Skip to main content
Message Font: Serif | Sans-Serif
No. of Recommendations: 53
I've recently been working on my NTAP report for the Ten Stocks That Will Rule The World (yes I know I should be studying for my exams). I've compiled most of my information from research reports, articles and the company's web site. Therefore much of it has some bias, I was hoping people here could read it over and make some suggestions if I have misinterpreted something or have received inaccurate information. This is only the first draft. Because there are two competing technologies in the storage market (NAS and SAN) I decided to compare them both, find the most promising and then concentrate on the company that would dominate that technology.

Note: This is NOT a Gorilla Game Report.

**Warning** This is pretty long.

Enjoy :-)


Network Appliance (NTAP)


As the Information Revolution shifts into high gear, one thing has become increasingly clear, it is next to impossible to accurately predict where the new technologies are headed. Something that we do know is that it will be dominate our lives. Now we must ask ourselves, where are we going to store all of that information? The Internet, for instance, is getting huge. As more companies move online, the need for efficient, reliable storage will grow at an exponential rate. Corporations are finding that knowing more about their customers is a key competitive advantage. Where are they going to store the information they compile about their customers?

Over the last decade, we have watched as investors grew fascinated with the rise of the microprocessor and bought Intel, They became fascinated with networking and bought Cisco. Now it is likely that they will become fascinated with storage and buy companies like EMC, Veritas, Brocade, and Network Appliance.

The appetite of data is unquenchable; it expands to fill whatever storage space is available. Suppliers of storage equipment and applications seem to have an industry with almost limitless potential. A succession of industry research reports suggest that the market for data storage products will rival the market for computer systems in value over the next few years on the back of a compound annual growth rate of over 60%. It is precisely the Internet, but specifically e-business and the volume of data it generates that is driving the growth in the storage market. Companies are re-centralizing processing and storage requirements to meet the demands of running and maintaining e-businesses. High availability and continuous availability are key: no availability means no company. According to international Data Corp. (IDC), the total installed terabytes of storage worldwide has grown from 20,000 terabytes (terabyte = 1000 gigabytes) in 1993 to 3 million terabytes in 2000 and there's no end in sight.

Competing Technologies

There are three main models for storage. Right now, most storage is in a hard drive that is attached to a server or desktop machine. This type of storage is known as Server Attached Storage (SAS). In this case, the storage is the slave to the processor/server master. The second model is the Storage Area Network (SAN) model. Here, a network of storage devices such as hard drives and tape drives is set up and attached to the server with specialized software and hubs. The final model is the Network Attached Storage (NAS). Here, there is a central stack of storage that many servers connect to. In effect, the slave has become the master.

Server Attached Storage (SAS)

Early mainframe storage designs took the premise that disk storage, which was cheaper than main memory, could be treated as an extended virtual memory. To achieve the fast data, access, the data paths (or channels) between storage and processor were widened and accelerated. SAS architecture dominated the scene for many years.

The primary handicap of SAS comes from the tight coupling between storage and the operating system. These general purpose servers performed a variety of tasks concurrently, from running applications, manipulating databases, file/print serving, providing communications, checking data-integrity to many housekeeping functions. This meant that all data access requests from a client must continuously compete with these tasks. As the number of users accessing the common centralized data storage increases, the file access takes a back seat to other tasks leading to slow response time for queries.


Suppliers of discrete storage hardware and software products believe users will increasingly purchase storage separately from computer systems. A dedicated storage system will depend less on the server CPU which must handle other tasks in addition to routing data. A storage system can be designed to perform more specific functions. It can be extended and managed independently and eliminates many of the I/O bottlenecks imposed by running storage applications on general purpose operating systems supported by traditional servers.

