Tame Your Storage with NAS

Buying new servers and more direct-attached disks solves short-term storage issues but creates a bigger problem—the storage management nightmare. Network attached storage, which separates disks from servers, is one answer. We evaluate three top NAS solutions running Windows Storage Server.

Have you ever thought about how easy home users have it when they purchase a PC online? When the new computer arrives, the user just plugs it in and she’s up and running. One can go from taking a system out of the box to being on the Internet in less than an hour. How often can the same be said for a new server?

For many in IT, adding a new server or additional storage involves planning and hours of implementation. This is where Network Attached Storage (NAS) comes in. With NAS, vendors have applied the simplicity of the home PC model to their small- to enterprise-class server product line. When the NAS arrives at your office, you connect the power and hook it to the network, and you’re off and running. A typical NAS implementation is shown in Figure 1.

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Figure 1. A basic NAS implementation is shockingly simple. Just connect the box to the network and go.

When you purchase a NAS device, you get a high-performance file server that’s fully pre-configured at the factory, with storage capacity ranging from gigabytes to terabytes. So in addition to ease of deployment, NAS can allow you to quickly add storage resources to the network or consolidate several file servers onto a single high capacity NAS.

While it would be great to be able to say, “Go out and buy any NAS, and all of your storage problems will be solved,” the competing NAS technologies don’t make that possible. Consider the NAS family tree to consist of fraternal twins. All NAS appliances are related in purpose—but not all look alike. The biggest difference you’ll find is with the OS that the appliances run: It’ll either be Windows-powered or not. If your NAS is Windows-powered, it runs a version of Windows 2000 Server (referred to as Windows Powered NAS 2.0) or Windows Server 2003 (referred to as Windows Storage Server 2003). Non-Windows-powered NAS appliances run either a proprietary OS or some form of Linux. For example, Network Appliance NAS devices run Data ONTAP. Another major difference between Windows-powered and non-Windows-powered NAS appliances is often the price, with many non-Windows-powered solutions weighing in at two to three times the price of a comparably priced Windows NAS.

Product Information
Micro Tiger M316S
Starts at $8,329
Coastline Micro

StorageWorks NAS 4000s
Starts at $8,295

NAS 800m/1.28TB

Differing Visions
Like any good made-for-TV movie, major conflicts exist between Windows and non-Windows NAS appliances. Microsoft has taken its vision of NAS in one direction while other vendors have stayed true to their original courses. From the onset of its NAS initiative, Microsoft hasn’t included support for Network Data Management Protocol (NDMP), which is the primary data backup protocol for nearly all non-Microsoft NAS appliances. With NDMP, backup software can use the NDMP protocol to initiate backup and restore jobs from any NDMP-supported NAS appliance, regardless of hardware vendor or NAS OS.

So what about backup with Microsoft NAS appliances? Since Microsoft NAS still runs a Windows OS, you can install your backup agent software directly onto the NAS appliance. Also, most backup vendors’ media server software is supported as well. This ability—to many NAS traditionalists—has broken a cardinal rule of network attached storage: Nothing gets installed! When Nostradamus first predicted the rise of NAS, he stated that to guarantee reliability, installation of additional software wouldn’t be allowed. Compare this theory to other appliances in your home. Your toaster manufacturer doesn’t want you ripping apart your toaster and installing an automatic butter dispenser for your toast. If you do, they can’t guarantee that the toaster will work or won’t burn down your house. While this example may be extreme, it still holds up against the position of most first-generation NAS vendors. Their stance was that they were selling an appliance built to serve up files. The appliance had plenty of storage but didn’t have the capacity to allow additional software. By controlling exactly what was contained in the NAS OS, NAS vendors could offer performance and reliability guarantees.

More on Network Data Management Protocol
If you’re looking for additional information on NDMP, go to This site explains the NDMP initiative and offers a wealth of additional resources on NDMP.

