Comparing SAN and NAS

One of the greatest confusions that I have seen in recent years is that between NAS and SAN.  Understanding what each is will go a long way towards understanding where they are useful and appropriate.

Our first task is to strip away the marketing terms and move on to technical ones.  NAS stands for Network Attached Storage but doesn’t mean exactly that and SAN stands for Storage Area Network but is generally used to refer to a SAN device, not the network itself.  In its most proper form, a SAN is any network dedicated to storage traffic, but in the real world, that’s not how it is normally used.  In this case we are hear to talk about NAS and SAN devices and how they compare so we will not use the definition that includes the network rather than the device.  In reality, both NAS and SAN are marketing terms and are a bit soft around the edges because of it.  They are precise enough to use in a normal technical conversation, as along as all parties know what they mean, but when discussing their meaning we should strip away the cool-sounding names and stick to the most technical descriptions.  Both terms, when used via marketing, are used to imply that they are a certain technology that has been “appliancized” which makes the use of the terms unnecessarily complicated but no more useful.

So our first task is to define what these two names mean in a device context.  Both devices are storage servers, plain and simple, just two different ways of exposing that storage to the outside world.

The simpler of the two is the SAN which is properly a block storage device.  Any device that exposes its storage externally as a block device falls into this category and can be used interchangeably based on how it is used.  The block storage devices are external hard drives, DAS (Direct Attach Storage) and SAN.  All of these are actually the same thing.  We call it an external hard drive when we attach it to a desktop.  We call it a DAS when we attach it to a server.  We call it a SAN when we add some form of networking, generally a switch, between the device and the final device that is consuming the storage.  There is no technological difference between these devices.  A traditional SAN can be directly attached to a desktop and used like an external hard drive.  An external hard drive can be hooked to a switch and used by multiple devices on a network.  The interface between the storage device and the system using it is the block.  Common protocols for block storage include iSCSI, Fibre Channel, SAS, eSATA, USB, Thunderbolt, IEEE1394 (aka Firewire), Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) and ATA over Ethernet (AoE.)  A device attaching to a block storage device will always see the storage presented as a disk drive, nothing more.

A NAS, also known as a “filer”, is a file storage device.  This means that it exposes its storage as a network filesystem.  So any device attaching to this storage does not see a disk drive but instead sees a mountable filesystem.  When a NAS is not packaged as an appliance, we simply call it a file server and nearly all computing devices from desktops to servers have some degree of this functionality included in them.  Common protocols for file storage devices include NFS, SMB / CIFS and AFP.  There are many others, however, and technically there are special case file storage protocols such as FTP and HTTP that should qualify as well.  As an extreme example, a traditional web server is a very specialized form of file storage device.

What separates block storage and file storage devices is the type of interface that they present to the outside world, or to think of it another way, where the division between server device and client device happens within the storage stack.

It has become extremely common today for storage devices to include both block storage and file storage from the same device.  Systems that do this are called unified storage.  With unified storage, whether you can say that it is behaving as block storage or file storage device (SAN or NAS in the common parlance) or both is based upon the behavior that you configure for the device not based on what you purchase.  This is important as it drives home the point that this is purely a protocol or interface distinction, not one of size, capability, reliability, performance, features, etc.

Both types of devices have the option, but not the requirement, of providing extended features beneath the “demarcation point” at which they hand off the storage to the outside.  Both may, or may not, provide RAID, logical volume management, monitoring, etc.  File storage (NAS) may also provide file system features such as Windows NTFS ACLs.

The key advantage to block storage is that the systems that attach to it are given an opportunity to manipulate the storage system as if it were a traditional disk drive.  This means that RAID and logical volume management, which may already have been doing in the “black box” of the storage device can now be done again, if desired, at a higher level.  The client devices are not aware what kind of device they are seeing, only that it appears as a disk drive.  So you can choose to trust it (assume that it has RAID of an adequate level, for example) or you can combine multiple block storage devices together into RAID just as if they were regular, local disks.  This is extremely uncommon but is an interesting option and there are products that are designed to be used in this way.

More commonly, logical volume management such as Linux LVM, Solaris ZFS or Windows Dynamic Disks is applied on top of the exposed block storage from the device and then, on top of that, a filesystem would be employed.  This is important to remember, with block storage devices the filesystem is created and managed by the client device, not by the storage device.  The storage device is blissfully unaware of how the block storage that it is presenting is used and allows the end user to use it however they see fit with total control.  This extends even to the point that you can chain block storage devices together with one providing the storage to the next being combines, perhaps, into RAID groups – block storage devices can be layered, more or less, indefinitely.

Alternatively, a file storage device contains all of the block portion of the storage so any opportunity for RAID, logical volume management and monitoring must be handled by the file storage device.  Then, on top of the block storage, a filesystem is applied.  Commonly this would be Linux’ EXT4, FreeBSD and Solaris’ ZFS, Windows NTFS but other filesystems such as WAFL, XFS, JFS, BtrFS, UFS and more are certainly possible.   On this filesystem, data will be stored.  To them share this data with the outside world a network file system (also known as a distributed file system) is used which provides a file system interface that is network enabled – NFS, SMB and AFP being the most common but, like in any protocol family, there are numerous special case and exotic possibilities.