As mentioned above, when choosing how their data is to be marshalled, there are really two alternative storage choices emerging in addition to conventional server/storage combinations. Suppliers of storage area networks (SAN) and network attached storage (NAS) equipment each claim they are best placed to service the storage requirements of e-business. SAN and NAS, are together expected to account for half of the storage market by 2005 with traditional storage networks accounting for the remainder. IDC estimates the NAS market alone will be worth at least $5.1 billion by 2003, up from $540 million in 1998. As incredible as that sounds, IDC estimates are not even at the high end of predictions. Market research firm Dataquest Inc., expects sales of NAS devices to hit $10.5 billion in that time. Many believe that computers should not be file servers at all, they're awkward to manage because they were designed for some other purpose, mainly computation. Both of these technologies are faster, simpler and more reliable because they're customized to this set of application requirements, being mainly information access and data access. The thing that most people have trouble believing is that these technologies will provide information access over a network that's faster than a local disk in most cases. Because of technology shifts, the bottleneck is now the disk drive itself and no longer the network interface.

Network Attached Storage (NAS)

NAS appliances are specialized servers optimized for file sharing. These appliances attach directly to the LAN and enable IT departments to efficiently expand network storage capacity at reduced cost through specialized designs. NAS is a system independent, shareable storage that is connected directly to the network and is accessible directly by any number of heterogeneous clients (ie. Unix & WinNT, Netware) or other servers. NAS file servers are essentially stripped down servers specifically designed for file serving and offloading file management services from the more expensive application servers. Unlike with SAS technology, where the system administrator had to take down the system in order to add storage, with NAS, you can add storage at random without disrupting the network. As business operations become more global and around the clock, more and more applications are demanding 24X7 uptime. NAS provides 99.9% availability (8 hours per year of downtime) and in some cases, can provide 99.99% (1 hour of downtime per year). NAS devices are also relatively easy to set up with simple plug-and-play devices requiring no server downtime. After plugging a NAS server onto a network and assigning an IP address, setting up control lists and user permissions, it's done and accomplished in as little as 15 minutes. This is because the NAS server boards integrate the Ethernet connection, the SCSI (or Fibre Channel) controller-to-disk connections, the operating system and boot up software all on one simple card. The new system now allows clients to directly access data without burdening the application servers, greatly enhancing the performance of the network.

One of the major shortcomings of NAS storage architecture is that the network on which NAS runs is also used for data access by clients to retrieve data from the file server or communicate with application servers. The data movement between the disk and tape servers also goes over the same LAN. This can potentially create network bottlenecks when the number of users increases. Because NAS runs over the LAN, it also moves at that slow speed. While NAS works well for documents, file manipulation and transaction based applications, it is not necessarily most advantageous for database applications because it is file-oriented. Also, for high bandwidth video applications, NAS slows down since the shared network on NAS gets clogged fast with multiple large files and starts to become a bottleneck.

Storage Area Networks (SAN)

A SAN is a dedicated high performance network to move data between heterogeneous servers and storage resources. Being a separate dedicated network allows it to avoid any traffic conflict between clients and servers. Adopting SAN technology through the use of Fibre Channel and hubs and switches allows high speed server to storage, storage to storage or server to server connectivity. Using a separate network infrastructure mitigates problems associated with existing network connectivity. SANs also have the potential to allow cable lengths up to 500 meters today and up to 10 km in the future so servers in different buildings can share external storage devices. SAN enables concurrent access of disk or tape arrays by two or more servers at high speeds across fibre channel, providing enhanced system performance. Data moves at the 200 Mbps of Fibre Channel rather than the Internet-type speeds of the LAN.

One of the shortcomings with SAN technology that needs to be sorted out is whether Fibre Channel or Ethernet will be the standard. EMC sees FC and Ethernet coexisting for some time but believes the new SAN standards will not deliver interoperability. EMC thinks the standards are too high-level and do not specify the implementation detail needed. One vendor's products will most likely not work with others (unless you are using only vendors from EMC's Fibre Alliance). Cost is another problem with SAN technology, companies must install an entirely new storage network in order to implement SAN, something that could cause some reluctance in the marketplace.

And The Winner Is...

