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Choosing the Best Enterprise NAS

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Selecting the best enterprise NAS – best-suited to your company's needs – requires understanding an array of data storage factors.

Network-attached storage (NAS) benefits companies of all sizes. However, NAS devices differ widely in their performance, capacity and scalability. That simple NAS may be perfect for an SMB headquarters or a small remote office, but larger file sharing environments will need enterprise NAS.

Enterprise NAS, due to the performance demands it must fulfill, is necessarily is more complex than its home office brethren.

See our list of Top 8 Enterprise NAS Devices.

Understanding Enterprise NAS

Enterprise NAS performance and capacity are highly scalable, offers a centralized management console, and ships with native data protection features.

Scalable

When NAS systems were first introduced, the only way to scale a NAS environment was to buy another system. This was simple enough to do until NAS systems became victims of their own success. So many were deployed that it became difficult for IT to optimize and troubleshoot individual appliances, not to mention extra machines taking up floor and rack space.

This is not an issue in entry-level and home office NAS, where few users have the need to install multiple appliances. It’s different in the enterprise. Requirements for high capacity and performance spurred research and development of global namespaces and highly scalable NAS systems.

There are two types of NAS scaling architectures: scale-up and scale-out. Scale-up means adding additional drives to an existing system. The system’s controllers define the array’s maximum amount of CPU and memory, which limits the number and capacity of added drives. This is true both in single and dual controller systems, since most dual controllers are active/passive configurations instead of active/active.

Scale-out storage is a distributed NAS architecture that scales using clusters. Each new node adds both performance and capacity to the distributed system.

Both types of systems should allow IT to easily scale with hot-swappable drives and automatic RAID rebuilding. Some NAS vendors also ship NAS gateways for transparent tiering to the cloud.

Manageability

Both scale-out and scale-up systems should provide a centralized management interface. The interface should allow you to easily configure new drives and nodes, including policies and logical partitions. Also look for native de-duplication and compression to store even more files in available capacity.

Global namespaces further simplify file management for massively scaled systems. Global namespace technology logically expands single filesystems from single-digit petabytes to dozens of petabytes and billions of files.

Data Protection

NAS administrators often use their existing backup software for traditional backup and recovery on-premises or to remote sites. Enterprise NAS also comes with native data protection such as replication, snapshots and storing backup images of NAS drives in RAID.

The same best practices for data protection on other storage devices are the same for NAS: match data priority to data protection choices, and store backup data off-site using replication and snapshots.

Choosing the Best NAS System

The best NAS device for your enterprise will depend on your needs. For some organizations, the best NAS storage system is the one that offers the fastest performance. For others, it might be the hardware that packs the most storage capacity into the smallest amount of space. And for still others it might come down to the cost per gigabyte, availability or security.

When selecting the best NAS, enterprises will need to evaluate a number of factors, including the following:

  • Capacity: How much data do you need to store? You'll need to consider both your current and your future needs. Look carefully at how easily the solution can scale and the estimated lifetime for your hardware. In general, NAS devices with more storage capacity cost more than those with less capacity.
  • Performance: How much throughput do you need your NAS solution to offer and how much latency can you tolerate? Your answer will determine whether you choose a NAS device with slower hard disk drives (HDDs) or fast solid state drives (SSDs) based on flash. Advanced applications like HD video, machine learning and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) require the fast performance offered by flash-based NAS devices with a lot of on-board cache and memory. By contrast, if you just need a file server for a branch office, an inexpensive HDD-based NAS device will be more than adequate.
  • Application: What will you be using your NAS device for? Some vendors offer devices specifically tailored to certain needs like big data analytics or VDI, and they may offer advantages over more generic hardware.
  • Physical space: Some of the NAS solutions currently on the market squeeze an incredible amount of storage into a very small form factor. This can save on real estate-related costs, but it may increase cooling needs and make management somewhat more difficult. The NAS devices below are all rack-mounted, but vendors do also offer standalone NAS hardware that might be more suited to some office locations.
  • Networking considerations: Unlike SAN devices, which set up a separate storage network, NAS devices become part of your regular network. That means you'll need to make sure the hardware you select offers the right kinds of ports and supports the networking protocols used in your environment.
  • Reliability and availability: Some NAS storage incorporates features like RAID and component redundancy to improve data availability. Some also offer automatic synchronization, disaster recovery and automatic failover.
  • Deduplication and compression: Many NAS devices provide capabilities that reduce the amount of space consumed by stored data. When calculated your total costs, it's important to take these abilities into consideration. If a device can compress data so that it takes up half as much space as it normally would, that significantly changes your cost per gigabyte.
  • Security: High-end NAS storage often features built-in encryption capabilities to protect data at rest.
  • Operating system and software: Some NAS appliances require the use of a particular operating system, while others allow the user to choose among Windows, Linux and others. Using an OS that is familiar to your staff may help you keep costs low, but on the other hand, some users say that proprietary NAS operating systems offer more flexibility and manageability. This is one area where trying before you buy can be helpful.
  • Warranty and support: Some products come with a longer warranty than others, and some incorporate support into the total cost while others do not. This can affect your total cost of ownership.

