The Future of NAS Data Storage

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Some might tell you that NAS could be going away soon. But don’t believe a word of it.

According to International Data Corp. (IDC), file-based data storage continues to be a thriving market. Spending on file-based storage solutions is expected to increase to more than $34.6 billion in 2016. Further, file based storage accounts for two thirds of the total storage capacity shipped each year.

“NAS appliances and NAS software will stick around despite the hype,” said Greg Schulz, an analyst with StorageIO Group. “NAS in its various implementations will continue to thrive, despite being declared dead by the converged, hyperconverged and object crowds, as it is an enabler for those technologies to plug into existing environments.”

Evolving Field

NAS, however, has changed a lot over the last few years. Schulz pointed out that there are more vendors with NAS-related appliances and systems, as well as software-defined, cloud and virtual solutions supporting NFS, CIFS/SMB. In addition, NAS-enabled tools are packaged with dynamic point-in-time snapshots, replication, thin provisioning, dedupe and compression as well as faster speeds and larger capacities.

“NAS solutions are scaling up, scaling out and even scaling down across flash and hybrid arrays,” said Schulz.

Cloud NAS

One interesting NAS development has been how thoroughly it has been embraced by the mega-cloud providers such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon. They clearly see a place for NAS and are incorporating it into their cloud storage architectures. Similarly, the open source community is gravitating more towards NAS storage.

“Even public cloud vendors have jumped on board offering NAS file solutions ranging from AWS EFS to Microsoft Azure among others, as well as OpenStack Manila,” said Schulz.

Unified Storage

It wasn’t so long ago that NAS and SAN were completely different worlds. How times have changed.

“Of late, we’ve seen most NAS offerings morph into unified storage, meaning they support the NAS protocols (NFS, CIFS/SMB) and the SAN protocols (iSCSI, Fibre Channel) from a single hardware appliance,” said Gary Watson, Nexsan founder and VP of technical engagement.

Balancing File with Block

NAS, of course, has its own distinct advantages. It’s right in certain circumstances but not for others. There’s a tendency for some vendors to oversell the potential of NAS, especially for databases where file systems do little but get in the way. Therefore, it is important to strike a balance between your NAS (file shares) and your block storage resources.

“In combined (or unified) NAS/SAN products, ensure that I/O-intensive apps can directly access block-level devices without incurring the latency of an underlying file structure,” said Augie Gonzalez, director of product marketing at DataCore Software. “Also confirm that block services can be split out into separate nodes, completely independent of the NAS, if resource contention arises as the system load rises.”

Hyperconverged Integration

Some think that the rapid ascendancy of hyperconvergenced infrastructures (HCI) may mean the end for NAS. After all, such systems incorporate NAS, SAN and many other facets of storage, compute and networking. But Lee Caswell, vice president of product and solutions marketing at NetApp, believes otherwise. He sees HCI storage being applied most successfully for virtual machine images but not for enterprise user data.

“HCI appeals to the virtualization administrator who buys servers,” he said. “We expect HCI’s scalable-DAS storage to coexist with NetApp systems.”

Analytics in NAS

With the rise of the importance of unstructured data, it makes sense that NAS would evolve far more analytics capabilities.

“NAS has always been a good place to share files as it has been a logical way for teams to collaborate with a single repository of files,” said Kaycee Lai, senior vice president of product management and sales at Primary Data. “Moving forward, it’s only natural that metadata analytics, like those offered through data virtualization, become packaged with NAS solutions to let users better search and utilize their data.”

Software is King

In years past, NAS storage relied on a custom hardware component. But the commoditization of hardware has shifted to the balance and now software is king, said Michael Letschin, field CTO at Nexenta.

“Combine the drop in server hardware with SSD and flash, and we have faster, denser storage systems than we have ever before,” he said.

Small-Scale NAS

Traditional NAS looks like it will also be sticking around for some time to come.

“Single-purpose NAS appliances will continue to serve small-scale, latency-sensitive workloads,” said Ross Turk, director of product marketing, Red Hat Storage. “However, these workloads are becoming more and more rare.”

As workloads continue to change, organizations will outgrow traditional NAS and turn instead to software-defined, distributed storage platforms, he said.

NAS Niche

Travis Vigil, executive director of product management, Dell Storage, expects NAS to accelerate within certain niches.

“NAS will expand its use within vertical markets and in environments that require raw storage capacity and scalability, such as video surveillance, active archives, media asset management, video streaming and post-production,” he said. “Vertical workloads such as these require a reliable and easy to manage NAS environment that can scale to their needs and support long retention demands, and some Software Defined Storage (SDS) implementations lack the requirements to fulfill these.”

Three Big Markets

Stefan Voss, director of technical marketing for core technologies at EMC, outlined three markets he thought would remain strong for NAS. These are: traditional large-scale file repositories that can speak NFS and HTFS; video surveillance/medical archiving which are booming areas of the market; and file sharing for users with generic file share needs.

“File-based storage continues to grow faster than block storage, and transactional NAS is outgrowing the rest,” said Voss.

The Future of NAS

So what will the future of NAS be in the grand scheme of things? Gonzalez thinks the role of NAS won’t change much.

“NAS will continue to be a good complement to block storage, where performance is not a big factor and ease of access is the biggest criteria,” he said. “We are exploring ways to apply our DataCore Parallel I/O Technology to NAS solutions so customers can benefit from the full power of multi-core servers. This should yield a reduction in the number of nodes required to service large-scale NAS requirements as we have experienced with block services.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Drew Robb
Drew Robb
Drew Robb is a contributing writer for Datamation, Enterprise Storage Forum, eSecurity Planet, Channel Insider, and eWeek. He has been reporting on all areas of IT for more than 25 years. He has a degree from the University of Strathclyde UK (USUK), and lives in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.

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