Home > NAS > What Ever Happened to “The Death of the File Server”?

What Ever Happened to “The Death of the File Server”?

Roughly 3 years ago the hype was at an all-time high. Consultants were proclaiming that the file server was dead and that we’d all be using collaborative web-based portals for file sharing in the future (ala SharePoint). So 3 years later where do we stand? The file server (aka Network Attached Storage or NAS) is more popular than ever.

That’s not to say that Sharepoint hasn’t increased dramatically in popularity as well—certainly it has. My intent is not to bash SharePoint, because I think it’s a great product when you use it for what it is best at doing. Rather, I want to investigate why the NAS market has only grown, and why the need for NAS in organizations is increasing particularly with the use of VMware.

I used to be the NAS administrator for a 200+ TB EMC Celerra NAS environment. The Fortune 200 company I was working at started a significant project to implement SharePoint and eliminate traditional file shares. I had to sit thru many meetings with consultants and project managers where I was in attendance to basically give details of the file share environment and discuss plans for how it would “go away”. I would chuckle to myself internally every time, because I knew the file shares weren’t going anywhere, and the hype I kept hearing about how SharePoint would manage everything wasn’t going to play out as planned.

So why was I confident that NAS wasn’t going away from the environment I managed or any environment?

First, out of the 200+ TB at the company I worked at, the amount of data that would be suitable for SharePoint only comprised about ¼ of the total. The rest of the data was highly specialized, atypical formats, or binaries simply not suitable for storage in a SQL database. I would certainly agree that SharePoint is the best medium for storing office documents in a manner so that they can be shared between colleagues or departments, be tracked with versioning, and made searchable thru an easy web-based portal. With the exception of 50MB PPT files that the CEO makes by cutting and pasting images in bmp format, the reality is these office documents usually don’t hog the majority of space on a file server. While it’s often true that office files constitute the majority number of files, usually the majority of space usage is from a smaller number of non-office files. Typically, when I run a free File System Assessment (FSA) for a customer, I find that the majority of space is used by ZIP files, ISO images, or other binary formats. None of these file formats are best served out of a SharePoint environment and should be stored on a NAS device.
 
The second reason why NAS won’t go away is that legacy environments are often too big to accommodate a migration of all user and department shared files into a new repository in a cost effective manner. Obviously, new companies or very small companies may not be hampered by these legacy problems. The bigger the organization the more difficult it is to migrate the data without the cost blowing up to extreme proportions. At that point, the business is going to look at the costs of the migration and then look at the value of the data. Typical user data is seen as having low value. While department files may be very critical, executives that control the purse strings rarely have visibility down into this layer and don’t recognize how much of their business runs on Excel. If you have a file server that dates back to the NT days, imagine all the outdated files that live out there that nobody is willing to delete. If you have file servers this old, there are usually a large number of files with invalid SID’s or corrupted ACL’s that become a real nightmare to migrate. In my former environment, the company would sponsor multiple “clean up” days where it was “mandatory” for employees and departments to clean up their home drives and other file shares to comply with and aggressive records retention policy. How much space was reclaimed from these efforts? Less than 1 percent of the total amount of file server data. What may be junk is often treasured by the person who owns it, and they simply aren’t going to delete the data or they’ll find another place on the network to store it so you simply move the problem from one place to another.

Lastly, let’s discuss why the use of NAS is increasing. First, as we all know the digital age has caused a massive increase in the amount of digital information that needs to be stored. Whether or not you “buy off” on analyst research reports that claim we’ll see 45X growth in the next decade, certainly we will have data growth of some multiple. Again, most of this growth is in the form of rich media, which is not suitable for a SharePoint farm and should be stored on NAS or perhaps a Cloud Storage offering of some kind.

More specifically, I’m seeing a significant increase in the popularity of NAS for VMware environments. First, NFS continues to become more popular as the shared storage sitting behind VMware. Chad Sakac of EMC has a great explanation of some of the more recent benefits you get by using VMware on an EMC Celerra serving out NFS. Additionally, as VMware View increases in popularity, the consolidated storage requirements increase because all of the user data files get centralized. It’s not a good idea to have this lower-value data residing in data stores located on high-performing premium storage. Rather, it makes more sense to centralize this data via user-folder redirection to a centralized CIFS share on a NAS. Once there, it becomes easier to backup and manage. You can also enable additional functionality built into platforms like the EMC Celerra to de-dupe this data on primary storage. Typical user files can be crunched down 30-40%, thereby delaying your next purchase of storage. Perhaps it is a bit ironic, but the hottest trend in technology, specifically virtualization, is only helping to ensure that one of the oldest technologies of the server/client era will continue to not just stick around, but have a bright future.

Note:

For more information on what NOT to put in SharePoint, check here and here.
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