Aug 19 2008

Sensible Storage

IT shops at SMBs say NAS offers faster, more centralized data protection at an affordable price.

Photo: Nicholas McIntosh
Marcliff Fountaine of Consortium Health Plans says NAS is 50 percent less expensive than an entry-level SAN.

For many IT managers who support a growing number of servers, the move to network-attached storage is often viewed as both a necessity and a sanity-saving measure. Faced with exponential growth in file data and related applications — such as that found in user home directories bursting with Microsoft Office files — many small and midsize businesses have since come to embrace the benefits NAS offers.


A low-cost entry price for today’s NAS systems is just one of those benefits. Brad Nisbet, program manager of storage systems at IDC, lists others: consolidation of file and print services from several servers onto a shared storage device; faster, more centralized data protection; simplified data management; and rapid scaling of storage capacity without the need to rebuild servers or take critical production systems offline. Since moving to NAS, many companies also report the ability to retire legacy servers while simultaneously reducing IT costs tied to new server acquisitions.

At its core, NAS offers centralized, file-level access to shared data through Ethernet-based file system protocols: CommonInternet File System (CIFS) for Microsoft Windows environments or Network File System (NFS) for Unix or Linux systems.

NAS Evolution

Many NAS systems have evolved beyond basic file storage into robust, multifunction devices now able to also support the performance-hungry storage needs of applications such as Oracle, Microsoft Exchange and virtual-server environments.

To support this expanding mix of applications, NAS systems use either existing file-system protocols, such as NFS, or block-based storage area network (SAN) protocols, such as Ethernet-based iSCSI or the more specialized Fibre Channel. NAS devices supporting both file-based and block-based data-transfer protocols are often referred to as multiprotocol systems or unified storage devices.

Consortium Health Plans of Columbia, Md., is one business that benefits from NAS. Already faced with 15 percent yearly growth in home directory data, Marcliff Fountaine, the company’s technology coordinator, found himself on the cusp of a more pressing problem: His company’s 1-terabyte Oracle-based data mart needed to accommodate a looming influx of another 9TB of data in short order. The data was to come from Consortium’s primary Blue Cross/Blue Shield clients and included large quantities of aggregated claims information that Consortium would soon need to process, report on and analyze. What’s more, because of this rising tide of health-care data, Fountaine estimated that within two years he would need to stretch Consortium’s Oracle system from its current 1TB status to 25TB.

“Being a small business, we wanted to be certain whatever we bought into wouldn’t require us to engineer and purchase an alternative solution anytime soon,” he says.

55% of companies with
100 to 499 employees
use network-attached storage. Usage grows
to 62 percent for organizations with 500
to 999 employees.

Source: Enterprise
Strategy Group

Instead of buying a midrange server with larger, direct-attached storage arrays or a more costly and complex SAN system for the job, Fountaine opted for a Bobcat NAS gateway from ONStor, backed by ONStor’s Pantera 2240 clustered NAS disk storage.

Fountaine estimates the total investment came to about $140,000 for close to 30TB of mixed SerialAttached SCSI and Serial Advanced Technology Attachment disks, a cost he said was about 50 percent less per terabyte than what he would have spent on an entry-level SAN he’d considered. With a SAN, Fountaine believes he would also have encountered scalability problems that would have forced him to purchase a higher-level system.

Fountaine now supports Oracle operations via NFS, with Windows-based home directories and Office applications supported via CIFS. He also uses the system as a disk-based virtual tape library (VTL) for his BakBone NetVault: Backup software. The images, once stored on the NAS system, are then streamed directly to tape without the need to further tie up primary production systems.

Getting Started

Knowing exactly when to make the move to NAS can vary, as can the ticket price. IDC’s Nisbet says one organization’s “tipping point” might be getting to 10 servers before the underlying storage becomes unmanageable and the business moves to a midrange NAS device. A smaller organization supporting just three or four servers can also benefit from a smaller, entry-level NAS device, he said.

Users would do well to investigate the types of data management, data protection, replication and high availability features within different NAS price points.

Here are a few rules of thumb that NAS end users advise to help steer NAS seekers clear of trouble:


What is the primary storage technology your company relies on for networked data storage?

52% Network-attached storage
17% iSCSI
21% Fibre Channel
10% Don't know

Source: 547 BizTech readers


Mix and match storage tiers. Many NAS systems give IT the flexibility to use different classes of disk drive and price points in the same device. Bryan Moore, IT infrastructure manager at the Timmons Group in Richmond, Va., uses an EMC Celerra NAS gateway on top of a CLARiiON CX system. High-performance Fibre Channel drives support the civil engineering firm’s critical AutoCAD project files.

“We also use SATA for everything else,” Moore says, including support for Microsoft Office file data and MS Exchange Server data accessed via iSCSI. Since switching to NAS, he no longer needs to requisition a new server each time another civil engineering project begins. He’s been able to consolidate data from about 20 servers, including several file servers previously located at seven remote sites.

Shrink backup time by taking disk-based “snapshots.” When you’re a part-time IT staffer having to juggle both IT and national account sales, it pays to look for a few shortcuts in managing data storage and data protection. That’s what Josh Huisken, IT manager for Intense Lighting of Anaheim, Calif., thought after implementing NetApp’s StoreVault S500 unified NAS/SAN storage system.

Relying on NetApp’s ability to perform rapid disk-based “snapshots” (point-in-time images of volumes or key subsets of data), Huisken reports he can now back up data changes in just a few minutes, compared with the eight to 12 hours it used to take to send and queue backup data from multiple servers to tape. Incorporating application-specific snapshot functionality with NetApp SnapManager for Exchange and SQL Server also helped smooth backup operations. A recent backup of his company’s 18-gigabyte Exchange data took just 15 minutes.

Roll out expanded functionality in stages. Michael Tucker, director of IT at Zenith Marketing Group in Freehold, N.J., began his company’s NAS journey for much the same reason that many other organizations do: to consolidate the contents of multiple file servers and file shares. But he didn’t stop there. Instead, Tucker expanded the use of Zenith’s HP StorageWorks 600 All-in-One (AiO) storage system in phases. His goal is to support multiple VMware virtual machines, which now house the company’s Exchange system, Oracle and Microsoft SQL Server database applications, as well as Zenith’s document management system.

Learn by asking. All those businesses have since become more knowledgeable about their systems. But most say this wasn’t so at the start. Whether it’s protocol suggestions, recommended port configurations or NAS practices in use by other organizations, all recommend taking advantage of the expertise, support services and courses offered by your NAS vendor, reseller or integrator.

The Timmons Group’s Moore recalls formulating a list of questions in advance each time he went to an EMC class or spoke with an engineer. “It’s hard to gain a top-level view or approach if you don’t know what’s really happening,” he says. “Once you have that micro-level knowledge, you can understand and use things better.”


CEO Takeaway
Here are some tips for companies making the move to network-attached storage:
• Centralize your data. Beyond curing server sprawl, a centralized NAS device can also replace one or more general-purpose servers that used to exist at satellite offices.
• Expand NAS beyond file sharing. Experts see an increasing vendor trend toward combining NAS file-sharing features with iSCSI SAN block-based functionality.
• Explore NAS with virtualization. Companies looking to virtualize their servers should explore how NAS devices using NFS or iSCSI can serve their virutal servers' growing need for shared storage.