Storage Networking Technology You Need to Know

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In today’s enterprises, often the whole point of collecting and generating data is to capture its value and capitalize on it. That requires moving it from storage systems to servers or other systems across a network for processing, which typically means that some form of storage networking is at play.

There are various forms of storage networking, including network-attached storage (NAS) and storage area networks (SANs). Essentially, they all deliver data services from external storage systems across a network and allow multiple users or devices to share storage capacity.

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Storage Networking Technologies

Here’s a sampling of the terms and storage networking technologies found in today’s businesses and data centers.

File and block networked storage

  • Network-attached storage (NAS)

    NAS systems or appliances are specifically designed to provide file-level storage over a network using traditional Ethernet-based networks. Housing one or more drives, NAS devices enable multiple devices to access, save, and share files. Supported protocols often include Network File System (NFS) and Server Message Block (SMB). NAS systems can range from compact appliances for small office/home offices (SOHO) to enterprise-grade arrays.

  • Storage area network (SAN)

    A SAN is its own network of storage systems that provides block-level storage services to networked devices. SAN configurations are as varied as the organizations that use them, due to their application requirements, storage utilization objectives and countless other factors, but they all generally feature a SAN fabric containing switches that connect servers or host systems to storage via host bus adapters (HBAs).

Storage networking protocols and connectivity technologies

  • Fibre Channel (FC)

    The industry standard, Fibre Channel, often abbreviated FC, is a networking technology that enables the high-speed, low-latency and lossless transfer of block data to servers. In traditional implementations, it requires specialized cabling—here’s where the ‘Fibre,’ as in fiber optical, in Fibre Channel comes in—and networking components. Fibre Channel supports data transfer rates in the gigabit per second (Gbps) range.

  • Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE)

    As its name suggests, the FCoE protocol enables the lossless transport of Fibre Channel traffic over 10 Gbps Ethernet networks. This enables organizations to standardize on Ethernet-based networking equipment rather than use Fibre Channel solely for their SANs and Ethernet for the rest of their computer networking requirements.

  • Internet Small Computer Systems Interface (iSCSI)

    iSCSI, another SAN protocol, allows for block-level storage operations over TCP/IP networks.

    An iSCSI initiator, a hardware device or software that runs on a server, transfers data between iSCSI storage devices and packages SCSI commands into packets that can be sent over a network.

  • Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID)

    Formerly short for redundant array of inexpensive disks, RAID is not exclusively a storage networking term, but it has a big influence on how networked storage systems operate. RAID is generally used to store the same data across multiple hard disks, ensuring that it remains accessible if a failure renders a storage drive unusable. This is considered a key component of many enterprise storage system deployments that are entrusted with critical data.

  • InfiniBand

    Used to provide high-speed connectivity between servers in high-performance computing (HPC) environments, InfiniBand is available for enterprise environments that require the fastest performance from their networked storage systems. The switched fabric technology can support speeds calculated in Gbps.

storage networking

Enterprise storage networking has a huge task: connecting the many far-flung elements of a modern company.

Selecting Storage Networking Technologies

As with most IT decisions, planning and deploying a NAS or SAN deployment is highly dependent on your organization’s business and performance requirements.

NAS for controlled file access and sharing

NAS makes a compelling case in practically all sorts of business environments, from small firms to large enterprises. NAS can be used to provide users and their devices with secure, shared access to files, easing collaboration.

Even with the advent of cloud-based file storage, sharing and sync services, NAS makes sense for organizations with strict security or compliance regulations, or that simply want full control of their organization’s data. That said, many storage vendors today sell cloud gateways and appliances that blend low-cost cloud storage costs with the security and enterprise management capabilities of on-premises NAS environments.

SANs for enterprise workloads

For larger organizations that run databases and mission-critical business software, like enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) software suites that store and retrieve block-level data, a SAN is practically a given.

Unified storage solutions that blend NAS file storage with SAN block storage are available from major storage vendors, meaning that an organization’s SAN investments can pull double duty as file storage.

Delving deeper, a SAN’s underlying architecture should reflect an organization’s needs.

As mentioned earlier, Fibre Channel is considered the go-to SAN technology for large enterprises. FCoE allows businesses to pass Fibre Channel traffic along Ethernet-based networks, provided they can adequately handle the load.

Reflecting its HPC origins, InfiniBand is best suited for environments that run extremely critical workloads. Finally, small and mid-sized businesses that find themselves in need of a SAN will likely find iSCSI-based solutions to fit their more modest requirements.

Putting Storage Networking to Work

Storage networking is a field that borrows from many disciplines and technology categories to help data flow across a network to the various systems that make a business tick.

Talent-wise, a successfully deployed storage networking project typically involves the input of IT leaders who are familiar with the data requirements and application workloads generated by an organization’s various business units. Networking teams are critical to ensuring that a NAS or SAN plays well with an organization’s other network resources.

Compliance officers and IT security personnel will likely want to have a say on how data is safeguarded as it is stored on a NAS or works its way across a SAN. Of course, storage administrators will manage and maintain a SAN according to their organization’s standards.

Vendor lock-in is always a concern. Although networked storage environments are typically built on established and well-known technologies, individual vendors add their own spin. This can affect how the data and storage operations of a NAS or SAN is managed, making considering a switch to another vendor or a major technology upgrade a challenge.

Finally, keep an eye on the horizon in building your storage networking infrastructure.

Data volumes continue to grow by leaps and bounds as businesses collect more of it to feed into big data processing and artificial intelligence systems to wring from value out of their information. Emerging new standards, faster interconnects and innovations that boost storage capacity and performance will inevitably change the storage networking market in the years to come.

Further Reading

10 Expert Tips for Better Storage

Storage Area Networks in the Enterprise

Software Defined Storage and Networking

Pedro Hernandez
Pedro Hernandez
Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to Datamation, eWEEK, and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of IT-related websites and as the Green IT curator for GigaOM Pro.

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