Now back to Nostradamus. While Microsoft did see the validity of Nostradamus’ prediction, it also remembered he predicted that California would split from North America in 1988. Because that never happened, it figured maybe Nostradamus was a little off with his NAS prediction as well and that the future of NAS would include the need to install a limited set of add-on software. This approach offered the ease of deployment that was common to all first-generation (non-Microsoft) NAS appliances, yet allowed the NAS to be flexible enough to meet the needs of the administrator.

Coming Clean
It’s tough to give Nostradamus all of the credit for the growth of Network Attached Storage. Instead, let’s turn our attention to the innovations of the Microsoft NAS team. While all NAS appliances are primarily geared toward file serving, while offering ease of deployment, Microsoft NAS appliances offer several other advantages. Perhaps the greatest advantage to Microsoft NAS is that administrators are already familiar with its OS. Like Windows servers, you can manage a Windows NAS locally or remotely via a Terminal Services connection. Since Microsoft isn’t in the storage hardware business, their NAS OS is actually sold through numerous OEMs, such as HP, Iomega, and Coastline Micro.

Aside from allowing administrators to administer their NAS via a Terminal Services (Remote Desktop) connection, the NAS can also be configured and administered via the Windows Storage Server 2003 interface. The interface is normally your starting point when initially setting up the NAS. You can name the NAS, configure network settings, join a domain, configure file sharing protocols, create shared folders and manage user accounts. While these features are common to the base interface, some Windows NAS vendors, such as HP, have modified the what’s built in to provide additional management features and links to their custom storage management tools.In addition to the familiarity advantage, Microsoft NAS also behaves similar to many other Windows servers, with the exception that it’s optimized for file serving. This means that unnecessary services not needed for file serving have been removed from the OS. Windows NAS can be joined to your existing domain and seamlessly snapped into your existing Active Directory infrastructure.

The first iteration of Windows NAS was referred to as Windows-powered NAS and ran on a Windows 2000 platform. Today, Windows NAS appliances run on Windows Server 2003 and have been named Windows Storage Server 2003. Windows Storage Server 2003 NAS appliances benefit from many new features of the OS, including Shadow Copy support, iSCSI interoperability, support for multipath fibre channel drivers (for fault tolerant SAN connectivity) and support for up to eight-node NAS server clusters. Windows Powered NAS 2.0 appliances offered support for two-node server clusters, and although they lacked Shadow Copy support, they did have a Persistent Storage Manager (PSM) feature that let you to create up to 250 snapshots of a disk volume on the NAS. This allowed for rapid recovery of lost data. With Windows Storage Server 2003, this feature was replaced by Shadow Copies.

Common Ground
Aside from the enhancements to Windows NAS with the release of Windows Storage Server 2003, all versions of Windows NAS offered many common attributes. Microsoft’s intent with its entry into the NAS market was to provide an easily deployable server/storage solution that had little to no learning curve for the average administrator. In having a Windows OS base, Windows NAS administrators would be able to manage the NAS with tools that they were already accustomed to. Also, Microsoft allowed other hardware vendors to use the NAS OS as the base platform for their appliances. This strategy allowed Microsoft to work with the various storage and server vendors instead of competing against them. With non-Microsoft NAS solutions, the NAS OS and support for the NAS OS is completely left up to the NAS vendor.

With either Windows Powered NAS 2.0 or Windows Storage Server 2003, you get a NAS device that is ready out of the box to work in any environment, whether it’s a small Windows shop or a heterogeneous mix of Windows, Unix, Linux, and NetWare systems. To facilitate this broad range of platforms, all Windows NAS appliances support the following protocols: TCP/IP, IPX/SPX, AppleTalk, SMB/CIFS, NFS, HTTP, WebDav and FTP. In addition, Windows NAS devices can also participate in your enterprise’s Distributed File System (DFS) hierarchy and use File Replication Service (FRS) for replicating data.

