Linux NAS: Does it make sense for you and your customers?

Creating a Linux NAS system by coupling Linux with server and storage hardware that you select can help customers save money, but it might not be best alternative for a low-cost yet feature-rich NAS system.

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When the economy tightens, your customers look for ways to cut costs and you look for ways to be more cost-competitive. That's driving many customers to consider a Linux-based server to replace their current network-attached storage (NAS) solution. Should you help facilitate a move to Linux NAS?

There are certainly reasons to consider this. Linux, especially from a file serving perspective, has come a very long way over the past decade. In particular, Samba, a utility that provides Windows users with the ability to store and retrieve data from a Linux server, has progressed significantly. It supports most of the unique security and metadata attributes that the Windows OS can place on a file. This is important because without proper support of these unique attributes, data security can be compromised, and data loss can occur.

Linux also has incredible flexibility. Not only does it support NFS and CIFS (via Samba), it also supports AppleShare for Macintosh users as well as other, more obscure file sharing protocols. And when configured correctly and placed on the right hardware platform, Linux can provide excellent performance.

Despite its performance and functionality appeal, though, what's really driving IT organizations to the operating system is overall cost, which is typically lower than that of closed-source operating systems, even when using a commercially supported version of the OS, such as Red Hat Linux.

Together, this all means that if you're willing to take on the work of pairing the operating system with server hardware and storage that you supply, you can create a Linux NAS system that's significantly cheaper than the turnkey NAS systems from the major storage vendors.

Drawbacks to Linux NAS

While Linux has improved over the years, its configuration and tuning as a NAS server can be cumbersome, and you might find it not as straightforward as the turnkey NAS systems. While your integration skills may be able to drive out much of this complexity, there will still be operational complexities that you or your customer will have to deal with.

And, at its core, this is not a NAS. It is missing advanced data management features like snapshots and replication and doesn't have the ability, as some NAS systems do, to present block storage either via Fibre Channel or iSCSI, delivering a unified storage platform. Finally, a standard OS has a lot of code attached to it so it can run standard applications. Many NAS systems are task-specific and so don't have that additional code. Less code typically means a faster and more reliable operating system.

Another option: Storage platform software

With definite benefits to recommend it, the question for you becomes: Can you do better? If the primary goal is to provide a low-cost yet feature-rich NAS solution, the answer may very well be yes, in the form of a software product that separates the NAS software functionality from the storage hardware. There are several to choose from: Symantec's FileStore, Sun's ZFS and Nexenta's NexentaStor all can bring NAS functionality to industry-standard servers and storage. Even some of the more cloud-focused storage solutions, like Parascale and Bycast, can provide at least Tier 2 NAS services.

These solutions and the others on the market deliver a range of functionality. Some are focused on performance, some are focused on storage unification (SAN and NAS), and others are focused on massive scalability. All of them, however, allow you to select your own servers and storage and do the integration work to construct a storage platform.

With these storage platform software solutions, you may be able to offer a more robust NAS feature set than with Linux plus non-integrated server/storage hardware. While the upfront costs of such an approach will likely be slightly more expensive than pairing Linux with server and storage hardware, having NAS capabilities built into the software should mean lower operational costs compared with Linux NAS. This should help you and your customers keep incremental costs down.

Given the slight cost differences between the two approaches, whether you'd be better off pursuing the idea of using a commercial product like NexentaStor or stick with Linux will depend on the skills at your company. A Linux expert can do some amazing things with the OS. A more storage focused integrator may want to avoid all the tuning that would be required to build a Linux NAS system.

About the author

George Crump is president and founder of Storage Switzerland, an IT analyst firm focused on the storage and virtualization segments. With 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the United States, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland, George was chief technology officer at one of the nation's largest storage integrators, where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection. Find Storage Switzerland's disclosure statement here.

This was first published in February 2010

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