Net storage gets serious

When network-attached storage devices debuted several years ago, they were viewed as not much more than a quick fix — inexpensive and easy-to-deploy devices (translation: not serious) that were good for storing those mushrooming word processing files that would otherwise tie up precious server disk space back in the data center.

But the few agencies that did buy into network-attached storage, or NAS, have discovered that the devices can be used for a much wider variety of jobs than first thought, including mainline enterprise storage duties. Now, that message is going to be heard loud and clear in the federal market as two storage heavyweights, EMC Corp. and Network Appliance Inc., fire up significant new NAS strategies.

The list of what agencies can do with NAS has grown in the past few years, but the core benefits are still the same. Compact NAS devices — sometimes only the size of a pizza box — connect directly to a local-area network and can be set up and running in a few minutes. In comparison, traditional storage devices, or subsystems, attach directly to a general-purpose server, which must be reconfigured every time you add new storage capacity.

Also, once a traditional server reaches its maximum storage capacity, you have to buy a new server if you want to keep adding storage. NAS devices, on the other hand, have their own built-in processors and operating and file systems, so you can just plug in new NAS units to create more storage space as you go. "Network-attached storage is becoming more popular very rapidly because people now understand that they can use it for so many of their applications," said David Hill, research director for storage and storage management with Aberdeen Group Inc., Boston. Hill said NAS devices can handle structured data such as databases, semi-structured data such as Microsoft Corp. Word or Excel files, and unstructured data such as streaming video and audio.

A recent sign that NAS is tapping into a broader customer base came last month when EMC introduced its CLARiiON IP4700, a 180G to 3.6 terabyte NAS device. Previously, EMC's play in the NAS market was limited to its Celerra File Server, an expensive solution most suitable for a small group of high-end customers. The Celerra enables EMC's traditional storage subsystem, the Symmetrix, to connect directly to a network instead of a server.

The new turnkey IP4700, on the other hand, aims EMC's market heft squarely at middle-tier customers — a much larger group and one that has been the bread and butter for rival Network Appliance, an NAS pioneer that currently accounts for about one-half of all NAS sales, according to IDC.

The IP4700 is suitable for organizations with 100 to 500 users and limited IT resources that are struggling to keep pace with fast-rising data storage requirements, said Chuck Hollis, a product marketing director at EMC.

The IP4700 boasts the standard NAS benefits, such as easy installation and management, but also sports high-end features that make the device and the data on it more fault tolerant, such as:

n Dual processors and controllers that can step in for each other in the event of a failure.

n Redundant cooling fans and power supplies.

n Optional EMC SnapView/IP software, which provides speedy online data backups, as opposed to tape-based backups that are more time-consuming and labor-intensive.

Meanwhile, around the time EMC was shipping the first IP4700s to customers, Network Appliance was opening the doors at its new government-focused subsidiary, Network Appliance Federal Systems Inc. The company hopes to capitalize on an agencywide trend of reigning in the numerous departmental and special task servers that have sprung up.

"Server and storage consolidation are major initiatives in all of the government spaces, and this is where network- attached storage appliances can make a huge contribution," said Howie Wilcox, chief architect for Network Appliance Federal Systems. Indeed, IT officials at the Navy's headquarters bought three large NAS devices several months ago from Network Appliance to consolidate data that was spread across a dozen servers located in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

"Our original architecture was a decentralized server farm, and it had a very high total cost of ownership," said Gary Wyckoff, director of technology at the Navy's Information Network Program Office. "It was getting to be a nightmare to manage and back up these multiple servers."

So, in an ambitious plan, Navy headquarters is transferring the vast majority of existing data stored on those servers to the three new NetApp F760 filers: one NAS device to serve Navy users in Washington, D.C., the second for users on the Virginia side of the Potomac River and the third to support users on a classified network.

"We're using NAS as an enterprise storage solution," Wyckoff said. "Close to about 90 percent [of our data] is now on NAS."

An important part of the project involved developing and implementing stringent quality assurance controls to ensure that no data was lost during the migration, said Bob Spivy, an independent consultant working with the Navy.

For the Navy, NAS' big selling point was the Snapshot feature on the NetApp device that enables even end users to restore files that are lost because of hardware or software failures. The Navy also regularly backs up data to tape from the NAS devices, but the process is much easier compared with backing up the distributed servers. Wyckoff said the office evaluated using storage-area network products to consolidate the server data, in which traditional storage subsystems are used to set up a dedicated storage network that sits behind the servers. But the SAN equipment was almost twice as expensive as the NAS, and it required skills that the staff would have needed to acquire.

"We did a total cost of ownership analysis with NAS and determined that it reduced costs fourfold compared to the alternative," Wyckoff said. The Navy paid about $800,000 for the NAS filers.

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