Product Capacity Scalability Tools Support Pricing
Coastline Micro Tiger M316S 1.28TB-4TB
• Via U320    SCSI
• No fibre    channel
• 3Ware3DM    Disk    Management
8-5 M-F phone support; no Web support This series starts at $8,329
HP StorageWorks NAS 4000s 72GB-880GB internally, additional storage added via external SCSI or fibre channel • Via U320    SCSI or    fibre    channel

• HP    StorageWorks
• Insight    Manager
• Lights Out
• SAN    Connection    Tool
• Secure Path
• Network    Teaming    Utility

24/7 phone; excellent Web support This series starts at $8,295
Iomega NAS 800m/1.28TB 1.28TB • Via SCSI    160
• No fibre    channel
• Iomega    Automatic    Backup
• CA eTrust •    Antivirus 7
• Veritas    Backup    Exec 9.0    trial
24/7 phone; good Web support $9,499

One OS Fits Many
By now you should have a good idea of what you’re getting into with Windows NAS. But you may be wondering if this technology is affordable for your organization. Unlike many competing non-Microsoft NAS vendors, whose appliances start at $20,000 or higher, you can slip into an entry-level Windows NAS for under $5,000.

Higher-end Windows NAS appliances can scale to the enterprise, with many boxes able to connect to storage devices in a Storage Area Network (SAN) or over an iSCSI network.

With storage capacity ranging from the high gigabyte to the terabyte range, Windows NAS appliances can help consolidate several smaller file servers onto one NAS device. This allows for easier management of resources and streamlines backups. If your NAS includes SCSI or fibre channel adapters, you can back a NAS directly up to a locally attached storage device or one that is asccessable via a SAN.

Besides just being a file serving host, many organizations are finding value in using a NAS as a primary backup target. The high I/O performance of SCSI disks as well as their ability to access data randomly (compared to sequential access of tape devices) has allowed many firms to use their NAS as the primary storage location for backup jobs. This allows backups to run extremely fast, and with random access storage, restores are lightning fast, as well. If you’re wondering how this approach accommodates disaster recovery (offsite storage), this is where the external storage connectivity (SCSI or fibre channel) offered by most NAS appliances comes in.

Consider the illustration in Figure 2. Here, a Windows-powered NAS appliance with 2TB of local disk storage is being used as a primary backup target. The NAS is then SCSI-attached to a tape library. When backup jobs run, all systems on the network send their backup data to the local disk storage on the NAS. Then, when backups are completed, the data on local disks is copied to tapes in the tape library. The tapes can then be moved offsite for disaster recovery purposes. If storage capacity permits, it’s best to always keep one copy of backup data on the NAS for quick restore purposes. So once a second full backup is run to the NAS, you can get rid of the first. Many backup software vendors, such as Veritas and CommVault, offer software to automate the process of backing up to a NAS and then backing up the “backup” to tape.

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Figure 2. A NAS appliance used as a
primary backup target.

Before You Buy
So, with the same OS on all of the available Windows NAS appliances on the market, you may be wondering how they differ. When deciding on a NAS, carefully consider the following factors: hardware, storage capacity, scalability, management tools, reputation, support and price.

While all Windows NAS appliances have the same base OS (Windows Powered NAS 2.0 or Windows Storage Server 2003), one of the initial differences between Windows NAS appliances is with the hardware that comes with the NAS, such as disk capacity, drive type (ATA, SCSI, fibre channel) and scalability.

Aside from weighing the differences between hardware and tools, you also should consider the reputation of the NAS vendor in the server and storage market, as well the reliability of their customer support. In testing and reviewing NAS appliances running Windows Storage Server 2003 or Windows-Powered NAS 2.0 for this article, each of these factors weighed in my product analysis.

For this review, we examined the following devices:

 Coastline Micro Tiger Series

 HP StorageWorks NAS 4000s

 Iomega NAS P800m

Unfortunately, after repeated requests from MCP Magazine, and even prodding from Microsoft’s PR firm, Dell never responded to requests for a review unit.