Both NAS and SAN have their strengths and weaknesses. SAN's have a speed advantage over NAS because they operate on a separate and (at present) faster Fibre Channel network while NAS uses the existing LAN. This difference will become less of an issue as companies begin deploying new gigabit Ethernet technology which is 10X faster than present LAN. There is also growing awareness of the coming of 10 gigabit Ethernet, likely two years away and another ten fold increase in speed. This will be a significant boost to the NAS value proposition and increase its prominence in enterprise storage architecture. The typical SAN installation issues block level commands directly into the Fibre Channel doing away with the protocol layer (IP) of NAS solutions. Generally it is better to work with these commands for large sequential data applications, such as streaming video, since block level commands are more efficient and large amounts of data can be moved with little overhead. An advantage for NAS is that it is ready now, SANs are not. Today's SANs limit buyers to products from one or two companies. In contrast, NAS avoids the interoperability issue by accessing files through standards such as Ethernet and NFS and CIFS file systems. NAS is so simple to deploy that customers can trial the product before buying, a relatively difficult chore with SANs. Increasing data volumes and complexity are causing many companies to consider outsourced storage from vendors like Storage Networks. NAS could well be a fixture among such service providers.

It's my belief that in a head to head battle, the simple NAS appliance should easily beat complex SANs over the long term as the superior storage standard. George Gilder's storewidth view argues that NAS "wastes" the "cheap" technologies of drives and bandwidth while SANs depend on more expensive microprocessors and labour. There will not be a need for specialized storage networks if the general network can easily support key storage applications such as the backing up of data. For most e-commerce companies cost plays an important role in product decisions, for these companies NAS will be the obvious choice. Does this mean that SANs are doomed over the long term? Not necessarily, for the high end customer where price is less of a factor, many have touted a combined NAS/SAN combination as the optimal storage solution. While today SAN and NAS are often thought of as alternatives, most vendors on both sides consider the technologies to be complementary. Even IDC breaks out NAS and SAN in its projections. NAS and SAN are each projected to grow at a 66% compound rate through 2003. Although the combined NAS/SAN market is only 8% of the market today, IDC projects it will grow to 34% by 2003. Many believe this projection to be too conservative.

For this market, NAS and SAN are converging into a combined world running IP (over Ethernet). In order to capture both of these growth markets, vendors are looking to run file and block level commands over IP. This will give users much more flexibility. As I stated above, although Ethernet may not be as efficient as Fibre Channel for certain applications, the massive growth in Ethernet performance in the next couple of years will make this a non-issue for the large majority of applications. Customers will be able to run HTTP, e-mail, database, video and OLTP applications over an increasingly fast IP network. In this combined world, every storage device is attached to the network. Some devices, however, will take in file commands (ex. NetApp filers) and some will accept block commands (ex. New EMC Symmetrix). This combined world should significantly accelerate the growth of the NAS/SAN market. What makes this combined world attractive is that:

1) Customers already know how to operate an Ethernet network
2) The network environment is good at file level commands and block level commands
3) There can be one network that is used for everything
4) Filers from different vendors can operate on the same network.
5) Any vendor's IP accepting block level devices (blockers) will also run on the same network.
6) Ultra high-speed D-WDM-based IP networks of the future can be exploited as soon as they become available.

The basic conclusion here is that NAS will dominate the majority of the market with its more economical solution. Network Appliances' NAS product NetApp had an average selling price last year of $80,000 per system. SAN solutions from the likes of EMC can often cost well over a million dollars. At the higher end of the market customers will use a combination NAS/SAN solution.

The Company

Now that I've finally clarified the two competing technologies and which is superior, we must now focus on the company that is best positioned to take advantage of this exploding market, Network Appliance. Network Appliance has been a leader in network attached storage since 1992. They pioneered the appliance concept for the network, laying the foundation for the growing industry trend toward specialized products that perform a single function.


