The dedicated NAS appliances have tried to compensate for the lower-performance environments by offering lower-end systems with SATA-based technology, but even here the system may be overkill. While you may not want to go all the way down to running a regular OS with cheap disk attached to it, an Intel-based platform with the addition of one of the software-only NAS solutions may be ideal. We may be seeing NAS commoditization, where performance of off-the-shelf software and hardware is adequate for 80 percent of the data set.
These software-based NAS products are becoming fairly robust in feature set. They include the must haves like snapshots, replication and some form of block representation (iSCSI or Fibre). They also have some of the newer capabilities that storage managers are looking for, like deduplication, compression and automated tiering. Some are even adding clustering or global file systems to their capabilities in order to better scale, allowing them to meet the demands of the environment.
From a hardware perspective the Intel hardware platform has plenty of horsepower to drive the data services software that comes with NAS-based software. 10GBE provides the I/O bandwidth that some of these environments may need and that Intel platform provides the flexibility to support those cards. The danger for the more traditional NAS vendors is that these solutions may begin to crowd in on their markets. The challenge when the hardware becomes commoditized is that the battle becomes one of software only, and as expected, the response from these vendors has been to continue to up the ante on the data services their NAS software provides. They are in a constant state of trying to stay ahead of the pack or to run away from the basic file-sharing services that built many of these companies in the first place.
While a software advantage is nothing to be minimized, it is often fleeting. Companies that are doing something unique in silicon, or at least unique with the hardware, have more defensible position. Yes, unique hardware can also be reverse-engineered, but it seems to be more challenging than with software. At some point basic NAS systems are going to be able deliver enough performance, capacity and expandability to be good enough for most environments' needs. The traditional NAS players need to figure out a way to address this reality. Maybe they should have a value-priced line designed for the more basic data sets, with more basic data services that can still be managed by the larger environments and integrated into their tiering strategies. If they don't, they may end up being relegated to a niche market where only the performance demands of a few applications can justify the expense.