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SAN Vs. NAS: From No Contest To Fair Fight?

Today, there are still vast differences between NAS and SAN technology. According to one expert, however, that gap may be closing quickly.
Today, there are still vast differences between NAS and SAN technology. According to one expert, however, that gap may be closing quickly.Henry Newman is an Enterprise Storage Forum contributor with nearly 30 years of industry experience. He knows that many companies today ask the same questions about NAS versus SAN that they were asking nearly a decade ago. The answers to those questions, however, appear to be in flux: The following words were written on this site back in 2002, when Drew Bird was writing about the basics of storage area networks (SANs).

"Many IT organizations today are scratching their heads debating whether the advantages of implementing a SAN solution justify the associated costs. Others are trying to get a handle on today's storage options and whether SAN is simply Network Attached Storage spelled backwards."

Truer words could not have been written, and they still ring true today. I am fond of saying that there are no new engineering problems, just new engineers solving old problems. Today SAN and NAS still dominate the market. Many of the tradeoffs are the same, but change is coming. Newman admits that on the surface, things still look pretty much the same: SAN is far more scalable than NAS in terms of both performance and size; NAS still wins hands-down when it comes to cost and ease of management.

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Yet some big changes are on the way for NAS technology. File system performance improvements, coupled with the rise of 10GbE networking technology that can outperform Fibre Channel as a much lower cost, will combine to blur the scalability advantages that long distinguished SAN technology.

The upshot, according to Newman: "If you combine NFSv4.1, 10GbE and a scalable NAS file system, the three combined could make SANs a thing of the past. Why would anyone want to use more expensive, more complex technology with less functionality and a more difficult management framework?

"Obviously, the answer is no one."

For companies with existing storage networking infrastructures, this may only matter in the long run. "Convergence" is not shorthand for "fix what ain't broken."

For those considering new storage networking solutions or major upgrades, however, convergence is clearly a game-changing trend. If NAS can close the gap with SAN in terms of performance and scalability, then both will have to compete on cost and complexity. And for now, it looks like NAS still holds the upper hand on both counts.