More NAS choices in low and midrange markets

Just when things were beginning to get simple once again, IBM goes off and complicates our life.

There once was a fairly easy set of differentiators between high-end, midrange and low-end network-attached storage (NAS) devices. Each of these three segments had devices that featured a set of appropriate trade-offs. Thus, at the high end we get performance and scalability, but at comparatively high price; in the midrange, price and performance try to balance off one another; and at the low end, pricing considerations dominate and performance, features and expandability are sharply limited.

At the high end, we have the heavy hitters, most notably Network Appliance's F800 family and EMC's Celerra Data Movers (the Data Mover 510 was announced just last week). Within this segment, buyers expect to get performance; lots of hardware redundancy; lots of disk space (both SCSI and Fibre Channel); feature-rich software; the ability to aggregate Web-, Windows- and Unix-based files in the same name space; and lots of built-in support through software and connectivity. High availability, LAN- and SAN-based back-up support and clustering are all to be expected from such devices. With these you should also demand the ability to grow from a single box to a number of such devices without horrendous effort and without a huge step function in price.

In the midrange, the leading contenders are EMC's Clariion devices (for example, the IP4700) and NetApp's F87 filers.

These are more "economically priced" (yes, that does mean cheaper) than the previous devices, and are aimed at supporting work groups, departments and remote offices. They too offer multiprotocol support and some hardware redundancy, but for the lower pricing you also frequently get less performance, less disk space, limited scalability, and a more limited set of both hardware and software features. The price/performance curve gives, but it also takes away.

At the bottom, we have the feature-limited-but-enticingly-priced machines from Dell (the 715N), Maxtor (the MaxAttach 4000 series), Quantum (the Snap) and a number of other vendors.

These typically use the Microsoft Server Appliance Kit, the SAK (but there is no reason not to use a Linux kernel, or indeed any other operating system). Such machines are usually 1U (1.75 inches) rack-mounted devices, typically with up to four disks in each "pizza box." The disks, to keep down costs, are usually ATA/EIDE devices.

Such entry-level devices cover a broad price spectrum from about $600 up to about $10,000, but make sure you don't compare apples and oranges here. You should expect to get RAID 0/1/5 with all but the cheapest of this group, and of course you get an increasing amount of features, storage and functionality as the prices get higher.

Now IBM has gone and blurred some of the lines that separate entry-level and midrange file servers.

It is still true that for the cheapest segment of the market the products have effectively been commoditized. It is also true however that IT buyers who don't have large storage bankrolls at their disposal can choose from an increasingly rich set of features even within their price range.

Our friends at Big Blue have offered midrange and high-end NAS servers (the NAS 200 and 300 series) for a while now. They are solid machines but not nearly as well known in their respective niches as competitive devices from EMC and NetApp. This week, IBM adds an entry-level 1U file server to its line, and it looks to be an excellent competitor in the race to address the file server needs of remote offices and work groups.

The new NAS 100 offers several features we have come to expect only in pricier machines. Included here is a fast (1.2GHz) Pentium III processor, large cache (512K bytes) and main memory (512M bytes), dual 10/100/1000 Ethernet ports, and four hot-swappable ATA disks. It runs using the SAK, as do its larger cousins in IBM's NAS portfolio, and offers centralized management of remotely located devices.

The dual gigabit-ready ports, which will allow for failover, and hot-swappable high density disks, will differentiate the NAS 100 from the competition, particularly in the sub-$5000 market where it plays. Buyers with restricted budgets but a need for this increased level of data protection now appear to have a useful choice.

So, IBM joins the entry-level file server contest with what looks to be a very competitive machine. There is one additional aspect of this announcement I should draw to your attention. If IBM is successful with this device, and it appears it may well be, we may also see the NAS 100 as a useful counter-move to EMC's advance into the entry systems market via its growing relationship with Dell.

And that will be of interest to the enterprise managers who buy this stuff and to the reseller channels that service them.

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