... if you choose the right device for your environment

I recently spoke to a local IT shop's administrators about problems they were experiencing with their entry-level Network Attached Storage (NAS) device. Apparently, the NAS device's encounter with the recent Nimda virus was the last straw in the company's decision to remove the device from service. Because the appliance's proprietary OS could act only as a file server, the shop couldn't install software to actively shield the NAS volumes from the virus. The shop also had problems integrating its Windows network security with the built-in NAS security, so remote users couldn't access files on the NAS device.

This isolated NAS experience seemed to provide strong evidence that my initial anti-NAS stance was well founded. I suspected that the shop wouldn't have experienced such problems if it had used good old-fashioned server-based storage, which provides all the management amenities that a server's OS affords. I realized that I'd just gained some good fodder for this column. When I tried to make a list of NAS disadvantages, however, I kept discovering advantages.

One key benefit of NAS is its ease of installation and administration. Systems administrators can use NAS appliances to quickly add gigabytes—even terabytes—of storage space to a network, and Windows, UNIX, Macintosh, and Novell NetWare systems can access that storage. NAS appliances can also help you distribute traffic from network file operations, and some devices offer built-in capabilities to help you streamline backups.

The appeal of fast, reliable, scalable, multiplatform storage that requires minimal administration is obvious. However, when deciding on a NAS device, many administrators underestimate the importance of choosing the right NAS appliance for their network. Although a NAS device's primary responsibility is to provide inexpensive network-accessible storage, you can ill afford to choose an appliance based on cost per gigabyte alone.

When you're deciding which NAS appliance best suits a particular need in your organization, be sure to consider its OS. You might think that because NAS devices are Plug and Play (PnP) appliances, you don't need to consider which OS runs inside these boxes. However, the OS is important because it's the foundation from which a product derives many of its strengths and weaknesses.

Today, most NAS appliances run on an embedded Windows, UNIX/Linux, or proprietary OS. Windows-powered appliances are probably the best bet for Windows-dominated IT environments because you can use standard Windows-management mechanisms such as Microsoft Management Console (MMC), Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI), and terminal services—in addition to any vendor-provided Web-based interface—to manage these appliances.

But Windows certainly isn't your only choice. Vendors that use custom UNIX kernels and proprietary OSs are working hard to ensure that their appliances conform to widely used security models, such as Active Directory (AD) and Kerberos authentication. You also need to ensure that your NAS appliance cooperates with your backup, antivirus, and network-storage schemes.

Take a closer look at what you need in your environment. With a little persistence, you'll probably find a NAS device that fills those needs and saves you time and money.