A remote device wanting to use storage on the file storage device would see it over the network the same as it would see a local filesystem and is able to mount it in an identical manner.  This makes file storage especially easy and obvious for end consumer to use as it is very natural in every aspect.  We use network file systems every day for normal desktop computing.  When we “map a drive” in Windows, for example, we are using a network file system.

One critical differentiation between block storage and file storage that must be differentiated between is that, while both potentially can sit on a network and allow multiple client machines to attach to them, only file storage devices have the ability arbitrate that access.  This is very important and cannot be glossed over.

Block storage appears as a disk drive.  If you simply attach a disk drive to two or more computers at once, you can imagine what will happen – each will know nothing of the other and will be unaware of new files being created, others changing and they systems will rapidly begin to overwrite each other.  If your file system is read only on all nodes, this is not a problem.  But if any system is writing or changing the data, the others will have problems.  This generally results in data corruption very quickly, typically on the order of minutes.  To see this in extreme action, imagine having two or three client system all believe that they have exclusive access to a disk drive and have them all defragment it at the same time.  All data on the drive will be scrambled in seconds.

A file storage device, on the other hand, has natural arbitration as the network file system handles the communications for access to the real file system and filesystems, by their nature, are multi-user naturally.  So if one system attached to a file storage device makes a change, all systems are immediately aware of the change and will not “step on each others toes.”  Even if they attempt to do the the file storage device’s filesystem arbitrates access and has the final say and does not let this happen.  This makes sharing data easy and transparent to end users.  (I use the term “end users” here to include system administrators.)

This does not mean that there is no means of sharing storage from a block device, but the arbitration of it cannot be handled by the block storage device itself.  Block storage devices are be made “shareable” by using what is known as a clustered file system.  These types of file systems originated back when server clusters shared storage resources by having two servers attached with a SCSI controller on either end of a single SCSI cable and having the shared drives attached in the middle of the cable.  The only means by which the servers could communicate was through the file system itself and so special clustered file systems were developed that allowed there to be communications between the devices, alerting each to changes made by the other, through the file system itself.  This actually works surprisingly well but clustered file systems are relatively uncommon with Red Hat’s GFS and Oracle’s OCFS being some of the best well known in the traditional server world and VMWare’s much newer VMFS having become extremely well known through its use for virtualization storage.  Normal users, including system administrators, may not have access to clustered file systems or may have needs that do not allow their use.  Of important note is also that the arbitration is handled through trust, not through enforcement, like with a file storage device.  With a file storage device, the device itself handles the access arbitration and there is no way around it.  With block storage devices using a clustered file system, any device that attaches to the storage can ignore the clustered file system and simply bypass the passive arbitration – this is so simple that it would normally happen accidentally.  It can happen when mounting the filesystem and specifying the wrong file system type or through a drive misbehaving or any malicious action.  So access security is critical at the network level to protect block level storage.

The underlying concept being exposed here is that block storage devices are dumb devices (think glorified disk drive) and file storage devices are smart devices (think traditional server.)  File storage devices must contain a full working “computer” with CPU, memory, storage, filesystem and networking.  Block storage devices may contain these things but need not.  At their simplest, block storage devices can be nothing more than a disk drive with a USB or Ethernet adapter attached to them.  It is actually not uncommon for them to be nothing more than a RAID controller plus Ethernet or Fiber Channel adapters to be attached.

In both cases, block storage device and file storage devices, we can scale down to trivially simple devices or can scale up to massive “mainframe class” ultra-high-availability systems.  Both can be either fast or slow.  One is not better or worse, one is not higher or lower, one is not more or less enterprise – they are different and serve generally different purposes.  And there are advanced features that either may or may not contain.  The challenge comes in knowing which is right for which job.

I like to think of block storage protocols as being a “standard out” stream, much like on a command line.  So the base level of any storage “pipeline” is always a block device and numerous block devices or transformations can exist with each being piped one to another as long as the output remains a block storage protocol.  We only terminate the chain when we apply a file system.   In this way hardware RAID, network RAID, logical volume management, etc. can be applied in multiple combinations as needed.  Block storage is truly not just blocks of data but building blocks of storage systems.

One point that is very interesting is that since block storage devices can be chained and since network storage devices must accept block storage as their “input” it is actually quite common for a block storage device (SAN) to be used as the backing storage for a file storage device (NAS), especially in high end systems.  They can coexist within a single chassis or they can work cooperatively on the network.

7 thoughts on “Comparing SAN and NAS”

  1. Hi:

    I appreciate the information you’ve provided. Now, we are being challenged about the perceived need to defrag SANs – or not. Windows’ reports bad fragmentation but is that accurate or not? One SAN supplier says there is zero need to do this, ever, while a company that sells defrag tool sets begs to differ. Would you care to comment?

    Thanks, Rory

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