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Storage Strategies Made Simple

The world of storage can be forbidding to a novice. Even veteran IT personnel may be put off by the sheer volume of new terminology and alphabet soup that has evolved. Before we dive in, let's sample some basic terms. This is by no means a complete list of key definitions, but it should make things clearer, or at least be enough to make this article comprehensible.

Direct Attached Storage (DAS)
The server stores data on disks that are in the same box. Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID) is used heavily in this approach.

Storage Area Network (SAN)
A collection of computers and devices are connected over a high-speed network and are dedicated to the task of storing and protecting data. Instead of storing data locally, each server sends data across the network to a shared pool of storage.

Disk Array
A large array of disks in one box, it is often used as part of a SAN to store data for multiple servers. These servers typically connect to the disk array using Fibre Channel.

Fibre Channel (FC)
Optical fiber cables transmit data at high speed in a SAN. Fibre Channel is the transport protocol used for this purpose.

Network-Attached Storage (NAS)
NAS separates data from applications by storing data on filers attached to the LAN. Filers can share files across multiple applications, platforms, and operating systems.

Internet Small Computer Systems Interface (iSCSI)
This standard enables storage and retrieval at high speed (1 GB/second or higher) over regular IP networks.

More Key Terms To Understanding Storage:

Direct Attached Storage (DAS)
Storage Area Network (SAN)
Disk Array
Fibre Channel (FC)
Network-Attached Storage (NAS)
Internet Small Computer Systems Interface (iSCSI)

mass storage
Refers to various techniques and devices for storing large amounts of data.

SAN fabric
The hardware that connects workstations and servers to storage devices in a SAN is referred to as a "fabric."

Short for Redundant Array of Independent (or Inexpensive) Disks, a category of disk drives that employ two or more drives in combination for fault tolerance and performance.

storage virtualization
Storage virtualization is the amalgamation of multiple network storage devices into what appears to be a single storage unit. Storage virtualization is often used in SAN (storage area network).

Basic Strategy — Keep it Simple
Storage is an immense and complex universe. Once you enter, your mind is soon swimming in strange, even alien concepts. Therefore, it is best to stick to what you know and keep it very simple — especially at the start. One obvious way to avoid complexity is to use the services of a storage service provider. These are firms that lease storage from their own data centers and other services. The advantage of a storage provider is that the vendor provides a variety of storage options for a fixed cost. This is a handy way to add storage capacity or meet regulatory compliance/archiving requirements without having to build new infrastructure.

Of course, simplicity can be taken to extremes (i.e., attempting to pass the entire storage burden to an external source or keeping everything stored on the same old servers using bigger and better disks). Such a strategy eventually runs into a wall; there is so much data stored on so many servers that it becomes impossible to manage.

Beyond DAS, then, where should the rookie storage guy go to ease his woes? Initially, at least, it might be smart to start with NAS and avoid SANs. At its core, a NAS filer is simply a specialized type of server that connects to the network. Storage is rapidly added by plugging the appliance into a network hub or switch. The likelihood is that the server administrator will run into very little that is new to him by buying a NAS box.

The drawback of NAS is that filers and servers share the same LAN. As a result, network performance may eventually be affected. When that juncture is reached, it may be remedied by upgrading the LAN and adding higher-grade NAS equipment. A more long-term solution would be to roll out the first SAN.

Simple SAN
Undoubtedly, the land of the SAN can be forbidding. Continuing with our theme of simplicity, the transition to a SAN can be made smoother by beginning with rapidly maturing iSCSI technology. iSCSI allows the establishment of a SAN over an IP network. Thus, the IT department does not need to learn new protocols or add new skill sets to create a SAN. This also has the advantage of being much less-expensive than an FC SAN.

iSCSI is especially appropriate for companies with IP backbones capable of handling gigabit traffic. While the technology is improving rapidly, it doesn't offer the same speed or capacities as a heavy-duty FC SAN. Similarly, SANs offer higher speeds and throughput than NAS systems. To do this, they offload data traffic to a separate network for storage devices.

On the negative side of the ledger, however, SANs may have difficulty supporting multiple operating systems and platforms. In addition, some users complain about being unable to integrate SAN solutions from different vendors. SANs don't have to be that big to be valuable or affordable, but they are made up of highly specialized components that require strong internal expertise.

Choose Wisely
The basic strategy for storage is to try to stick with the familiar. NAS and iSCSI are good starting points for competent IT departments already familiar with IP networking. FC SANs, on the other hand, should probably be avoided unless you have very large capacity and require the highest possible performance. If so, it is best to recruit a dedicated storage team to wrestle this beast and bend it to your corporate will. Although the cost and complexity are greater in the short term, the potential long-range payoff is greater than with NAS or iSCSI.

And for those that just don't want to involve themselves in yet another IT skill set, managed storage services now cover the entire spectrum. Sometimes it is just less-expensive, easier, or faster to call in the professionals and leave everything to them.

Did You Know...
The basic strategy for storage is to try to stick with the familiar. NAS and iSCSI are good starting points for competent IT departments already familiar with IP networking. FC SANs, on the other hand, should probably be avoided unless you have very large capacity and require the highest possible performance.

Related Terminology: Webopedia > Hardware > Data Storage

~ By Drew Robb
This article was adapted from Server Watch. The full article can be found here.

Last updated: February 03, 2006

Related Links

Network Storage -- The Basics 
This series of articles looks at the basics of network storage and some of the specific technologies in more detail.

Network Storage Forum 
Business Continuity, Hardware, Industry News, IP Storage, Management, Outsourcing and more for Enterprise Storage.

Fibre Channel Consortium Home Page
Contains group overview information and links to recent activities, contacts, a newsletter, membership information, charter, test suites, and products.

iSCSI - What Does it Mean For Your Storage Network? 
This article answers the following questions: What will iSCSI mean to your storage network? What will iSCSI mean to customers who perhaps had considered storage networking to be too expensive? What will users need to implement an iSCSI based SAN? How will an iSCSI-based SAN compare in terms of performance and cost to Fibre Channel?

EnterpriseNetworkingPlanet provides practical advice and news for running and managing an enterprise network. In-depth articles and news cover topics such as network management, network monitoring, servers, communications, Internet telephony, operating systems, and much more.

Securing iSCSI Using IPSec
IP-based SANs are attractive alternatives to their more expensive and complex Fibre Channel counterparts, but securing IP communications remains a significant concern. This article examines how the IP Security Protocol (IPSec) can ensure the security of an iSCSI storage network's data.

Association of Storage Networking Professionals
An end-user organization with more than 2,000 members that offers plenty of advice, papers, meetings, and discussion forums to help those finding their way in storage.

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