It's no secret that the storage market for small-to-medium-size businesses (SMB) is growing rapidly. It's also no secret that networked storage is supplanting direct-attached storage (DAS) at a rapid rate, with NAS -- as opposed to SAN -- being the network storage technology of choice for SMBs.

Smaller companies have less of an IT infrastructure, and many can't afford to have a dedicated IT person, much less an IT department. For those SMBs that do have IT resources, a storage-area network (SAN) server takes a lot more of their time than a network-attached storage (NAS) appliance, and it requires a Fibre Channel storage networking professional to manage it on a regular basis.

NAS is a lot less costly and complex to manage, and it's easier and cheaper than SANs when it comes to increasing storage capacity. NAS is suitable not only for SMBs but also for workgroups and departments of large organizations that need large amounts of very economical storage that is easy to deploy, centrally manage and consolidate.

The growing SMB acceptance of NAS, however, is not simply a matter of lower pricing and easier manageability. It's also about "commoditizing" multiterabyte storage in the range of one to two terabytes through a value-priced bundle containing protocols, filers and storage that also addresses the needs for scalability, performance and availability. In addition, many smaller companies are relying on NAS for file sharing, data consolidation and backup consolidation.

Several key forces are driving change in the NAS market as it continues to mature, including improved management capabilities and the natural migration of enhanced features and functionality into entry-level and midrange segments. Disk-to-disk backup is also gaining ground, as the price gap between rotating media and tape continues to narrow. More and more SMBs are benefiting from snapshots with disk-to-disk and disk-to-disk-to-tape topologies, which dramatically shrinks the backup window.

SATA-based storage
Price-sensitive SMBs that don't want to compromise their storage needs are beginning to adopt NAS storage based on serial ATA (SATA) technology. The emergence of SATA drives and mechanisms has created a new class of storage that's less than half the cost of Fibre Channel-based storage. While both the performance and reliability of SATA drives did pose some early issues, these have been largely improved by the development of new, advanced drives that offer fast access times and acceptable reliability.

Now that the old concerns about SATA-based storage have receded, the emphasis has shifted to price, density and capacity. There are new NAS appliances on the market selling in the $5,000 to $10,000 range that employ SATA drives for cost savings and scalability. These are packaged in low-profile 1U chasses, and they provide up to 1.6TB of storage capacity at less than $5 per gigabyte.

Some of these SATA-based NAS appliances are feature-rich, with enterprise-class operating systems, dual Gigabit Ethernet ports and hot-swappable SATA drives. They even offer such high-end functionalities as many-to-one mirroring for organizations that need to more efficiently manage the consolidation of data at multiple locations.

From a market standpoint, perhaps the biggest trend for NAS outside the enterprise is in emerging vertical applications enabled by cost-effective NAS architectures. Many of these applications -- driven by business and technical factors unique to particular vertical markets -- involve rich media handled in an industry-specific way. Examples include replacing hard copy images (paper and film) with disk-based storage and substituting networked disk storage for audio and videotape in content distribution and archiving.

Facilitating medical environments
Many hospitals and clinics, for instance, are implementing picture archive communication systems (PACS) that use NAS-connected disks to store medical images from x-ray, CT, MRI, ultrasound and other imaging modalities. The most advanced medical imaging studies may involve a stream of high-resolution images in which the view is rotated in three dimensions, requiring the storage subsystem to store large image files and deliver them as high-resolution streaming video images.

While PACS have traditionally used DAS or SAN storage, their requirements are ideally suited for high-performance, cost-effective NAS implementations. As a result, they are being used for both the short-term and long-term storage of medical images. In the U.S., a major factor in the growth of PACS storage is the need to comply with regulatory demands imposed by HIPAA. These regulations mandate strong patient privacy protections and other requirements regarding the preservation and use of medical records, and they are driving demand for cost-effective mirroring and archiving solutions.

GIS apps
Another growth market for NAS involves organizations in industries that deploy image-based applications in combination with geographic information systems (GIS) data, which is frequently used for mapping. Government agencies notwithstanding, many of these organizations are small-and-medium-size companies, but their storage needs are often huge, because GIS image production requires large amounts of storage, fast I/O and efficient backup.

Accordingly, major GIS software vendors and systems integrators are including NAS filers in their offerings, claiming their high performance in pulling image information from disk increases engineering productivity and decreases costs. Consolidation is another selling point because NAS appliances enable the centralized maintenance of production data and large amounts of disk storage, so images can be kept on a single disk-based system rather than on multiple servers and backup tapes.

Enabling unified telecom solutions
In the telecommunications market, despite the economic pressures facing major carriers, network operators must add new services and enhancements to win or retain subscribers, and to sustain or increase revenue per subscriber. Equipment vendors are using NAS to let service providers deliver integrated, cost-effective solutions for such services as voicemail, unified messaging, Web conferencing and voice recognition. Because carriers prefer to buy turnkey solutions that meet industry-specific requirements, such as Network Equipment Building System compliance, NAS appliance vendors are starting to offer products that meet these demands.

The broadcast media market is also adopting NAS storage solutions, driven mainly by video-on-demand and streaming media applications. In a related market, NAS is starting to catch on as the storage component of Web-disk services, a fast emerging industry. More and more service providers are offering customers on-line virtual disk space that allows users to securely store and quickly access their computer files, movies and music from any Internet-connected computer.

NAS is a good fit in this environment, where storage appliances connect with many servers running the same program. Many colleges and universities are providing Webdisk services for their students, who usually can't carry enough storage around with them. With Webdisk, it's available wherever they log in - their dorm, school library or local Starbucks.

It's hard to predict the future of NAS in the SMB market, but the general trend of higher storage capacities, increased speed and lower costs is likely to continue - driven by new applications and new regulations that are propelling the storage needs of SMBs to the level where enterprise storage needs were, not too long ago.

Carlos Ortiz is director of product marketing at Procom Technology Inc. He can be reached at [email protected]