Of the three reviewed NAS appliances, Coastline Micro’s and HP’s NAS products ran the Windows Storage Server 2003 NAS OS, while Iomega’s NAS line ran Windows-Powered NAS 2.0. Rather than focus on the core differences between versions of the OSs being run, my biggest concerns in this evaluation were bang-for-the-buck and quality and ease of use of management tools.

Coastline Micro Tiger Series
Coastline Micro is a relative newcomer to the NAS arena that offers a variety of NAS appliances, which I consider geared to the small and mid-sized business market. One of the Tiger Series NAS’ best selling points is its price. The entry level model, the Tiger Series Pedestal NAS, starts at just over $2,000. The Pedestal NAS is well suited for the small business; it offers 320GB to 1.75TB of storage, with a 2.66 GHz CPU and up to 1GB of DDR memory. This model uses serial ATA drives, which aren’t hot swappable. The high end “enterprise” Tiger Series 3U NAS allows for up to 2.34TB of storage; runs the Ultra320 SCSI interface, which is hot swappable; and has dual 2.4GHz CPUs and 2GB of DDR memory. This model starts at $8,329.

Coastline Micro Tiger M316S

I had no trouble getting this NAS up and running, and Coastline Micro’s support team continually offered help every step of the way. Since its NAS was literally up and available in minutes, I didn’t need much assistance. However, if I had needed help after 5 PM Pacific time, I would have been in trouble. The company’s Web support was almost non-existent (no online knowledge base or documentation, for example) and it doesn’t offer 24/7 phone support.

Once the NAS was running, I had little to work with in terms of additional management tools beyond those included with the OS. For the most part, I had to rely on my experience administering Windows servers rather than automated tools to guide me through processes. Also, scalability was limited to the external Ultra 320 SCSI connection. There was no available fibre channel host bus adapter (HBA) from Coastline Micro for this device. Since the point of NAS is high performance file serving, it’s not fair for me to beat up Coastline Micro’s Tiger NAS series on what it doesn’t have. If its NAS were a car, it might not have had the power windows or locks, but it still ran well.

These limitations are something small businesses may be able to live with, especially considering the reasonable pricing of the company’s NAS line of products. But to be able to play in the enterprise, Coastline will undoubtedly have to build out its support infrastructure.

HP StorageWorks NAS 4000s
Hewlett Packard has long been a major player in both the server and storage markets, so I entered my review of its StorageWorks NAS 4000s with high expectations. After connecting to the NAS via its custom Web interface, my expectations were actually exceeded. The StorageWorks NAS was fully configured in about two minutes and the excellent suite of management tools that accompanied the NAS were very easy to work with. The management interface is shown in Figure 3.

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Figure 3. The HP StorageWorks management interface is browser based and easy to use. (Click image to view larger version.)

I was impressed with Insight Manager and the Lights-Out port. With Insight Manager, you can monitor more than 1,000 different parameters dealing with system health and performance. Lights-Out allows you to access the system remotely, and it sends alerts even if the CPU isn’t responding. By connecting through this port, you can remotely restart a hung NAS.

If you’re looking to take the mystery out of connecting the HP NAS to a SAN, you’ll love the SAN Connection Tool, which takes you step by step through connecting the NAS to a fibre channel SAN, selecting the storage for the NAS to use on the SAN, and also determining the fibre channel path to be used between the NAS and devices on the SAN. HP’s Secure Path software can also be set up from the SAN Connection Tool. Secure Path allows you to map out redundant paths to storage devices in a complex SAN. This allows data to traverse a different path in the SAN if one data path to a storage device is interrupted. Connecting a NAS to a SAN can be a daunting task. HP’s SAN management tools can reduce the “fear factor.”

Another aspect of this NAS that I loved was how easy it was to team its two onboard NICs—ideal if you plan to use the NAS as a backup target device and need the additional bandwidth. HP includes a Network Teaming Utility with the NAS to quickly get you through the NIC teaming configuration.

