Choosing a midrange NAS system

Midrange network-attached storage (NAS) appliances, which come out-of-the-box ready to store files for users with minimal administrative overhead, can be an affordable solution for SMBs in today's do-more-with-less

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economic climate. But choosing the best system for your storage environment requires some planning.

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For example, when choosing a NAS system, you may be tempted to buy NAS boxes designed for the consumer market by vendors like Buffalo Technology Inc., D-Link Corp. and EMC Corp.'s Iomega division, which cost as little as $300. Don't do it. These consumer NAS boxes typically have limited horsepower and can't provide RAID protection for your data.

In addition, they can't provide reasonable performance for more than five to 10 users. Their Linux OS and file systems also often have difficulty handling the Windows ACL structure and might limit your security flexibility. Add in their limited expandability and you'll be regretting the purchase soon.

The next step up are four-bay systems from vendors like EMC's Iomega division and Netgear. They deliver three to four times the performance of low-end NAS boxes for just $1,000 to $2,000. They still lack advanced features like snapshots and replication, but they could fit the bill for some SMBs.

WSS and Windows Server systems

The midrange NAS market, which sells systems ranging from around $2,000 to $15,000, is dominated by vendors large and small, packaging one edition or another of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Storage Server or Windows Unified Data Storage Server with their hardware. The Express and Workgroup editions have limitations that make them more competitive with low-end NAS products. But the Standard and Enterprise editions are based on their corresponding Windows Server versions and include Windows Server 2003 R2 features like compression, snapshots through Volume Shadow Copy Service, distributed file system (DFS) for file storage virtualization, quota management, file type screening and file system usage reporting.

WSS adds a few key features including web administration, an OEM customizable set of management tools, file search including full text indexing and file-level single-instance storage.

The other key difference between WSS and Windows Server is that WSS doesn't require client access licenses for each user or device that will access data on the server as Windows Server does. This could save smaller organizations some money but if you have more than 30 or 40 users, you'll probably have Active Directory and other servers that require CALs.

As WSS is based on Windows, most WSS devices are similar, if not identical, to their maker's general-purpose servers and share their expandability. Major vendors like Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. even sell standalone and clustered WSS gateways so you can use storage area network (SAN) storage for your files.

Since WSS is distributed exclusively through OEMs, you're dependant on your NAS vendor for updates and support. Some vendors may decide not to offer Server 2008 WSS upgrades for existing customers when Microsoft releases them. Dell, for example, chose not to offer 32-bit versions of WSS as an upgrade for users that had purchased Windows 2000 based NAS boxes. This left those customers the unpalatable choices of continuing to run an old OS or buying a new NAS to replace one that just needs a software upgrade. The current version of WSS is still based on Windows Server 2003 R2. Microsoft remained coy when asked when a Server 2008 version would be available.

Most midrange NAS systems can also share their disk resources as iSCSI volumes to Exchange, SQL Server or other servers creating a unified block and file storage system that an SMB can use for all their data. Server virtualization platforms like XenServer and VMware Infrastructure rely on block storage like iSCSI to move virtual servers from host to host for load balancing and high availability. Windows Unified Data Storage Server (WUDSS) includes the iSCSI target software Microsoft acquired from String Bean Software in 2006 that OEMs can sell as an option for WSS devices.

Additional midrange NAS offerings

WSS isn't the only alternative in the midrange, however. NAS pioneer Snap Server, now a division of Overland Storage, offers feature-rich products with AFP, NFS and iSCSI protocol support along with full Windows ACL support via CIFS/SMB.

Snap Server's hardware is built to enterprise standards with hot-swap drives and redundant power supplies. The rack mount models include an SAS controller to allow disk expansion to 84T B through external JBOD chassis.

Snap's software bundle includes copy-on-write snapshots and copies of BakBone Software Inc.'s NetVault: Backup and CA eTrust Antivirus software. Snap's optional Enterprise Data Replication supports not only data replication between Snap servers, but also from Windows and Linux servers to Snap servers.

The entry-level products from enterprise NAS vendors EMC and NetApp could also be attractive to midsized organizations. NetApp's FAS2020 and EMC's Celerra NX4 run the same software as their big brothers, providing snapshots, replication and application support that's missing from lesser systems. Both can be expanded to 60 or so drives and support high-performance 10,000 or 15,000 RPM drives. This is especially appropriate for iSCSI-attached database server's data, and high-capacity SATA drives where the competition is frequently limited to SATA models.

These enterprise NAS appliances can also have redundant disk controllers and network servers boosting availability beyond what's achievable with lesser systems. All this does come at a cost, however, with entry prices for an NX4 or FAS2020 in the $25,000 range (for roughly 2 TB) .There is also ala carte pricing for capacity expansion, and features like protocol support, iSCSI multipathing and replication.

SMBs today have a broader range of NAS devices available than ever before. These devices range from $300 consumer boxes with iTunes support to enterprise NAS systems brought down to a midrange company's budget. Examine your requirements carefully and then take advantage of vendor's willingness to bargain like never before.

About the author: Howard Marks is chief scientist of Networks Are Our Lives Inc., a Hoboken, N.J., network and storage consulting and education firm. Marks' company specializes In bringing the infrastructures and processes of midmarket firms up to enterprise standards in the areas of systems, network and storage management, with a focus on data protection and business continuity planning. Marks is the author of three books and more than 200 articles on network and storage topics since 1987. He is a frequent speaker at industry conferences.

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This was first published in March 2009

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