Adapting to Evolution

A growing number of organizations are turning to network attached storage as a flexible and efficient solution to their spiraling storage requirements.

While data capacity demands grow of organizations across the board, many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) continue to struggle with limited resources. The responsibility to maintain sufficient capacity and reliable storage often falls on relatively small IT departments, or even on a single individual. Current business climates demand more for less, as managers scramble to keep up with storage needs without adding to staff or expanding budgets.

Analysts estimate that 50 per cent of general purpose servers are used to serve files. This is a costly approach for a simple function better handled by Network Attached Storage (NAS) technology. Due to its lower cost and ease of operation, NAS has emerged as a popular alternative to traditional mainframe, network server, and high capacity tape solutions. An NAS device is a simple file server to which storage system administrators can map network drives. It runs a “thin operating system” highly optimized for storing and sharing data.

Getting it right
Probably the best way for a business to think of NAS, according to Pankaj Narayan, director-marketing and alliances, Asia Pacific at Network Appliance, is that NAS boxes, which hook into existing Ethernet networks, are simpler to manage than Storage Area Networks (SANs) but provide less performance and can top out on capacity. SANs are generally far faster and hold more data, but they can be expensive and can result in cumbersome file sharing.

Although the need for storage is evident in any business, it is not always clear which solution is right. Choosing the best storage solution can be as personal and individual a decision as buying a home. Storage experts say it is important to focus on the specific needs and long-term business goals of your organization. Several key criteria to consider include:

  • Capacity: the amount and type of data (file level or block level) that needs to be stored and shared
  • Performance: I/O, throughput requirements
  • Scalability: long-term data growth
  • Availability and reliability: how mission-critical are your applications?
  • Data protection: Backup, recovery needs
  • IT staff and resources available
  • Budget concerns

Businesses are continually trying to squeeze more value from existing storage assets while simplifying the way they access and utilize information to reduce total cost of ownership (TCO). To help them, storage vendors are expanding their technological reach to ease management and boost scalability. Solutions have included beefing up operating systems to include virtualization engines and enabling enterprises to aggregate physical storage components into intelligent capacity pools.

Phillip Sargeant, research director at research firm Gartner, says it is difficult to compare the performance of NAS devices, which are Ethernet-based, to traditional storage methods. Fibre channel SAN-based storage regularly operates t 2 gigabit per second speeds whereas NAS is often slower. The question is not whether NAS out performs traditional forms of storage but whether it has adequate performance for the customer’s application – and whether the application supports it.

Ajit Nair, Technology Solutions Director at EMC South Asia, agrees, noting that Ethernet connectivity allow businesses to either use existing ports on their server or add a low-cost adaptor. This means NAS is extremely economical. “Utilization rates on storage will be high because it’s all shared. Management costs are reduced as well. Everything’s centralized, and it’s a familiar world that leverages existing skills.”

NAS is also functional and easily managed. According to Nair, the IT manager can control security, management, replication, and backup functions from a single point.

Files can be shared quickly and resources managed on the fly. And most importantly for many businesses, NAS is often compatible with what is running in today’s IT environment. “It works with existing clients, it supports existing applications, and it can use the existing network,” Nair says.

Making a choice
But is NAS storage the way to go for every organization? Like most business solutions it has both strengths and weaknesses. Most analysts however agree that direct-attached storage devices are reaching the end of their life-cycle and while they should still be found in smaller businesses, most will slowly move to either a NAS or SAN framework. According to Graham Penn, associate vice-president storage, Asia Pacific at analyst firm IDC, traditional server storage is reaching the end of its life-cycle as it is not appropriate for rack-mounted systems, is not flexible in use and does not have the capacity demanded by today’s applications and data types. It also makes it much more difficult to move data between servers and execute a cost-effective backup and restoration strategy.

Penn says it is important to distinguish between low cost and entry-level NAS devices and the larger NAS systems available from some major storage vendors. It is also important to recognize the existence of “NAS heads,” which can distinguish between a block update to a database and a file. These effectively store data in the most appropriate place within a storage network.

