NAS in the small to midsized business: Selecting a NAS system

The key factors an SMB should consider for making a NAS system selection and some of usage areas that may have an effect on the choice are outlined in this tip.

What you will learn from this tip: The key factors an SMB should consider for making a NAS system selection and some of usage areas that may have an effect on the choice.

A network attached storage (NAS) system can be a great solution for storage needs in a small to midsized (SMB) business.

@25247 Typically, managing storage is not the main business of an SMB, so minimizing the required activity and the ongoing costs are important. NAS systems generally have these characteristics to aid in easing the burden in meeting storage capacity needs for an SMB:

  • Simple installation -- Usually the installation of a NAS system requires setting an IP address, establishing a file system and providing access controls.
  • Easy administration -- Day-to-day monitoring and managing the NAS system is usually not required.
  • Cost effective -- There are many providers of NAS systems and it is a very competitive business.

So, what are the considerations for making a selection of a NAS system? There are some very critical decisions that must be made and there are some less important or specific to a use case. The major considerations include:

  • Capacity -- What is the capacity demand for the SMB, not only currently, but for the next three to five years?
  • Usage environment -- This can be a complex issue based on the applications that are being run. The first consideration is what operating systems are being run on the servers that will use the storage. If they are all Windows, then the selection of a NAS product needs to focus on the CIFS protocol used by Windows and the use of Active Directory for security controls. If Unix of some type is used, then NFS support and LDAP controls must be part of the product. If there is a mixture and files are to be shared between the different systems, that support will be needed in the NAS system.
  • Installation and administration -- It is worthwhile to examine the installation and administration claims by the vendor of the NAS system to see if they will meet the needs of minimizing the amount effort required.
  • Availability -- What are the availability requirements? For a NAS system, to be highly available will require a dual controller (or dual node) system where a failure of one controller can be overcome by the other controller taking over access. A dual controller system represents a more costly product and some additional administrative tasks.
  • Price -- How much the product costs has several factors. Not only is there the cost based on capacity and controller(s), but some vendors may charge extra for some software features while other vendors may include them.
  • Performance -- Most SMB environments don't have demanding performance requirements, but, if there are, the performance characteristics of the NAS systems under consideration should be understood. There are some product benchmarks available at www.specbench.org.
  • RAID protection -- Does the attached storage have RAID protection? This is generally the case and while there may be differences, for the SMB, the basic function of RAID protection is usually the only consideration.
  • Backup -- Often overlooked, how the data on the NAS system will be protected by backup to tape or another storage system needs to be determined.

Bringing a NAS into an SMB environment really may be as simple as setting the IP address. But, addressing the security needs to be considered as well. Additionally, an uninterruptible power system (UPS) is good idea for the NAS system.

Depending on the specific environment, an SMB may also want to look into other, more detailed functionalities and consider the following items:

  • Is the NAS system capable of making a point-in-time copy (snapshot, checkpoint, etc.) and does that capability require an extra charge?
  • Is a remote copy for protection required? Some of the NAS systems have a feature (usually for an extra charge) to make a copy of the data to a remote system for disaster protection.
  • Does the NAS system have an integrated anti-virus and quota management capability?
  • Some applications may ultimately require block level I/O rather than the file level I/O provided with the NFS and CIFS protocols on NAS. Some NAS systems may also function as an iSCSI target to support block I/O for those applications.

This is a relatively short list of items to research and understand in making a NAS selection. An investment in doing the homework here may help in making better selection with a more successful implementation.

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Randy Kerns is an independent storage consultant. In the past, he served as vice president of strategy and planning for storage at Sun Microsystems Inc., and covers storage and storage management software including SAN and NAS analysis.

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