I have a notion that sometime in the next couple of years, the storage industry will look up and notice a consumer market for network storage that dwarfs anything we've seen before. (Recent numbers from IDC measure a shift from attached storage to network storage that supports this idea.) Having walked among the petabytes in EMC's Hopkinton facility, I'm perhaps making a bold statement. Consumer storage probably isn't even on EMC's radar screen. I call this consumer concept "atomic storage" and suggest that storage systems built from modular parts might eventually replace the large storage frames of today. Although this concept might make you picture a PC displacing a mainframe, I see this approach as a way to consolidate distributed storage.

Some of the small Network Attached Storage (NAS) boxes on the market are the closest we come at the moment to atomic storage. The prototypical NAS box available today is probably the Quantum SnapServer, which Dell has rebranded as the PowerVault 705N. I've worked with a 1U 120GB unit on my small workgroup network, and this storage server solves several troublesome problems.

First, setup is easy. After you plug the unit in, it finds a DHCP server and appears on your network as if it were a server in the Network Neighborhood. (The product also configures using BOOTP and Reverse Address Resolution Protocol—RARP.) Using a UNIX kernel, the OS supports TCP/IP, NetBEUI, ICX, and AppleTalk—and runs an HTTP 1.0 stack. You can access and administer the 705N using your browser. This NAS device supports Common Internet File System (CIFS) for Windows, NFS for UNIX, the Apple File System (AFS), and NetWare Core Protocol (NCP) for NetWare transparently. A file will appear as a file on any of the clients that read these file systems. In work that I do on Solaris, moving files around through the 705N is better than moving them through Services for UNIX 2.0.

Second, the 705N is essentially bulletproof. It can be used with your disk as RAID 0 (simple striping), as RAID 1 (mirrored), or as RAID 5 (striped with parity). Most of the problems I've encountered are DHCP problems from the server. If the unit loses power (shame on me for not backing it up to a UPS), you must use the PowerVault utility to locate the storage server and mount it. Viruses? The system is essentially immune to Windows viruses because it runs UNIX. (UNIX viruses are another matter.)

On a 100BaseT Ethernet network, the 705N is a speedy performer. I ran some tests on a quiescent network just to see what kind of transfer rates I could achieve. I observed 2.5MBps transferred to the storage server and 3.3MBps transferred from the storage server to a Windows client.

Dell's software supports Windows users and groups. It handles security through shares on the PowerVault. For most small networks, that's sufficient. And to return to my point about atomic storage, last I looked, the PowerVault 705N appeared in some of the Dell consumer catalogs, which I hope catches people's attention and helps to popularize this product category. (The market category could use more players.) We need such products to serve home networks, store pictures or MP3 libraries, and handle file serving for a workgroup.

Anyone with reasonable network skills—at the level of understanding TCP/IP addressing and DHCP—will have little problem using such a product. If you're a system administrator responsible for a network of users, a small storage server can really help when your users run out of storage. Given the amount of time it takes to build a file server based on Windows 2000 and Windows NT, this kind of solution makes a lot of sense.