Customer Information is Your Company's Life-Blood - Part V

In the world of network storage, up until very recently, companies were faced with a tough decision: choose between the high performance of a Storage Area Network (SAN) or the file sharing capabilities of Network Attached Storage (NAS). The essential difference comes down to a centralized versus a distributed approach. And each has its own hotly contested benefits and drawbacks, each its own proponents and detractors.

NAS and SAN: Say Farewell To Arms

New data routing software enables the best of both worlds.

In the world of network storage, up until very recently, companies were faced with a tough decision: choose between the high performance of a Storage Area Network (SAN) or the file sharing capabilities of Network Attached Storage (NAS). The essential difference comes down to a centralized versus a distributed approach. And each has its own hotly contested benefits and drawbacks, each its own proponents and detractors.

The essential difference comes down to a centralized versus a distributed approach.

The essential difference comes down to a centralized versus a distributed approach. With the advent of new technology that merges the best of both worlds, discussing it in these "either/or" terms may soon be a thing of the past. But the level of debate reflects how important storage architecture has become in the age of customer relationship management (CRM) and the Internet.

But first, how did we get into this storage "holy war"? As more businesses attempt to unify customer information across all customer-facing channels, the physical way data is stored, accessed, and managed has become more important, and the amount of data itself has skyrocketed. The Internet also has played a key role, completely changing the requirements for file sharing at the enterprise level.

In the past, data storage just wasn't that complicated. Companies would often simply buy a new server and storage for each new application. But imagine a company today buying 100 copies of SAP, for example, and putting each on a different Windows NT server. The result would not only be a bad case of "storage bloat" but a terrible strain on a traditional file-sharing network. And this dramatically complicates the integration of customer data.

SAN - For High Performance Database Access

Clearly, new strategies were needed. The answer, in many cases, was to centralize and consolidate in the form of a SAN. Designed to move data quickly from one point to another without data loss, SANs are channel-based networks connecting hosts to storage disk arrays.

By hooking up all the storage in a central location, or at facilities located near each other, each server draws on just one pool of data. A SAN can even treat storage units in different locations as a joint pool, since its 100 megabits per second transfer rate minimizes any sense of delay. As a separate entity from the other parts of an enterprise network, SANs also isolate storage traffic from other data flows, eliminating bottlenecks.

According to Mike Kahn and Anne MacFarland of The Clipper Group, SANs are the technology of choice for database management systems such as Oracle and SQL Server, and applications such as CRM and ERP, which use databases as the underlying structure, because of the way they are designed. "Applications that write to volumes (like database management systems) demand SAN connectivity," say Kahn and MacFarland.

NAS - For Universal Access to Files

On the other hand, many Internet-based applications are driven by a need to share access to the same files, in which case NAS may be the answer. The question to ask, say Kahn and MacFarland, is "where does the sharing occur?" If it is at the file level, where many, sometimes large, files need to be shared, typically by diverse servers, then NAS is the way to go.

NAS is the way in which hosts connect to common, or shared, information over an Internet Protocol (IP) network through a file server, which makes upgrades easy to handle and management is simplified.

But since the IP network is often congested, high-bandwidth, rich-content files like audio and video can be a real challenge to share. Reliability is also a factor, since IP networks typically drop five to 15 percent of the data they transmit--not a problem if you're sending to an e-mail server and the e-mail can be re-sent--but a definite problem if you're updating a database.

The real solution, of course, is to use a combination of the two approaches. And for the most part, that is exactly what smart IT managers have been doing. Though until now, it hasn't exactly been easy.

A Unified Future

With the introduction of a new data routing software tool from EMC called HighRoad, IT managers now have a way to enable NAS and SAN environments to work together. Used in conjunction with EMC's Celerra File Server, HighRoad intercepts a request for data off the IP network, and identifies the size of the response, and according to pre-set, configurable limits, decides whether the response should be transmitted over the IP network or via the SAN. If the requested file is small, HighRoad directs Celerra to just send along the information over the IP network. But if the request is large-scale, HighRoad sends the request directly to the SAN.

By load balancing in this way, the software achieves a striking improvement in response times. Another, and important benefit is that now you can easily manage both the SAN and NAS environments from a single control center with one, consistent set of tools.

This promising new development is opening up an exciting future in which SAN and NAS can both be used to better manage customer relationships. In the storage infrastructures of the future, large-scale data centers will store petabytes of information to take advantage of economies of scale. And they, in turn, will be connected to distributed nodes at the network's edge, bringing information closer to users.

In such a scenario, the war is over. Harmony and peace reign between NAS and SAN. And businesses can get back to their most important task: understanding and serving their customers' needs at every touch point across all channels, ensuring that the data is always available, reliable, and quick to access.

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