Networked-attached storage has limits

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Server 2003, Microsoft has begun to support Network Attached Storage (NAS) for use with Microsoft Exchange--but with a number of caveats.

Microsoft doesn't support earlier versions of Exchange on NAS at all because the combination of inherent performance limits and the nature of the Exchange architecture meant that NAS couldn't always reliably deliver the I/O performance needed by Exchange. Exchange Server 2003 includes a number of improvements, notably the use of file- sharing protocols such as NFS, Server Message Block (SMB) and Common Internet File System (CIFS), which make NAS a practical alternative for Exchange.

However, Microsoft warns there are still several important points to check when considering NAS storage for Exchange. First, check with the NAS vendor and make sure they support Exchange in your application. In this case 'support' isn't so much defined as "does Exchange run?" as "does the system have adequate performance to support the real-world use of Exchange?" Microsoft recommends running a benchmark on the proposed setup, including the network and the server as well as the NAS device, to make sure you have adequate performance before committing to the solution.

One particular item to check is the nature of the NAS device's cache, if any. The Exchange architecture requires either no cache at all or non-volatile cache to prevent data loss and database corruption in the event of a failure. Also be aware that in setting up your system you will have to manually move the Exchange files to the NAS device. According to Microsoft, Exchange Server 2003's System Manager tool will not move database files to a remote file system.

Microsoft discusses these issues in the Knowledgebase article, "Microsoft support policy on the use of network-attached storage devices with Exchange Server 2003," which is available at http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=839687.

Rick Cook has been writing about mass storage since the days when the term meant an 80 K floppy disk. The computers he learned on used ferrite cores and magnetic drums. For the last 20 years he has been a freelance writer specializing in storage and other computer issues.

This was first published in May 2005

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