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HP StorageWorks NAS 4000s

The StorageWorks NAS 4000s includes dual 3.2GHz CPUs, 2GB DDR RAM, two embedded Gigabit NICs, and up to 48TB of storage capacity. Pricing for this NAS starts at $8,295. With options to add fibre channel adapters to connect to a SAN, this is a NAS truly geared for the enterprise. Online documentation was excellent, as was support.

While I evaluated an enterprise-class NAS appliance for this review, HP also offers NAS appliances for smaller organizations. For example, the entry-level StorageWorks NAS 1200s offers storage from 320GB to 1TB, a 2.4GHz CPU and 512 MB of RAM and is priced starting at $2,749. Aside from the scaled-down hardware offered by this model, HP still provides its StorageWorks management interface, as well as a disk configuration tool. Since this NAS is designed to suit the needs of small offices or individual departments, you won’t find HP’s other enterprise-class management tools included. Pound for pound, this model very closely compares to the Coastline Micro Tiger Series Pedestal NAS.

Iomega NAS 800m/1.28TB
The Iomega NAS 800m/1.28TB allows for up to 1.28TB of storage (with a hot swappable SCSI 160 interface), dual Gigabit Ethernet adapters, dual 2.4GHZ CPUs, and 1GB of DDR RAM. I was able to get the Iomega NAS up and running within a few minutes. However, disk performance was noticeably slower compared to the SCSI 320 storage offered by both the Coastline and HP NAS products. For file serving in a small business this performance may not be noticeable, but it could play a factor in backup performance. This storage limitation, including the absence of out-of-the-box SAN integration, limits the scalability of the Iomega NAS product line.

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Iomega NAS 800m/1.28TB

Iomega’s management offerings aren’t as robust as the HP StorageWorks suite of tools, but Iomega did have more to offer than the Tiger NAS. Aside from the OS’ built-in management services, Iomega threw in several tools from other vendors, such as a demo of Veritas BackupExec 9.0, a fully licensed version of Computer Associates eTrust Antivirus 7, and Iomega Automatic Backup. I found the Iomega Automatic Backup tool to be best suited for smaller organizations that don’t manage backups of several servers. It’s not as robust as other competing backup programs, which is why I believe the company decided to include evaluation software from other backup vendors with the product.

To date, Iomega has built a reputation as a storage vendor targeting home users and small businesses with its Zip and Jazz product line. Venturing into NAS represents uncharted territory for the company, which may scare off some potential buyers. However, from the excellent 24/7 support offerings, as well as abundance of online support options, I believe that Iomega is poised to secure its piece of the NAS market pie and will likely be a driving force in getting NAS into the small business market. Iomega’s pricing is reasonable, with the 800m/ 1.28TB listed for $9,499.

Iomega’s entry level 160GB NAS, in comparison, can be purchased for $999. This NAS includes a 1.7 GHz Intel Celeron CPU, 256MB of RAM and a 10/100 MB NIC. The Iomega NAS release that would most closely compare to the HP or Tiger entry-level offerings would be the Iomega 400m/320GB. (That’s right—why waste marketing effort on actual product names when the defining hardware components say it all?) This NAS includes 320GB of ATA disk storage, a P4 2GHz CPU, 512MB of RAM, dual 10/100/1000 MB NICs, and an external SCSI 160 connector. The price for the 400m/320GB is $2,999.

Although many would argue that Iomega has yet to prove itself in the enterprise over an extended period of time, I believe that it will be able to capitalize on the foundation set by its Zip and Jazz line of storage products and steadily acquire market share, beginning with the small office.

Future’s so Bright, Gotta Wear NAS!
The rise of network attached storage is undoubtedly starting to reshape the server and storage industry. Competition among NAS companies will likely continue to push the server and storage offerings down in price and encourage the vendors to make them easier to deploy. For many enterprise organizations, storage area networks will continue to be a necessity in order to manage the sheer volume of online and offline data. However, for businesses looking for the simple answer to their storage dilemmas, NAS is the way to go.


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