Exclusive: NetApp crowns new entry-level storage array king

High-capacity FAS2020 raises bar for manageability, performance

NetApp today is announcing new heirs to the thrones of its entry-level storage arrays, the FAS250 and FAS270. These crown princes, the FAS2020 and the FAS2050, yield more capacity, better performance, and improved manageability -- at a similar or lower price.

[ Network Appliance FAS2020 was selected for an InfoWorld Technology of the Year award. See the slideshow to view all the winners in the storage category. ]

I got an early exclusive look at the FAS2020, which can mount as many as 12 SAS (serial attached SCSI) drives of any capacity in a 2U chassis. Using external modules, the array can expand to a total of 40 drives, including SATA. Those 40 drives bring its total capacity to 24TB, well above what was possible with the older models.

The FAS2020 offers concurrent FC (Fibre Channel) and iSCSI connectivity via single or dual controller. Each controller mounts two 4Gb FC and two Gigabit Ethernet ports, which, together with the unified storage capabilities of the ONTAP OS, makes the 2020 a target for concurrent access via file- and block-oriented protocols

As a point of comparison, the newly unveiled FAS2050 is a step above the 2020, delivering more than 100 drives when fully configured, plus 4GB of cache memory. And these machines, compared to their predecessors, offer not only higher capacity, but better performance with twice the number of FC and Ethernet ports. The new Remote Platform Management feature -- the first of its kind that I've seen to come bundled with storage servers -- is rich icing on the cake.

Hurray for array manageability

My test environment included an IBM E326 server, VMware ESX 3.0.1, plus a FAS2020 mounting 12 SAS drives, each with 144GB capacity and spinning at 15K RPM. No expansion modules. Both the array and the server were connected to a 2Gb FC switch and a GigE switch. Two guest machines running Windows Server 2003 played the role of Active Directory controller and Exchange server for my evaluation

One of my first evaluation steps was to tackle the built-in Remote Platform Management, an interesting new feature that simplifies controlling and monitoring the array's status over IP, exactly as you do with an application server. It also acts a powerful diagnostic tool that is independent from the ONTAP OS. Making it work only requires an IP address. No storage array should be without a similar option.

Starting PuTTY from a command window, I was able to connect and log in to the array controllers, which opened a variety of commands, including power cycling the machine, checking voltage and temperature of its components, and browsing the event log for errors. You can also set up automated e-mail notification when one of the hardware components needs attention.

For high-level management, I had FilerView, accessed by pointing my browser at the IP address of the FAS2020. This old suite of applications opens the door to just about any administrative task, including monitoring the hardware, provisioning storage, setting snapshots, and creating share for file-based access via CIFS or NFS.

FilerView's GUI is the only one you need to touch to manage the array, paradoxically even if you want to use ONTAP's rich set of CLI commands. In fact, one of the numerous items on the FilerView navigation pane opens command prompt capabilities inside the GUI window.

Unfortunately FilerView's complexity, as well as some duplicated entry points, make the suite intimidating and possibly confusing for the novice admin. However each task, when found, is driven by a friendly step-by-step wizard and, if you're still in doubt, the comprehensive online help comes to the rescue.

Creating an iSCSI test LUN (logical unit number) using the FilerView wizard was quick and easy. More intriguing was connecting that LUN to the application server, which in Windows typically involves logging in to the target using the Microsoft iSCSI initiator software, connecting the LUN while there, then jumping to Windows Disk Management to format the volume and assign a letter. NetApp consolidates all those activities under the single GUI of SnapDrive, an agent that you install on each application server and integrates with the MMC (Microsoft Management Console).

Testing limits

Having just one physical server in my test bed was not suitable to run performance benchmarks, but the array easily withstood my attempts to break it, recovering from a simulated drive failure, from losing one of its iSCSI connections, and from having brutally removed one of its controllers.

Microsoft Exchange is one of the likely applications for this class of machines; hence, because I already had SnapManagerfor Exchange installed, I couldn't resist breaking the application's database and trying to recover from a local copy made with SnapManager.

It took some work to get there, first preparing the target volume for the Exchange database and its log file in FilerView, then instructing SnapManager to start asynchronous mirroring on those target volumes. Opening the MMC on the Exchange server I noticed that SnapDrive, although never touched by the previous tasks, had quietly changed the icon of the e-mail server volume to show that they were mirrored.

Time to disconnect the primary database and restart Exchange from the copy, but first, as a double precaution, I made a backup copy of the Exchange database from SnapManager. According to NetApp, this application uses the Microsoft backup API, which should assure consistency of the e-mail content. Another nice feature: To quickly bring all recovery copies to the same level, you can schedule an automatic update of the mirror copy of the Exchange database with the backup file.

With a double copy of the database as my safety net I felt more comfortable disconnecting the Exchange volumes from the server with SnapDrive. Next, still in SnapDrive, I connected the mirror copy of the Exchange volumes to the e-mail server, but first I had to click past a warning from SnapDrive that I was breaking mirrored copies of the volumes. Going back to SnapManager and running a restore brought the two Exchange volume back.

Because of test bed constraints, I wasn't able to push big performance numbers during my evaluation of the FAS2020, which is a pity: With four connectivity ports, fast SAS drives, and 2GB of cache, the array benchmarks could have shown some interesting results.

Regardless, this new entry in NetApp's tray for SMEs has more than just performance; it offers more management tools and application support than any other arrays in its class. Customers should find the package quite attractive -- as long as budget constraints don't get in the way.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Value (10.0%)
Scalability (20.0%)
Reliability (20.0%)
Management (20.0%)
Interoperability (10.0%)
Performance (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Network Appliance FAS2020 7.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 8.8