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Storage appliance, the server alternative

Although small and midsized businesses can, and do, use servers to fill a variety of roles from serving up Web pages to delivering applications, one traditional server role can now be delegated elsewhere very affordably. File and print services remain a regular hallmark for server implementation and use, but alone, they really can't justify the costs of server software licenses and hardware anymore. (This is especially true for Windows Server 2003, where licenses retail for more than $500 and up. However, a case can be made for Open Source server operations systems based on Linux or Unix.)

The reason these costs can't be justified is because several types of appliances designed to provide storage -- and in some cases, print and other services as well -- can fill the same roles for significantly lower costs. In general, let's use the term storage appliance to describe any kind of standalone device that makes storage available to users on a network. This conveniently lets me lump network-attached storage (sometimes abbreviated as

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NAS) along with bus-attached storage (standalone, self-powered storage devices that plug into Universal Serial Bus (USB) or FireWire ports on a computer or other device; for quick reference I refer to these devices from now on as BAS).

In fact, for those unafraid of buying and installing disk drives into empty BAS enclosures -- a job that usually requires only a screwdriver, 15 minutes and a small amount of courage -- it's possible to acquire all the parts necessary to add 200 GB of storage to your network for less than $120! For example, in a circular in today's newspaper as I write this story, a 200 GB Ultra ATA/100 drive is available for $75 after rebate, and a USB 2.0/FireWire drive enclosure that will accommodate that drive for $35 after rebate: net price, including sales tax: $119.05 here in Texas.

The potential issue with BAS devices is that they must be attached to a computer using either USB or FireWire connections, then shared through that machine with the rest of the network. For lightly loaded computers, this is no problem; for machines that see heavier use, the added load of serving files increases as the demand for that storage also goes up. At some point, that machine's user(s) will cry "Uncle" and other options must be found.

That probably explains why the low end of NAS devices starts at around $250 and rises from there (up to enterprise levels at six figures and higher). But despite the incredible range of devices that fit into the NAS category, for less than $300 you can purchase an IOgear box -- the Broadband Office Storage Server, or BOSS -- with 200 GB of storage that attaches directly to 10/100 Ethernet. For added value, the BOSS also includes an FTP server, virtual private network services and cable/DSL modem/router connections. It even acts as a firewall between the Internet and a local network.

Likewise, for less than $500 Linksys offers the EFG120 EtherFast NAS 120GB. This device includes a 120 GB hard disk already installed, with another empty drive bay. Because one could easily fill that bay with the $75 200 GB drive from Fry's mentioned earlier, this more than doubles storage capacity yet keeps the price at less than $600. Because this device also includes a print server (based on the IP-based line printer daemon, lpr) it can stand in for traditional server roles at low cost, with little effort necessary for installation, configuration and management.

In fact, NAS and BAS devices play together well, in that many of the low-end NAS devices include 1 or 2 USB or FireWire ports. This means you can buy a single NAS to interface storage to the network, then add capacity with cheap BAS devices (Fry's has a 200 GB BAS on sale right now for about $180, for those unwilling to buy their own drives and enclosures and put them together themselves). At costs of about $2/GB of storage, this is as cheap as storage gets!

Lots of vendors offer NAS and/or BAS devices. On the NAS front, your best bet is to investigate offerings from mass market network device vendors, such as Linksys, D-Link and IOGear, among many others (search on network storage, network-attached storage or NAS through your favorite search engine or through online retailers like pcconnect.com, Buy.com and so forth).

On the BAS front, most of the major storage vendors now offer such devices (or the parts necessary to put them together yourself), including Seagate Technology Inc., Iomega Corp., Western Digital Corp. and Maxtor Corp., among many others. In fact, both BAS and NAS offerings from less well-known vendors are available for less than $200 (search for external hard drive, USB drive or FireWire drive for best results in this category).

Whether you're simply looking for more storage for your small network, or some combination of file, print, security, Internet access or other services plus storage, chances are pretty good you can find a solution that's both commodious and affordable. If the appliance does the job, then why use a server?


Ed Tittel is a full-time freelance writer, trainer and consultant who specializes in matters related to information security, markup languages and networking technologies. He's a regular contributor to numerous TechTarget Web sites, technology editor for Certification Magazine, and he writes an e-mail newsletter for CramSession called "Must Know News."

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This was first published in January 2005

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