Enterprise NAS Examples

Most leading storage vendors offer enterprise NAS systems. Let’s look at a few representative offerings from StorageCraft, Dell EMC, IBM and NetApp. Note that each system offers different capacity and performance options.

·  StorageCraft (Exablox) OneBlox 5210 is an all-flash scale-out NAS that works with NFS/SMB protocols and is optimized for virtual environments. Capacity of 38TB raw is on the low side for enterprise NAS, but all-flash architecture enables exceptionally high performance.

·  Dell EMC Compellent FS8600 is a high-capacity enterprise scale-out NAS. The system scales up to 4PB useable in a single NAS cluster. The global namespace option clusters up to four FS8600s to quadruple capacity in a single namespace.

·  NetApp FAS8200 Hybrid Flash Storage converges SAN and NAS into a unified infrastructure. End-users have the option of all-flash or hybrid storage media. Additional NetApp software (ONTAP’s FlexGroup) enables capacity up to 20PB.

·  IBM Spectrum Scale is essentially IBM’s GPFS (General Parallel File System) with a flashy new name. Spectrum Scale can scale-out to over 16,000 nodes of unstructured data, and is positioned to support compute clusters, big data analytics and rapid backup and recovery.

Not All Enterprise NAS Are Created Equal

Just because a NAS system is considered an enterprise device, does not mean that is best for your environment. When researching enterprise NAS, understand these factors in your environment and how the systems you are considering will best fit with them.

Factor

Explanation

Form factor

 

Know the space requirements of enterprise NAS, especially if you plan to scale it. An appliance can start out at 2U and will need additional space if it scales to 4U. Distributed NAS clusters will need even more space although they will not be limited to the data center.

Media

 

More enterprise NAS is being manufactured with hybrid SSDs and HDDs, and some NAS systems are all-flash. Understand your options around media performance, capacity and cost.

RAID

 

Most enterprise NAS systems come with RAID support. Higher end systems will usually come with multiple choice RAID configuration options to suit performance, data protection, and capacity needs.

In any case, your RAID settings should automatically reconstruct themselves when you scale the NAS system. Read here for more about NAS and RAID.

Automated storage tiering

 

 

NAS storage tiering refers to 1) caching data for high performance ingestion and/or 2) automatically moving aging data to lower cost storage tiers. These tiers may be nearline disk or tape library. Some enterprise NAS systems are fitted with a cloud gateway so the system can write aging data to cloud storage tiers.

Performance

 

Traditional NAS is not famous for its high performance. However, the addition of flash media and multi-core servers to enterprise NAS accelerates performance for those environments that need it.

Regardless of NAS internal performance, network speeds can also make or break NAS performance. When you're researching enterprise NAS, verify the number and type of available network adapter ports. Look for multiple ports and high-speed Fiber Channel or Ethernet support.

Security

Enterprise NAS inherits network security including firewalls, anti-malware, AD-controlled credentials and intrusion detection systems.

Strongly consider encrypting data as well. Software encryption for SSDs and disk is available, but hardware encryption will be considerably faster. Look for NAS devices that come with native encryption, not just for HDDs but for SSDs as well. Consider encryption with granular options that enable encryption on single files or folders as well up to full volumes.

Enterprise NAS inherits network security including firewalls, anti-malware, AD-controlled credentials and intrusion detection systems.

Strongly consider encrypting data as well. Software encryption for SSDs and disk is available, but hardware encryption will be considerably faster. Look for NAS devices that come with native encryption, not just for HDDs but for SSDs as well. Consider encryption with granular options that enable encryption on single files or folders as well up to full volumes.

Enterprise NAS Usage Cases

NAS fulfills important storage needs and will continue its lively growth. Enterprise NAS usage is growing especially fast in environments that require high storage capacity and massive scalability. Typical environments include active archives, video surveillance, broadcast post-production, media asset management, video streaming and medical archives. For example:

·  Image serving. An auto marketing business offers cloud-based search and display services to auto dealers all over the world. Its dealer customers send millions of image files a day but streaming this massive amount of data to a cloud provider is time- and cost-prohibitive. The business runs a massively scaled enterprise NAS to store the images and uses cloud caching to point to the on-premises image files.

·  Raw data processing. A scientific research library ingests large amounts of raw data from scientific studies. It uses a high-performance/high-capacity enterprise NAS system to store the data in a single namespace. Researchers use the data to feed high-end analytics and research applications.

·  Business analytics. A business intelligence unit wants to analyze the last 3 years’ worth of key performance indicators to produce an in-depth state-of-the-business report. In the past they could only do limited BI because data was stored in many different systems. With an enterprise NAS, KPI data is stored under a single namespace and available to analytics tools that specialize in unstructured data.

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