There are some really good Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices on the market. NetApp is one company that is known for making good products . The advantage of a NAS is that you have a device with NVRAM for write-back caching, a filesystem that supports all the necessary features for best performance (NetApp developed their own filesystem WAFL to provide the features they needed), and a set of quality hardware that has been tested and certified to work together.
If you want a cheap NAS then you end up with something running Linux with GPL filesystems. This isn’t a bad thing as such, but some of the best performance and data integrity features are available in ZFS (which isn’t GPL) and BTRFS (which isn’t ready for production use). Not to mention WAFL which has been providing ZFS/BTRFS type features for more than a decade.
A cheap NAS will generally be sold without disks as this is the best way to keep costs down. Selling with disks either means selling lots of different variations (which means it can’t be sold off the shelf) or selling packages that don’t quite suit some customers (thus causing people to buy the device and replace the disks which means extra costs). This means that the vendors can’t provide the guarantees about disk quality and suitability that NetApp can provide.
One major problem with a NAS is that you typically can’t get shell access. Commands such as “rm -rf” and “cp -rl” which are typically rather quick when performed locally can take ages when run over NFS. Also commands such as “grep -R” which can perform reasonably well over NFS will always perform better when run locally. Also tasks such as compiling big programs which require good disk speed as well as some CPU time can be run locally if you have a file server system that also has local accounts (IE a typical multi-user Unix server configuration), but a dedicated NAS will prevent that.
I have never used a NetApp device due to my clients deciding (sometimes correctly and sometimes incorrectly IMHO) that they are too expensive. But when considering what my clients do the down-sides of lacking local code execution on a NetApp would be more than compensated in many cases by the significant performance and reliability advantages that they offer (see my post about the reliability issues in standard RAID implementations ).
A server class system (with ECC RAM as a minimum criteria) running RAID-6 can be a fairly decent file server. That requires hardware RAID with NVRAM for the write-back cache for decent write performance, but when write performance isn’t required software RAID does the job quite well. A Dell tower system will typically hold at least 4 disks which means 6TB of RAID-6 storage and is quite cheap – it can be under $2000. also such a system can be easily expanded with extra Ethernet ports etc. NetApp doesn’t sell products directly and doesn’t list prices, but they do have some adverts for products being “under $7500“. That’s not really cheap but not THAT expensive when you consider the features.
A hidden cost in running a NAS is having someone perform sysadmin work on it. For a relatively expensive device that offers significant features such as a NetApp Filer this expense probably isn’t too great. But for a device that does what any PC running Linux can do it’s noteworthy that more training or experimenting time is required.
There are some special cases where small and cheap NAS appliances really make sense, such as the Apple Time Capsule for home network backups. But apart from that I don’t think that cheap NAS appliances make sense. It seems that cheap NAS devices provide the biggest down-sides of expensive NAS devices (in terms of lacking local access and having a different administration interface to servers) while also having the biggest down-sides of PC servers (lacking the advanced features of WAFL and performance of a NetApp).
Earlier today I started a process of reorganising some backups which included backups to a cheap NAS. I have been very unimpressed by the time taken to copy and rm files over NFS. I’m sure that the job would have been completed hours ago if I had local root access to the NAS.