.

Just like their general-purpose server brethren, NAS boxes come in a wide variety of types and price ranges. The Quantum Snap Server 1000, with 15 Gbytes of storage, goes for $500; an EMC model that handles multiple terabytes of data, has RAID 5 protection and offers fault tolerance and other high-end features sells for upwards of $100,000.

The most important thing to figure out is "what problem are you trying to solve in your IT architecture?" says William Hurley, an analyst at the Yankee Group in Boston. Other criteria to consider: the amount of information to be stored in the NAS box, the volatility of that information (how long it is "live," how often it needs to be backed up, how long it needs to be accessed and by how many people), and unexpected surges in the volume -- as with e-mail.

While NAS is an excellent choice for multimedia and many other applications, it doesn't work as well with databases, Hurley says. NAS works well for file-based information, but doesn't handle as efficiently the block-based storage needs of databases.

Another consideration is the connection from the NAS device to the corporate network. "If you're using NAS in a small or remote office, or a workgroup, most of the time those have different topological architectures" than does the core corporate network, Hurley says.

By all accounts, NAS is easy to work with. Rick Vanover, an independent consultant in Columbus, Ohio, installed a Maxtor MaxAttach unit that took about 20 minutes to be recognized by the network and booted up. "You have to populate the device and set up security, but it's already set up to roll right out of the box," he says. "It really is easy."

All told, Goldworm suggests that would-be NAS users "keep an eye to the future. Don't just look at your network storage requirements today, but figure out what happens when you roll out that next application and whether you saturate the network."

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