Computers are handling more data than ever before, and though hard drives continue to grow larger and larger, theres still not enough space to store all of the files. In addition, administrators are saddled with the extra burden of ensuring that there are backups of that data—typically through the use of redundant arrays of inexpensive disks (RAID).
This leaves network administrators with a dilemma: How do they increase storage capacity without disrupting the day-to-day operations of their networks? Adding file servers once seemed a viable option, but in this economy, it means spending a lot on hardware and taxing an already taxed IT staff.
This is especially difficult for smaller organizations with little internal IT support. Administrators who are already stretched thin can become too overwhelmed by being forced to grow their networks. No one wants to add to administrative headaches; IT people need low-maintenance solutions.
Many of them are turning to todays entry-level network-attached storage (NAS) devices. These systems represent a largely plug-and-play method of adding storage for network users. NAS devices have come a long way; early generations of NAS products were often based on some type of Unix kernel, making them difficult to configure for non-Unix network administrators. And integrating the devices with existing NetWare or Windows networks wasnt as simple as it should have been. Issues frequently loomed large regarding device configuration and access control setup.
Fast Growth and Innovation
Fast Growth and Innovation
Fortunately, the current NAS products have solved these configuration issues, letting you get additional storage on your network in mere minutes.
This year, the NAS equipment market has grown more than 12 percent and is expected to accelerate. It will be worth almost $8.6 billion by 2005, according to market research firm The Yankee Group. Thats a significant figure in a hardware business that sees the cost of individual components decreasing annually.
Largely due to this growth, the NAS market itself has changed significantly in the past 18 months. Once thought of as little more than add-on storage boxes, high-end NAS products now come with multiple terabytes of storage, multiprocessor CPUs, and capabilities that in many cases render them indistinguishable from the more expensive storage area network (SAN) devices usually found only in larger enterprises. SAN technology, which has grown up in parallel with NAS, still holds some significant advantages, including increased distributed performance, support for high-end databases, and increased overall capacity.
Such high-end features, however, do not come cheap—SANs cost anywhere from $50,000 to $3 million. (For more on SANs, see our new Enterprise column, page 78.) If youre simply adding storage for files on your network, NAS servers offer a preferable long-term growth path for small to midsize organizations.
Another improvement is that the sometimes more intimidating Unix/Linux derivatives are no longer the only choices manufacturers have for operating systems. Microsoft has now joined the fray with Server Appliance Kit (SAK), a product designed to allow the easy use of Windows 2000 Server as the operating system for NAS appliances. Windows 2000 Server with SAK is now the OS of choice for 25 percent of the NAS devices currently on the market, according to an analyst report by International Data Corp.
More Capacity, Less Cost
More Capacity, Less Cost
Operating systems arent the only things that have changed in the NAS world. Competition and the declining cost of hardware components in this growing market have brought prices down significantly. The entry-level solutions weve reviewed in this story cost less than $5,000 and offer at least 480GB of RAID 5 storage and a Gigabit Ethernet interface. When we looked at NAS devices last year (“Whats in Storage For You?” April 2001), those offering the same interface options and capacities were considered midrange rather than low-end and cost about $20,000 or more.
Advances in hard drive technologies also have made it possible to build NAS devices in a 1U rack–mountable form factor and still meet or exceed 480GB in only four hard drives. Fast-ATA IDE hard drives are available in both 5400- and 7200-rpm speeds, at capacities up to 160GB. And though high-end NAS devices use hardware RAID controllers, the entry-level boxes make do with software RAID, which is free with the operating system.
Five Simple Enhancements
Five Simple Enhancements
To make NAS devices as simple to use as possible, the manufacturers have done five things. First, all of the devices are DHCP-aware; its no longer necessary to hook up a console or a terminal to configure them (though thats still an available option). Just plug them into your network, and theyll help themselves to an IP address.
Second, they all now support the common protocols you need and would expect, including CIFS (Common Internet File System), FTP, HTTP, NFS (Network File System), and even AppleTalk. This means that doing nothing more complicated than clicking on a check box, you can enable (or disable, since many of these products arrive with everything turned on as the default) the specific support your network needs. Integrating NAS devices into your network, be it NetWare, Unix, Windows, or any combination thereof, is as simple as making the correct choices while in the configuration screens.
Third, multiple network interfaces, including dual 10/100 Ethernet connections, are offered as standard. And Gigabit Ethernet is either standard or offered as an option on all the appliances.
Fourth, the products can pull user data directly from your Windows or NetWare servers, meaning that no special user configuration is required. This is an incredible time saver. (In the past, adding users was a manual task.) Because of this, you can make use of your normal management tool and either add users to an existing group or create special groups.
Finally, the products in our roundup offer easily accessible Web interfaces for management and configuration. This often means that no special setup software is required, and you can accomplish continuing management tasks from any computer with a Web browser.
What Do We Mean
What Do We Mean by Entry-Level?
If you are familiar with the NAS market, you might wonder why we consider the products selected for this roundup entry-level. There are many low-capacity NAS devices on the market, generally with less than 120GB of storage, for significantly lower prices (roughly $800 to $2,000) than the products included in this story. Those units lack the expandability and management found in the ones we reviewed. And in a computer market where 60GB hard drives are commonplace in desktop computers, the value of adding an external NAS device that is the same size or slightly larger seems inconsequential.
Even in a small office with only a peer network, the cost of a tiny NAS device is tough to justify when you can plug a 120GB USB 2.0 hard drive into any new computer on your small network and add it as a network share.
The NAS units reviewed here are priced and configured for maximum capacity and througHPut performance (though some can use 160GB hard drives rather than 120GB hard drives giving them a total capacity of 640GB). Some of the models in this story can be purchased in low-capacity configurations to let administrators grow storage capacity with their needs.
The only way to scale the devices weve reviewed is to buy additional units. So if you expect your centralized storage needs to grow rapidly beyond their capacities, then you should consider buying a multi-U, rack-mounted NAS device with high-end hardware controllers that you can populate with hard drives as your needs increase.
The management tools bundled with the 1U boxes in our roundup let you manage as many units as you like, but you end up paying for the same basic level of intelligence—the built-in computer running Microsoft SAK or Unix/Linux—and its concentration in a single rack multiple times over. This can be an advantage if you plan to use these devices as departmental storage tools or as part of a distributed storage model. In those cases, the inherent ease of installation and deployment is compelling.
It is actually very simple for a central IT department to configure NAS devices with all of the tools and applications needed by a remote office and then ship the unit out to the remote site. Once you plug in the device to the network at the remote location, it can be easily managed—even over a 56-Kbps dial-up connection.
We have reviewed six NAS devices for this roundup. First Internet Alliance (FIA) and Iomega offer virtually the same product, so we cover them in a single review. Though there are some slight variations in the devices, they all performed within the parameters of a typical small-office environment running office productivity applications.