Special Report: Enterprise Storage<br>Network Appliances Ease Storage Management
Storage is the fastest growing segment of the IT industry. With dot-com companies and traditional brick-and-mortar companies simultaneously building their presence on the Web, storage growth is likely to continue well into the next century.
Market research firm Robert Frances Group Inc. (RFG, www.rfgonline.com) predicts that 70 cents of every new IT equipment investment dollar will be spent on storage, in one form or another.
Storage itself is growing in importance and prevalence, but so are the means by which companies store data. Among the emerging technologies is a relatively new breed of network storage devices known as network appliances.
"We’re at the precipice of a major change in the storage market," says Kirby Wadsworth, vice president of marketing for the storage products division at Compaq Computer Corp. (www.compaq.com). "Storage appliances absolutely play an important role."
Although network appliances come in several flavors, such as e-mail and Web appliances, most systems on the market are designed for use as network attached storage (NAS) systems.
Jeff Helthall, vice president of marketing and sales at CrosStor Software Inc. (www.crosstor.com), which manufactures an operating system for network appliances, says vendors design their products with the goal of being as easy to use as a VCR -- at least in the sense that network appliances are single function products with little to administer.
"There is a new paradigm shift occurring in which network devices are becoming more like appliances, and thus a lot easier to use -- similar to the ease-of-use shift from Unix to NT," he says.
Devices dubbed network appliances are designed for one task, and usually only one task. But other vendors, such as tape library vendors, are jumping into the fray and labeling their devices network-attachable, as well.
Elise Ward, program manager for software engineering, storage automation and solutions at Exabyte Corp. (www.exabyte.com), says some storage vendors are calling tape libraries network-attachable, and that any library with an Ethernet port can theoretically be considered a NAS device. Tape libraries, though they can be used for network attached storage, are not network appliances.
A network appliance is supposed to handle one task, rather than being all things to all people, as general purpose servers are designed to be. Network appliances are also designed to be easier to use than other storage devices, such as tape libraries.
The notion that any network device is as easy to use as a household appliance is a bold claim. In fact, it may be a bit too bold, at least for the time being. But network appliances are succeeding, and one of the reasons is their ease of installation and use.
Gersham Meharg, the CTO at eTunnels Inc. (www.etunnels.com), which builds an Internet-based personal portable network, says his company implemented a network appliance this past July, and had it up and running by the end of August.
The company’s director of network operations, Jovito Salonga, says customization added to the overall implementation time.
"With our applications, there was a lot of customization and tweaking on the server end, so installing the network appliance was not as turnkey as some people might think it would be, but it really is pretty easy," he says.
Even if network appliances are not literally as easy to use as a VCR, they do provide a number of advantages.
"NAS devices are a highly efficient, low-cost file servers that are easy to deploy, easy to manage, and really require very little IT resources," says Robert Gray, research director, storage systems, at International Data Corp. (IDC, www.idc.com).
NAS devices increase network performance by taking backup off the LAN, thereby eliminating pesky I/O bottlenecks. The devices also have the potential to automate tasks -- such as mirroring and off-site data storage -- that are not trivial or intellectually simple. Further, network appliances can help companies consolidate data and control data growth.
Ebsco Publishing Inc. (www.epnet.com), an online service for libraries that helps people research via the Internet, outgrew its storage two years ago. The company maintains a database of nearly 10 million magazine and periodical articles dating back to 1984. To manage this data, the company started with one NAS appliance, and has added three more since.
Because the company’s data doubles every year and because the company has a worldwide user base that doubles every year, CEO Michael Gorrell says, Ebsco needed a solution that was both easy to implement and easy to scale up.
"Having scaleable equipment is very, very, important to us, and it has to be easy to use," he says.
Another benefit to using network attached storage is immediacy. Unlike storage area networks (SANs), which require considerably more planning and implementation, NAS devices can be purchased, hooked up to the network, and used right away -- whether a company is installing its first network appliance or adding more storage.
"If NAS weren’t here, the world would move straight to SAN -- which would take a while. Customers are looking at network appliances today because they can provide immediate benefits," says Ray Cosyn, director of marketing operations at Auspex Systems Inc. (www.auspex.com), a storage appliance vendor.
Network appliances are such cost-efficient, well-focused, and easy-to-manage systems that the downsides are not as readily apparent as the upsides. But some of the advantages that customers enjoy from using NAS devices can also be disadvantages -- namely cost, data consolidation capabilities, and their finely tuned focus.
Although some of the devices are inexpensive, with prices dipping below $1,000, the higher-end network appliances -- such as the NetApp F760 from Network Appliance Inc. (www.netapp.com) -- come close to the six-figure price range.
Some customers have found that it is less expensive, at least initially, to build their own NAS box.
"The network appliance we purchased was more expensive than it would have been to buy a 36 GB disk and RAID array to build our own network attached storage system," eTunnels’ Meharg says.
Jerry Namary, president of Winchester Systems Inc. (www.winchestersystems.com), which recently entered the NAS market, says he has seen many customers build their own NAS-like storage solutions.
Building a solution can be done in a day or so, if the builder knows how to do it. Otherwise, it can take more than a week, or a few weeks, to get it right.
IDC’s Gray points out that the long-term cost effectiveness of such solutions depends on a company’s priorities.
After the initial cost, IT departments have to constantly update, maintain, and manage the solution. Gray says this is trickier with a self-built NAS solution and more resource intensive on the IT department.
"It depends on what value you put on your IT staff’s time," he says. "The original cost is just the beginning."
Even data consolidation, recognized as a successful means to lowering total cost of ownership for network equipment, poses the threat of putting all data is in one place.
"If the NAS goes down, your data is offline and everybody notices," says Jeff Thomas, IT manager of Texas Instruments Inc.'s (TI, www.ti.com) Houston facility, which uses NAS file servers for storing large graphic files.
Adding to the complication is the fact that many network appliances ship with proprietary software. Winchester System’s Namary says this makes them harder to use.
"Customers tell us over and over again that NAS is difficult to back up and restore on an enterprise level," he says.
Proprietary software also can pose problems because most of it is neither general purpose nor designed to run applications.
Ebsco’s Gorrell says his company has encountered limitations because the NAS devices it uses are not tuned to relational databases.
"This has limited what kinds of things we can put on these devices," he says.
Oracle Corp. (www.oracle.com), however, announced last year its own type of appliance that runs Oracle’s database, the Oracle8i Appliance. Other vendors are expected to follow suit for a variety of applications, as well as databases.
"Over time, more specific NAS devices, such as a NAS database device and e-mail appliances, will become more common," CrosStor’s Helthall says.
As more devices come to market, and in a greater variety of tasks, management becomes a challenge. Companies have to decide how to handle the growing number of devices.
Companies must decide between the flexibility of being able to add storage as needed -- which carries the downside of having to manage more devices -- and consolidating their storage.
TI’s Thomas thinks this dichotomy is a philosophical issue as well as a mathematical matter. "The choice is a function of how much money a company has, how well its administrators are equipped to handle the situation, and how much floor space it has," he says.
IDC’s Gray cautions companies against falling into the trap of buying and adding more servers. "This is the easiest thing to do, it’s a no-brainer," he says. "But it leads to the inevitable situation of having too many systems to manage."
Edward Broderick, senior research analyst at RFG, says a degree of cultural disruption comes along with the tremendous potential that new storage technologies bring.
A major part of this disruption is deciding on a long-term strategy, and how NAS will fit in -- particularly for companies contemplating building a SAN down the road.
"Companies have to walk carefully into it, more so with SANs, but also with NAS," Broderick says.