Because floppy disks have fallen out of fashion and file sizes have grown enormously, a central location for sharing files has become important to office efficiency. Network-accessible files allow responsible parties within an organization to access and easily collaborate on office projects.
Traditional file servers that address this issue have been around since the 1980s, running operating systems such as Microsoft Windows, Linux, or Apple’s Mac OS. However, these servers are full-fledged computers offering a wide range of functions, and their prices reflect that. Dedicated network storage appliances, in contrast, are focused solely on providing shared disks accessed through the network and typically deliver better features at a lower cost per gigabyte. In addition, network storage appliances also help when managing all your servers, disk space, and backups consumes too much of your time. These systems allow all your servers to use shared disks that are centrally managed. Instead of each server having its own disks, with the resulting wasted space and management struggles, you have one large set of disks shared through your network and managed from one place.
What Types of Network Storage Solutions Are Available?
There are two types of network storage solutions typically designed for small to medium businesses. The first is NAS (networked attached storage), which is an appliance (a dedicated computer for storage only) with disks accessed via the NFS or CIFS (Microsoft Windows) protocols built into Linux and Windows. The second is iSCSI SAN (storage area network), a relatively higher-end solution that requires specialized client software but still works over standard Ethernet.
There are other types of network storage solutions available as well, such as even higher-end SAN solutions using proprietary networking connections instead of Ethernet. These, however, are typically designed and priced for larger enterprises that need maximum performance and have the dedicated IT staff to manage more complex installations.
Pros and Cons
Both NAS and iSCSI SAN solutions offer a number of common benefits, including the following:
- Central management of all your company’s storage. This makes backup and disaster recovery simpler and is helpful when you need to comply with regulations regarding, for example, e-mail backup or credit card data protection.
- The ability to replace or upgrade disks without turning off or rebooting any devices.
In addition, iSCSI SAN and NAS have advantages and disadvantages over each other. The chief benefit of iSCSI over NAS is that you can increase your network capacity or create redundancy by adding additional iSCSI servers without making any changes to any of your workstations or servers. Network drives will simply appear bigger to the PCs, without any work from their users. But initial installation of iSCSI is more complicated because you have to install client software on each system that will be accessing it.
NAS solutions, on the other hand, do not require any client software; they can be up and running quickly even if you have a large or distributed network of workstations. While they don’t offer quite the same level of raw performance that an iSCSI SAN would deliver, NAS appliances are often fast enough to handle many business’s needs today and for quite a while to come.
Checklist: Do You Need a Network Storage Solution?
- Do all of your employees have access to an office network, for example, to share Internet access?
- Do you currently store files on your network on more than three different servers? If you are still running everything on one to two servers, a network storage appliance would be overkill.
- Is it important to upgrade storage capacity without taking applications offline? Network storage appliances offer the ability to “hot swap,” or add and replace, disks with no downtime.
- Are all or most of your servers in a central location? If you have 20 servers in 20 different sales offices, a network storage appliance would be difficult and expensive to use. The systems accessing the network storage need to have high-speed Ethernet connections to a common point.
- Do you find backing up different servers time-consuming and error-prone? A network storage appliance can simplify life because you just back up one big set of disks instead of many small sets.
- Do you occasionally suffer server downtime because applications run out of disk space? A network storage appliance makes it easier to monitor and manage the space available to each application, and adding space when necessary becomes a simple online process, with no application downtime necessary.
- Do you have a large overall network storage need? If you have more than 20 to 30 servers or plan to spend $300,000 or more, you should consider larger enterprise SAN solutions because you may have a large enough network to make the additional complexity worthwhile.
- Do you frequently e-mail documents internally for collaboration?
- Have you ever lost a USB thumb drive with important files on it when trying to share those documents?
- Do you typically use USB external hard drives for backup purposes or perhaps have no backup strategy at all?
If you answer yes to more than five of these questions, you should consider a network storage solution for your business.