Penn adds that since low cost NAS storage servers are available from many vendors, their effective use depends on the environment and the task at hand. Hybrid or converged storage systems are also emerging. Some devices can be configured as SAN or NAS and handle file and block data on the fly, meaning that they are not purely a NAS device.

Lim Chong Gee, director of product management at storage vendor Iomega, feels the options of using NAS instead of tape as backup device can prove particularly useful to IT managers.

While tape can still function as an archive medium, backing up files to NAs can provide redundancy to the system while allowing for more efficient restore capabilities.

“Perhaps the largest benefit for using NAS as a target for backup is the rapid recovery of lost or deleted files,” Lim says. “IT managers consistently mention the pain associated with backup, how working with tape can be cumbersome and how recovery of lost files can take hours or even days, providing inefficient use of time for both the IT manager and the user.” As NAS is disk-based, the data is stored online and available immediately to users should a lost file be needed.

Getting down to the bottom line
And how about that most prevalent concern of IT managers – price? NAS devices compare favorably with traditional storage methods on this front.  As a “just as needed/just in time” solution for network managers, NAS devices are generally standalone bundles with high-speed processors, RAM, embedded operating systems, network connections, and multiple storage drives. They can be easily plugged into a network and result in lower administration expenses. It analysts have estimated that NAS storage is two-thirds heaper than general-purpose DAS devices.

Qing-Qian Li, Asia-Pacific product marketing manager, SAN/NAS & Solutions, at the Storage Works division of vendor Hewlett Packard (HP), admits the business continuity improvement offered by NAS is something very difficult to measure. But HP has noted that it can slash storage downtime dramatically. NAS, she says, can enhance storage utilization by up to 80 per cent and administrative efficiency fourfold, with cost benefits becoming apparent in about 12 months.

As NAS devices can house larger amounts of storage than general-purpose servers, considerable savings result in implementing NAS to increase storage capacity. In addition, there are usually no per-seat licenses to purchase for each user or application accessing the NAS device. Fast and easy to deploy and install, NAS products are a cost-effective solution to address many SME storage needs.

Return on investment (ROI) is probably the most effective measure of the success of an IT implementation. But the TCO of an IT infrastructure, including hidden and running costs, can be difficult to work out. Any calculations of the TCO and ROI of NAS solutions have to include more than the cost of the storage infrastructure, including management, staff numbers and ease of use. One must also consider the best form of storage for specific applications. DAS may be cheaper initially, but is unlikely to provide the same levels of flexibility and scalability. This is why researchers like Sargeant say storage costs need to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.

EMC’s Nair feels that TCO improvements are best achieved by consolidating islands of DAS into SAN or NAS infrastructures. Consolidation drives significant savings in servers, software licenses, and maintenance and improves productivity by centralizing management elements. “Consolidation savings can then be reapplied to fund other critical IT and business priorities, such as enabling business continuity, accelerating software upgrades, and providing higher service levels for backup and restore,” he says.

Plot the right course
It is important that storage is never an afterthought. Storage is much more than buying hard drives. NAS storage devices may be “plug and play,” but a solid storage strategy is only possible with a clear understanding of business requirements. Off-the-shelf components can provide the performance and scalability needed by small businesses while those with larger needs may need to evaluate a customized solution.

Gartner feels that a business needs to evaluate the ease of management, security and ongoing support of any D.I.Y solution. “Unless an organization is very comfortable with these it may be wiser to seek a system from a reputable NAS vendor,” Sargeant says.

Penn from IDC notes that while experienced IT shops may well be able to build a low-cost NAS server from standard components, ongoing operational requirements must be taken into account. Many organizations still question whether NAS can provide adequate performance and scalability. But NAS products can be as secure as most other forms of storage and the management software now available makes integration very easy. As awareness about its advantages increases, the greater adoption of NAS and its movement into the storage mainstream seems inevitable.

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