Guest column: Know your NAS from your SAN

Regular readers of Solutions Integrator's storage section know that storage-area networks (SANs, aka storage networks) and network-attached storage (NAS) are the two hottest trends in the storage market. What you may not know is that these distinct technologies are also the most easily confused by enterprise customers.

The good news, however, is that networked storage presents a new opportunity for solutions integrators. It's a convergence that inherently creates an increasingly important role for SIs. Companies able to deliver a total enterprise solution -- including NAS and SAN expertise -- will be sitting pretty. Immediate ROI awaits integrators that seize the day and help enterprise-storage buyers understand and implement their networked options. Many customers will be able to save money by co-locating storage resources, for example; in addition they will have better and faster access to data through SANs. But, by utilising either NAS or SAN technology, you can help buyers develop a clear, effective road map for storage growth. The key is to know the distinct role of each technology.

SANs are primarily implemented on mainframes or Unix servers whose robust operating systems allow for a single server to perform both application and file-serving functions. SANs don't use a networking protocol, but they do let the storage link directly to the network via an intelligent switch. The result is a direct-connect network limited to its particular set of servers and storage arrays, with high availability and fault tolerance -- an environment well suited for mission-critical applications. NAS schemes are more like traditional networks with their use of networking protocols and IP addressing. Storage hangs off the network simply as another device, while file-server applications are performed on a server separate from other applications. A NAS provides a more open environment than a SAN but lacks the high availability and fault tolerance. Unix systems can be found in NAS environments, but typically Unix users are more likely to buy a SAN.

I expect NAS technology to become more sophisticated and fit for critical application areas over time. The next logical step in this convergence of networking and storage will be the partnering of the technologies' respective suppliers. Each party has a piece of the technology and expertise required to complete the solution. Admittedly, the NAS is more dependent on networking technology than the SAN, but each has roles to play. This transition has been evolving for a while, and with the advent of high-speed I/O technology such as Fibre Channel the merger of networking and storage technologies has been brought even closer. It will be interesting to see what happens to servers -- for years the gateway to network ownership. Now the ante has been raised. Ownership of the network and storage is the new price of admission to the enterprise, with servers becoming more interchangeable. The right application, on a network that includes storage, is the key to today's enterprise.

A casualty of this convergence, therefore, may be networking integrators that don't broaden their expertise to include storage (or server-centric storage integrators that neglect more open networking options). But this convergence will also provide fertile ground for partnerships. Each technology is horizontal, not geography-dependent, and labour-intensive in its need for engineering expertise to make solutions work. Keep an eye out for other SIs to help you with this transition. Vendors in this space are typically "channel friendly" and should also be a good resource. The challenge will be combining all players into a productive, successful, and noncompetitive solution-delivery system.

Janet Waxman is a research manager for server, storage, and workstation distribution at International Data Corp. She can be reached at

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