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Companies vie for high-speed storage business

High-speed file server maker Network Appliance just got two shots in the arm, but HP is nudging its way into a similar product category.

High-speed file server maker Network Appliance just got two shots in the arm, but HP is nudging its way into a similar product category.

Last week, NetApp announced that it is adding data preservation features to its high-speed "filers" to give the products more appeal with corporate customers. And today, Dell announced it will fit NetApp machines into its storage product line.

NetApp's filers are one of the better-known examples of the product area known as "network-attached storage."

But Hewlett-Packard is working to win a more prominent place in this sector, today adding network-attached CD-ROM and DVD-ROM servers. This fall, the computing giant will add hard disk-based "thin servers" to its product line, the company said.

Also today, HP acquired network storage software maker Transoft Networks, a a purchase intended to provide a leg on an increasingly competitive market. (See related story) The Palo Alto, California, company's dual moves into a once-esoteric realm of computing underline the sector's growing prominence.

Network attached storage (NAS) shouldn't be confused with storage area networking (SAN), though both techniques share the goal of separating storage devices from servers to palliate the administrators' storage headaches.

A SAN is a larger-scale pool of heavy-duty, centrally managed storage devices connected to servers by a network that's separate from the main company network. NAS, on the other hand, generally refers to cheaper storage equipment attached directly to the main network with an emphasis on simplicity and low cost. Where building a SAN is a more of a corporate-level decision, plugging in NAS comes at the departmental level.

NetApp added two new features to its filers, each an extension of its SnapShot technology, which periodically archives data files, allowing users, for example, to access earlier versions of files.

SnapShot now has been expanded into SnapRestore, which enables administrators to "undo" a whole file system quickly. Sample uses include stepping back from a faulty upgrade or creating a safety net when testing out Y2K compliance, said Mike Marchi, director of enterprise marketing at NetApp. ShapRestore costs an extra $2,000 on the low-end 720 filer and $9,000 for the high-end 760.

"We're really targeting the enterprise area," Marchi said.

In addition, the company released SnapMirror, which allows a NetApp filers to mirror another server at a distant site, helping to protect company data in the event of problems like power outages or disasters. SnapMirror costs $10,000 for the low-end system and $50,000 for the deluxe model.

When NetApp got its start seven years ago, the company based its products on Intel chips. Now the company uses Alpha 21164 chips, though. "For today's single-CPU systems, Alpha is the high end," Marchi said.

The filers use a custom-made, high-speed operating system. When a computer requests that information be written on the filer's array of hard disks, the information is stored in the filer's memory while the filer immediately acknowledges the request. The result is a response time of about 5 milliseconds, which is as fast or faster than a hard disk inside a typical computer, Marchi said.

Dell announced its plans to sell NetApp systems last year, and the products are slated to arrive June 1 at a starting price of $29,000, said Kevin Reinis, general manager of Dell's storage systems division.

Information technology executives are growing comfortable with the idea of SANs, Reinis said, but network-attached storage "still is an evangelistic type of sale"--in other words, the salesman has to convince the buyer of the product philosophy.

Though NetApp filers work with Windows NT systems as well as Unix systems, Dell has been helping NetApp to improve the NT connectivity, Reinis said.

Dell has other storage products as well, including a collection of equipment for companies wanting to buy a storage area network without worrying about whether the individual components work together. Presently, Dell is happy with its product lineup and will focus more on sales, Reinis said.

HP sees the same opportunity. It's positioning its products at a cheaper point than the NetApp hardware, said Michelle Weiss, worldwide marketing manager for NAS at HP.

NAS is an easy way for department-level administrators to add data storage capacity. If you've got an Ethernet network, you can have NAS, she said.

For its current product line, HP today added two CD-ROM servers. One can hold seven CDs and costs $2,750; the other, costing $4,300, can hold six CDs and has an 18GB hard disk to store images for several more CDs. In addition, HP released a $3,495 server that can hold seven DVD-ROM drives.