A Small Business Guide to Network Attached Storage

Tuesday Mar 25th 2008 by Drew Robb
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Strapped for storage? It might be time to consider a dedicated spare room for all your business bits and bytes. Our guide covers the gamut from affordable to high-powered network-attached storage options.

Maybe you started your business with a couple of desktops. When that quickly multiplied to a dozen, your staff wandered the corridors with floppies in order to swap data from one system to another. Then you added a server -- and another server and yet another. But each time you add a server, it seems to fill up with data even faster than the last one.

If this scenario seems familiar, maybe it’s time to take a look at network-attached storage (NAS), which is by far the easiest type of storage networking to set up. “Simply put, NAS is storage that is connected directly to your network,” said Joe Trupiano, director of marketing at MicroNet.

The best way to think of NAS is as a very specialized kind of file server. If you have ever used a server as a repository for work files, then you should easily grasp the concept of NAS. Instead of saving a file to the C drive on your local desktop, you save it directly onto the file server or NAS box (represented as another lettered drive on your PC, such as N) that's connected to your computer network.

While a file server has a limited supply of storage, NAS can provide terabytes (TB) of of instantly accessible space to anyone in the office over a standard Ethernet connection. And if you are able to hook up a server, installing NAS should present no problems – although some of the larger machines may require some outside help.

SMBs Grabbing NAS
According to the analyst firm International Data Corp. (IDC), the NAS market grew 11.4 percent year over year to $668 million, led by EMC, with 38.1 percent revenue share and followed by Network Appliance (NetApp) with 27.2 percent share.

"We see strong demand for NAS systems aimed at easing the pain associated with managing file-based data," said Brad Nisbet, an analyst at IDC.

Much of this growth is being fueled by the small business sector. And the reason is understandable. IDC reports annual storage capacity growing in small businesses at a rate of 50 to 60 percent. That data has to be placed somewhere. And NAS is increasingly the answer.


StorVault S300
The Net App StorVault S300.

Buy buyer beware. NAS now encompasses a wide range of offerings. These range from ultra cheap boxes with little sophistication to pricier models that may require trained help to install and configure. It’s a case of finding the right blend of price, performance and features.

“Key factors to consider when buying NAS include how well the system scales, how much the software costs as you grow and how easy it is to manage,” said Rob Commins, director of product marketing at Pillar Data Systems.

If your company has a handful of staff and just needs raw capacity, it is probably safe to install an inexpensive NAS box. It may not have the fastest performance but that won’t matter if only a couple of people access it at the same time. It’s when you have a lot of people accessing the NAS simultaneously that the performance limits of a low-end box start to show up. In that event, pay more attention to how well the more expensive NAS products may function when half the office jumps on it at the same time.

Another point to consider is scalability. If you start with something inexpensive and run out of room in six months, how easy or difficult will it be to hook a couple of them together – or else purchase a bigger model and transfer the data over.

Tip: Choose a vendor that offers several size and price points. Ask the sales rep what you’d have to do if you ran out of space and wanted to add a second box, or swap the old box for a larger one. If the answer is cloudy or complex, shop elsewhere.

Also, a particular NAS box might be easy to scale, but suddenly you find that software costs are spiraling out of control. Some vendors demand more licenses for every person that connects. Others require more feature rich management tools that sometimes come at a premium. Discover all the possible costs – including the hidden ones – ahead of time.

One final buying tip: pay plenty of attention to how easily the system is to manage.
Sales people can dazzle you with a wonderful spin about high availability, system resiliency and a host of other incomprehensible terms. If you have an IT guy, let him deal with all the techno-speak and get him to explain it to you in simple terms. If you don’t have anyone to babysit IT, then stick to the more basic gear.

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Product Choices
There are plenty of vendors out there offering NAS. This small sampling covers options from the established vendors as well as a couple of smaller players that may suit certain SMBs.

EMC
As the vendor with the biggest slice of the NAS pie, it stands to reason that EMC has a massive line of products. At the lowest end, its LifeLine software coupled with inexpensive hardware is good enough for a start into the NAS world. EMC doesn’t sell this software directly, but licenses it to companies such as Iomega for use in its NAS products, which start around $1,500 for 3 TB. According to EMC LifeLine is designed for up to 10 users or for companies with less than $1 million in revenue and no IT staff.


Pillar Data Axiom 300
Pillar Data's Axiom 300.

Higher up on the food chain, the EMC Celerra NS20 system is designed for small businesses with 25-100 employees, revenues up to about $100M and at least one IT person– or external on-call help. The box can support up to 60 disk drives (60TB), but that can get quite costly. An entry level 2 TB Celerra NS20 configuration starts at $32,000.

“TheCelerra NS20 is for more sophisticated users with a larger amount of critical data, and at least one IT administrator, or a consultant on retainer,” said Tanya Loughlin, product marketing manager at EMC. “Installing a rack-mounted Celerra NS20 is more complicated than setting up a LifeLine-equipped desktop unit, though both are relatively easy to install.”

The Celerra NS20 fits in a standard rack and includes the Celerra Startup Assistant, which guides you through the initialization process (typically in less than 15 minutes, according to Loughlin).

NetApp
Like EMC, NetApp offers a wide range of tools in the NAS space. This includes heavy-duty NAS filers (its name for a NAS box) that can house “all the terabyes in China.” It offers a decent selection for small businesses.

The StoreVault S300, for example, is aimed at the IT generalist in smaller companies that typically need 1 to 4 TB of data storage and have five to 15 servers in a Windows-centric environment. It costs $2,988 for 1 TB.

Don’t make the mistake of comparing apples to oranges in the various products listed here, however. Some come high in capacity and low on features, and others like this NetApp model or the EMC Celerra may seem to have less capacity. But you can do a lot with them compared to cheaper boxes.

Vendor Product Capacity Price
EMC Celerra NS20 2 TB $32,000
Net App StoreVault S300 1 TB $2,988
Iomega 150D 3 TB $1,579
MicroNet PlatinumNAS 4 TB $1,499
Pillar Data Axiom 300 5 TB $35,000

“StoreVault S300 provides SMB customers with proven data center technology, including advanced security, scalability, data protection and simplified data management,” said Sajai Krishnan, general manager of the NetApp SMB business unit.

“Despite the sophistication of the underlying operating environment, you don't need storage management expertise or learn anything new, as everything is accomplished via a familiar Windows environment,” he said.

Interesting Alternatives
You don’t have to go to the big boys to find good NAS deals. MicroNet’s PlatinumNAS Plus has a maximum capacity of 4 TB Terabytes, supports a wide range of networks and operating systems and includes RAID for data protection. The PlatinumNAS sells for $1,499, and all you need to install it is an Ethernet connection. There are plenty of other choices out there for those looking for bargain basement NAS.

Higher-end choices for small business NAS systems include the Pillar Data Systems’ Axiom 300. It provides up to 5 TB of storage, high performance and data protection features. Pricing starts at $35,000.

NAS is in Your Future
For the many small businesses that need to cope with expanding volumes of data, it makes good sense to move to networked storage. IDC says that small businesses account for the majority of growth in the networked storage market, particularly in products priced less than $15,000.

"The growth of low-end networked storage is fueled by an increased understanding and confidence among SMB users who are seeking more effective solutions to manage an increasingly complex and expanding set of requirements related to data storage,” said IDC's Nisbet.

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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