Before I begin, I’d like to thank Gavin Spurgeon for his assistance in verifying my work and assisting in my understanding of the technologies used here. Up until recently this technology was a new topic for me. Thanks Gav.
All customers who have any sized infrastructure, be it large or small, will require a storage solution of some form. The solution of choice will always be subject to finding the right solution for the job. This could be a standard file server for small customers, a NAS (Network Attached Storage) or in the case of medium to large sized infrastructures, even a Fibre Channel or iSCSI SAN (Storage Area Network).
This article will focus specifically on NAS type solutions, however will reference in comparison to file servers and SAN solutions in parts.
What is a File Server?
A file server is essentially a normal server (be it physical or virtual), which is configured to share file resources to network based clients. The storage capacity is locally configured and can generally only be expanded to a very limited amount. High availability is generally not an option, due to the nature of how the server is formed.
What is a NAS?
A NAS, to a degree is just a file server, however instead of running a normal operating system like Windows, Linux, UNIX etc, it is provided with a custom operating environment that is designed to be very user friendly and removes the overhead of managing a server. NAS solutions appeal to customers as they are “plug it in, and lets go” products. Here simplicity is a huge selling point. Depending on your solution of choice, you may also have varying levels of redundancy build in.
What is a SAN?
A SAN takes the concepts of file servers and NAS solutions and then takes it to a whole new level. Redundancy against power, controller, network, and even disk failure is all built in. Large capacities and the ability to scale to suit the business needs are available right out of the box. This is also generally the most expensive of the 3 solutions.
NAS solutions are very similar in comparison to a file server with both being devices attached to a network of some form. Both serve files to remote clients, both can be built to allow large(ish) volumes of data to serve customer growth, but unfortunately also have very limited capabilities in the area of redundancy. It is this reason, a backup should also be taken regularly of your NAS, just as you would your file server.
If a customer is looking into a NAS solution, the great thing about them is you have complete choice of what solution you chose.
This could be a vendor supplied device from a hardware manufacturer like HP or Dell, or it could also be a build-it yourself type solution which takes a normal every day server, combined with an open source NAS style turn-key Operating System that is specifically tailored for that purpose. I have used FreeNAS and OpenFiler for years and they work brilliantly.
Open Source turn-key NAS solutions are fantastic for turning commodity hardware into an enterprise grade storage solution, however the biggest component FreeNAS and OpenFiler are missing is Enterprise Support. At the end of the day, you are taking a huge risk running your organization from something centralized, where if it fails, you will have no one to help get your business back online again should the worst happen.
The good news in the area of Open Source NAS solutions now, is that Red Hat have released an ‘appliance’ like turn-key solution where you have all the great features of turning commodity hardware into a NAS, but they also give fantastic enterprise grade support of the product as well.
You can find out more about “Red Hat Storage Server” here