Joining the push toward all-embracing storage gateways comes US company ONStor which this week has opened its first office in the UK.

The company is hoping to steal a march on the market with its gateways that connect to a wide range of disk arrays, support all major operating systems and virtualise the disk behind them for on-the-fly scaling. It is also hugely undercutting the market with products between a third and a half of existing offerings.

It has its work cut out however, with IBM announcing just yesterday that it would give its TotalStorage SAN software a much-needed shot in the arm by expanding it to work with EMC, HP and Hitachi products and also on Linux and Solaris.

NAS gateways have taken off over the last few years as companies have seen the advantage of consolidating file-serving functions into the same network as ERP and CRM applications. In this situation, network-attached storage (NAS) - essentially an operating system, file system and data movers - is deployed as a box without internal disk. It attaches to a storage-attached network (SAN) over Fibre Channel and to the hosts over IP and serves them with files contained on the SAN behind it (see our feature Making sense of storage).

This enables the same storage network to be used for both types of data. To date, however, the companies selling the gateway have usually been the disk vendors. EMC, IBM, HDS and HP all have gateways to attach to their RAID arrays.

ONStor’s product, the SAN Filer, on the other hand, attaches to arrays from IBM, HP, Hitachi, Engenio (formerly LSI) and 3PAR, and is working on certification with other manufacturers. It also claims other technical advantages over the competition.

VP of marketing, Peter Tarrant outlined a few. Firstly, metadata, i.e. the information about where the data is going to be stored on the disks. Tarrant said that, as a later developer of NAS, ONStor developed a more efficient approach to metadata, such that it occupies only around one percent of the disk space available with it. "This compares to 30 percent to 40 percent of the disk attached to NetApp’s header that must be given over to metadata," he argued.

Secondly, there is the SAN Filer’s handling of CIFS. "Gateways such as IBM’s serve files to Windows clients using SAMBA," said ONStor’s UK managing director, Andy Pinkard, "which is fine unless you’re doing simultaneous protocol support, i.e. sharing with Unix clients - at which point there are compatibility issues. In corner cases, you’ll break the application." ONStor, on the other hand, has reverse engineered CIFS to overcome the issue.

Finally and most significantly, ONStor can virtualise both the disk sitting behind the filer and the filers themselves. On the disk side, this means further capacity can be added into the virtual pool without reconfiguration, and on the filer side, that any one of them can go down without interfering with the file serving process, since they are all attached to the virtual disk pool.

This is akin to the technology NetApp acquired in December when it bought Spinnaker Networks, the difference being that its avowed intent is to make it available only on NetApp kit.

So is there actually a market for independently marketed NAS gateways from companies without a disk agenda? If you were, says, an IBM SAN customer, wouldn’t you just phone Big Blue and ask them to send over a gateway to enable you to do file serving from your SAN? Yes and no, says Pinkard. "They are weaker on CIFS because of SAMBA, which is why our first reseller in the UK is an IBM partner, Tectrade. They joined us because it gave them a NAS gateway they can sell with IBM disk," he commented.

Rick Russ, sales director at Source Consulting, a UK storage consultancy, said another scenario in which there will definitely be a market for the ONStor products is "when a company has heterogeneous legacy disk arrays in a SAN and wants to serve files from all of them." He argued that ONStor will have greater difficulty penetrating blue-chip FTSE 100 companies, where it will come up against policies mandating which vendors they can buy from, "but outside that, in government or education where they’re cost conscious and open, it should get greater acceptance."

Price is another factor on which ONStor is competing. It offers two models, the entry level SF4420, for £47,000, and the larger SF4440, for £65,000. "That works out to between a half and a third the price of the header part of an equivalent NetApp box, i.e. discounting the disk part of their filer," said Tarrant.

Hamish Macarthur, a director of storage analysts Stroud Macarthur, said ONStor needs "a good high-end customer such as someone in geo-physical research or digital media to gain leverage." Since its equipment is certified, but not supported by, the leading disk vendors, he added, "support in heterogeneous environments will also be a challenge."

Pinkard argued that the company has solved that issue by contracting with IBM Global Services to support its products, regardless of which arrays they are connected to.