Storage jobs put on the line

For federal agencies swamped with data but short on manpower, a storage

device the size of a pizza box that is reliable, inexpensive to own and

can be set up in minutes is a dream come true.

That's why many IT administrators are deploying network-attached storage

(NAS) systems almost as fast as manufacturers can deliver them. NAS systems

are storage appliances, usually disk-based, that are set up with their own

network address and act as dedicated, high-performance storage resources.

These increasingly popular systems are providing a strong dose of relief

for overburdened government data administrators, but they are still not

a cure-all for the vexing problem of data inflation.

Unlike traditional storage subsystems, which are connected to a server,

NAS devices are attached directly to a local-area network. That gives client

computers connected to the LAN quick access to files stored on the NAS device,

as opposed to retrieving files through a general-purpose or departmental

server, which might be busy performing other tasks.

The concept is catching on. Sales of NAS products are expected to grow

from $1.6 billion in 2000 to $6.5 billion in 2003, according to International

Data Corp. At this pace, NAS will account for a greater share of the total

disk storage systems market, which will grow from $34 billion in 2000 to

$46 billion in 2003, according to IDC.

Network Appliance Inc., which helped pioneer the network devices market,

saw 100 percent revenue growth last year from NAS sales to the federal government.

The company is projecting 100 percent growth again this year, said Lynne

Corddry, the com-pany's federal district sales manager.

Although Network Appliance's dot-com customers are bypassing traditional

server storage altogether for NAS, government customers already have a network

infrastructure with traditional Microsoft Corp. Windows NT or Unix-based

storage in place, she said. Now they are opting to consolidate servers and,

in many cases, move file management to the network.

"They're just tired of buying disk," Corddry said. "They've got these

huge machines doing disk storage, and they're difficult to use. They need

systems administrators to manage these things. With our [device], you just

plug it in and sometimes they don't even know where it is."

Like file servers, NAS devices rely on an operating system. Network

Appliance developed an operating system specifically for the device. Other

NAS vendors use a stripped-down, general-purpose operating system that is

only left with file server capabilities. The NAS operating system is crucial

because when a storage device is attached directly to a network, the file

system no longer exists on the server but on the storage device instead.

"It's completely optimized to read and write off the network and to

read and write off disk," said Paul Brousseau, systems engineering manager

at Network Appliance. "When you put a file system on your network, you really

only have to go to that one place to manage your data."

Many NAS devices provide built-in redundant array of independent disk

(RAID) features to protect against data loss from disk failure. Some can

also be set up in clusters so that one unit can take over if another in

the cluster fails.

The Network Appliance products also maintain two copies of the file

system, and as the active file system changes, the "snapshot" copy of the

data is updated. As a result, if a file is deleted or overwritten, an administrator

would not have to go to tape to recover the files, Brousseau said.

"You're always prepared to restore files online to your users," he said.

"Tape really becomes just a disaster recovery option, if someone rolls a

grenade in your computer room and your file system explodes."

The National Security Agency began using NAS recently for an undisclosed

project because its file server was straining to keep up with processing

jobs and file access requests. Systems engineers reviewed various options

and concluded that NAS could support the variety of clients, applications

and networks found at the project's different locations, according to an

NSA spokesperson. The biggest advantage of the technology is an "immense

simplicity and ease of operation," the spokesperson said.

"The systems administration load in our project's laboratory and at

other locations where our NAS devices are deployed has been cut dramatically

using NAS products," the spokesperson said. "Hours of work with traditional

storage technology products have been literally reduced to a few minutes,

if not seconds. Long and difficult-to-understand procedures have been trimmed

to one to three simple commands at the command line."

In addition to being designed for ease of use, NAS devices often get

the call because of their size — they're small enough to be portable. One

federal law enforcement agency takes Maxtor Corp.'s MaxAttach 4000 NAS device

to crime scenes to load photographs to be analyzed back at agency headquarters.

MaxAttach comes in configurations that can store 40G, 80G or 160G, and the

units — which are 1.75 inches high — fit into standard 19-inch racks. The

80G device costs $2,245.

"You spend a lot of money acquiring data and putting it in disk storage

format," said John Toor, senior director of product marketing for Maxtor's

Systems Group. "People who have spent all that time and money acquiring

that data now have availability to that data. NAS is the fastest way to

add storage to the network."

Maxtor also provides client software that customers can use to back

up data from desktops and laptops to the NAS device on a daily basis. This

creates a mirrored copy of the data that users can revert to in case a virus

or some other problem damages their hard drives.

Barry Davis, manager of the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic

Air Space laboratory, has ordered three of the MaxAttach 4000 devices. Davis

is using the product as a backup to a traditional server, which stores 60,000

U.S. topographical maps. The maps consume 300G to 400G of space.

"It's a lot cheaper and more compact [than traditional storage systems],"

Davis said. "I have basically two pizza boxes. It's been a long time since

storage was so cheap that you can put that much storage so close to the

client."

Airman 1st Class Nathan Laatz, assistant organizational computer monitor

for the 99th Transportation Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas,

is also using MaxAttach to back up mission-critical data. He turned to NAS

because doing backups to tape was taking too long. He can back up data from

some print and file servers to a NAS device in less than two hours, which

is half the time it took for tape backup.

"It's literally a multimachine backup, which is wonderful," he said.

"We don't have to worry about a crash because we could get all our data.

It acts as a file server. If the power were to go out, the MaxAttach would

act as a backup of all the mission-critical files we have on that server."

Too Portable?

Backup and security are critical issues to consider when evaluating

NAS storage.

"You have to figure out a way to back these things up," said John Webster,

analyst and IT adviser at Illuminata Inc. "Backup and security are big issues,

particularly if you're backing up over the network. [Plus,] you have to

be a little bit wary about the potential for someone to just grab the thing

and walk away."

In addition, Webster said that NAS is not well-suited to environments

with large transactional loads. "NAS is not seen as a real good solution

there, because all that traffic has to go over the network," he said. "You

can see some performance degradation."

On the other hand, NAS can actually be considered more secure than traditional

storage because a systems administrator does not have to take down the network

to install a hard disk. "In opening up the server, IT managers are exposing

them and people on the network to a lot of risk," said Jim Simon, North

American marketing director in the server appliances division at Quantum

Corp., which sells the Snap Server NAS device.

To help ease management chores, Quantum's Snap Server is designed to

work with existing user access rights already programmed into traditional

Novell Inc. NetWare or Windows NT servers, he said. During setup, the NAS

device automatically accesses traditional servers to get these security

parameters.

"The user does not have to log on to talk to our devices," Simon said.

"They see it as just another server on the network." The Snap Server, which

is targeted to the workgroup level, has successfully handled as many as

100 clients simultaneously attached to the device with consistent throughput,

he said.

Traditional storage companies are not the only ones maneuvering to tap

the potentially massive NAS market. Companies like Compaq Computer Corp.,

Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp. are also moving into

the NAS space.

Although reliability and availability are often key considerations for

NAS, manageability is also important as agencies begin adding multiple devices

to their networks. HP offers centralized, Web-based management with NAS,

and its devices integrate with the most popular network management packages,

including HP Open View and Computer Associates International Inc.'s Unicenter,

said Tom Schoenleber, HP's NAS marketing manager.

Not all NAS devices are built for speed. Advanced Digital Information

Corp.'s StorNext NAS device stores data on tape, which is less expensive

than disk but provides slower access speeds. It is ideal for data that is

accessed infrequently but still needs to be stored for long periods of time,

such as information that falls under federal records legislation, said Bryce

Hein, product marketing manager for StorNext.

—Harreld is a freelance writer based in Cary, N.C.

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