Network Appliance offering in the NAS market is the NetApp filer which is by far the most robust and popular NAS product on the market. Their filers are designed for the utmost in scalability, manageability and data availability. Using the most powerful components of any file server in its class, Network Appliance flagship product, the NetApp F700 series, consistently outperforms the competition on every front. It has over 99.99% availability and scales from 50 gigabytes to multiple terabytes. The company also offers scaled down versions (F760, F740 and F720) depending on the customers needs. Another great advantage of the system over its competitors is something called WAFL (Write Anywhere File Layout) which is a patented file system that accelerates write operations to disk, maintains a completely consistent on-disk file system image and reboots in 1-2 minutes.

Another product offered by Network Appliance is Netcache. Netcache competes in the Internet Caching market. According to the 1999 Internet Caching Report, released by Internet Research Group, Network Appliance was ranked number one in caching appliance revenue in 1998. The report concluded that Network Appliance had a 28% share of the caching market for that year. This market is expected to explode over the next few years reaching $2 billion in 2003, according to IRG. What exactly is Internet caching? Basically, it's the process of storing information physically closer to users so that ISPs that deliver content don't have to go back to the source every time someone requests that content. In the real world, it's akin to finding ways for a magazine distributor to deliver numerous publications to a news stand so that a merchant doesn't need to phone the publisher every time a customer wants a copy. For a while, the conventional wisdom was that Web performance would improve as soon as the average user acquired more bandwidth, eliminating downloading delays. But it turns out that all sorts of things clog the system, from inefficient traffic management to insufficient computing power. And everyone is still desperate for faster Web access -- hence the need for caching. The Network Appliance NetCache is well positioned to capitalize on this expanding market. It is a transparent network infrastructure component that enables enterprises, ISPs and Web-hosting companies to enhance the Web experience for the end user. A NetCache appliance can save customers money by decreasing bandwidth and server costs by as much as 50%.


At present Network Appliance has very little competition in the NAS market. While the company has more than 45% of the market, no other company has even half that. NTAP also wins over 70% of the contracts that it bids on, a definite demonstration of product superiority.

Company 1998 Share 1999 Share
Network Appliance 41.4% 45.9%
Auspex 22.4% 10.7%
Compaq 13.7% 8.0%
EMC 7.9% 18.2%

EMC is the company that will provide the biggest challenge to NTAP's position. EMC presently dominates the SAN market and is looking to do the same with NAS. Their first foray into the market was the in house developed Celerra which competed in the high end NAS market. The Celerra cost 3-5 times as much as the NetApp per megabyte, was much less user friendly and required four times the cache memory and eight times the number of file systems to match the throughput of the filer. Needless to say, the product has not been very successful. Nevertheless, EMC has realized that the future of storage lies in NAS and decided to try again. Later in 2000 they will be attacking the low-end market using NUMA technology which it acquired from its Data General purchase.

The increasing NAS adoption has also attracted other competitors. HP and IBM have announced products to compete with NTAP. Although they stand to lose some sales to incumbents, the increased attention will help NAS awareness. The company's name is synonymous with NAS and the number of deals where NTAP is considered will increase. EMC touts its service edge, but NTAP is attempting to eliminate the issue by growing customer and professional services at two and a half times the overall company growth rate. The growth of the category is likely to more than compensate for increasing competition.


Storage is going to be, for the next ten years, what networking has been for the last ten: a key place to invest your money. As long as the Internet continues to grow, so too will the need for storage and NTAP is going to be one of the key players. This is definitely a company to buy and hold for at least the next ten years.
Print the post  


What was Your Dumbest Investment?
Share it with us -- and learn from others' stories of flubs.
When Life Gives You Lemons
We all have had hardships and made poor decisions. The important thing is how we respond and grow. Read the story of a Fool who started from nothing, and looks to gain everything.
Contact Us
Contact Customer Service and other Fool departments here.
Work for Fools?
Winner of the Washingtonian great places to work, and Glassdoor #1 Company to Work For 2015! Have access to all of TMF's online and email products for FREE, and be paid for your contributions to TMF! Click the link and start your Fool career.