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NAS purchasing: Moving from file servers to NAS

The channel has been moving from file servers to NAS for storage over the past few years. Ease of use, virtualization capabilities and layering is making NAS more attractive to VARs and customers looking for a turn key storage solution.

Customers are looking to network-attached storage (NAS) again, primarily for its ease of use and file control that can be easily build into NAS offerings.

Moving from file servers to networked storage

While NAS hasn't turned into an overnight sensation, it has steadily regained popularity in enterprise, midmarket and small businesses over the past few years, said Dan Smith, manager enterprise solutions for GTSI Corp.

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"Before NAS started making a resurgence, IT shops were installing file servers. It wasn't a big deal to manage at first," said Smith. "By the time the 12th and 13th file server were installed it was becoming a problem. By the time the 20th was installed, the file servers were just unmanageable."

As those file servers were sprawling out of control, NAS systems became simpler to integrate into enterprise environments, which has lead to their steady reemergence.

"We haven't seen a big spike in NAS lately. It's been gaining popularity the last handful of years. Instead, customers and IT shops have steadily been putting NAS into their environments," said Smith.

VARs have been leading the way with NAS installations because they recognize the technology can meet customer needs. NAS is easy to install and use, and can easily be scaled up to suit any enterprise.

"The big server vendors haven't been huge supporters of this movement because it hurts their server sales," said Smith. "As such, the VAR community has been well suited to perform their traditional value proposition of offering customers an alternative by focusing on innovative solutions instead of working directly with the big OEMs."

Network attached storage for virtual environments

Customers are starting to ask their VARs to install NAS in their shops because the trend is to go virtual, said Mike Jude, research director for Ptak and Noel Associates.

"If a company is based on physical infrastructure, they invest in filing cabinets. But, what has caught on lately is investing in logical and network infrastructure, and enabling employees to work from anywhere," said Jude. "In this environment, storage is the enabler."

Employees must be able to access online storage quickly and reliably. Installing NAS in a shop will help push customers virtual.

"NAS is easy for customers to use right away," said Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst for StorageIO. "You can plug NAS in and it is ready to go."

VARs should be enumerating these NAS benefits to their customers when selling and discussing the technology. The plug-and-play aspect of NAS will allow customers to begin virtualizing their files and servers almost immediately.

"20 years ago, the PC was just coming onto the scene. Why were they so popular? It's because they were easy to use," said Schulz. "They plug in, work and then proliferated all over the place. NAS is easy to use and provides flexibility for storage and data. With NAS, there is a layer of management, virtualization and transparency -- that makes it easy to plug in."

Nuts and bolts aside, VARs should be able to recognize the business advantages that NAS virtualization offers customers.

"Businesses are becoming virtualized. VARs understand that," said Jude. "NAS is a technology that enables a virtualized business approach, and most virtualized companies are storage intensive."

For VARs trying to approach a customer, selling virtualization is a matter of the customer's philosophy.

"You can build a building and store people's brains in it for close collaboration or a customer can build a storage warehouse that enables the same thing virtually," said Jude.

Time to replace file servers

Once that data warehouse is established, NAS can really begin to shine in a customer's shop.

"More customers are looking to VARs to use NAS to replace file servers. It's been gaining steam because file virtualization is becoming marketable by vendors. Before, you could only get enterprise class NAS from EMC -- now you can get it from 20 different vendors," said Smith.

NAS availability has resulted in a push on the channel, which, in turn, has ramifications on IT shops everywhere.

"As the vendors grow and new players come to the field, people are pushing this through the channel," said Smith.

The growth in vendors and channel opportunities is surprisingly similar to the opportunities that VARs should enumerate to their customers. File virtualization allows for more agile and readily available data. Customers understand the excellent business opportunities that this presents, but may not know how to achieve it. VARs, on the other hand, understand the technology and should be able to sell it as a solution.

Selling virtualization with NAS

Providing file and server virtualization with NAS can change customers understanding of NAS. The misunderstanding of the technology and its capabilities occurs because customers don't realize that NAS can be used in many different ways.

"I ask customers if they are running NAS all the time," said Schulz. "They usually say no. Then I ask if they have any Windows files sharing. Of course they do. NFS on Unix systems? Of course. But they still don't run NAS."

Some customers think NAS is file sharing while others believe it is a product instead of an approach.

"NAS can offload Windows servers, aggregate them and consolidate them for more effective management," said Schulz.

To solve this problem and get customers to buy into a NAS approach, the conversation needs to be changed.

"VARs shouldn't be selling NAS. They should be selling server consolidation, which will lower TCO and improve flexibility, agility and the ability to add resources on the fly," said Smith. "All of this can be achieved using NAS."

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