NAS grows up

After a recent chat with a key partner at Charles River Ventures Inc., we went away with a pretty good picture of what the venture capital investment firm sees as the storage network of the future.

"Push the clock forward five years and networks will host a characteristic called storage, but will there be a storage service provider? Or a central storage well? Most likely not," said Chris Baldwin, a partner at the Waltham, Mass.-based firm. "What we'll see may be an enterprise network where repository data is a function of the cloud and not a single machine. The network will be one big cache."

Baldwin's vision of future storage architecture is very much a NAS (network attached storage) model to the core. And the idea of storage as a decentralized, dynamic component on a network is parroted by the network-centric minds at Sun Microsystems Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., and others. But until a few weeks ago, the thought of NAS as the primary storage backbone for an enterprise was clouded by concerns over Ethernet bottlenecks and management headaches.

This is why the arrival of DAFS (direct access file system) technology on Network Appliance (NetaApp) storage filers, and advances by Scale Eight in its DSS (Distributed Storage Software) are so significant to the storage world.

NetaApp's DAFS-enabled NAS products, Scale Eight's DSS, and other similar new NAS technologies from other vendors mean enterprises can begin looking at NAS storage in the same way they view their SAN (storage area network) investments -- as wholly reliable, mission critical network storage components.

DAFS technology on NAS promises Fibre Channel-like performance over Ethernet. With it, NetaApp can now begin to attack the database storage market, penetrating storage accounts occupied by the likes of Oracle, IBM, and Sybase. And cost comparisons between Fibre Channel SANs and NAS systems are a no-brainer. NAS gear will fit into practically any IT budget.

Scale Eight's DSS tackles the NAS management challenge by enabling administrators to create single-image NAS pools composed of multiple NAS devices. This paves the way for Baldwin's "one big cache" by helping users get a grip on distributed NAS systems.

Unlike SAN technology, which did little more than throttle from 1Gbps to 2Gbps throughput in 2001, the NAS market has been bursting with new ideas from NetaApp, Scale Eight, Z-Force, Zambeel, Storigen, BlueArc, and others. These players are changing a perception ingrained in the heads of many administrators that NAS products are designed only for workgroups.

Truth be told, NAS products may be better positioned to carry an enterprise into the next frontier of Web-based computing, in which Web services, grid computing, and utility computing models all rely on distributed storage systems.

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