"Every room has every movie ever made in every language day or night." -- Television Ad by Qwest Communications

Want to obtain information on anything? Chances are you can, using the Internet. From Savannah Sand Gnats box scores to who invented Pepsi-Cola, an almost limitless amount of information is out there to be found and put to use. Whether it's mildly interesting, educational, or essential to everyday life, the value that information carries has been clearly demonstrated by the rapid proliferation of the Internet over the past decade.

Information overload
Businesses in the new millennium are faced with the challenge of gathering, sorting, and storing enormous amounts of data of their own. Everything from customer databases, to regional pricing structures, to key competitor data must be organized in a useful, readily retrievable manner in order to maintain competitiveness.

In the business world, a problem for some usually equates to an opportunity for others. Seeking to capitalize on the information management dilemma, a smattering of companies have developed enterprise storage systems to meet the needs of an emerging market. The leaders include EMC (NYSE: EMC), Brocade (Nasdaq: BRCD), Network Appliance (Nasdaq: NTAP), Storage Networks (Nasdaq: STOR), Veritas Software (Nasdaq: VRTS), IBM (NYSE: IBM), and Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW). Although Brocade and Network Appliance have been removed from the Drip Port's high-growth study due to too much uncertainty over 17 years, they are interesting investments for investors with something closer to five to ten years.

Two main architectures, sometimes competing, sometimes complementary, have surfaced as the leaders in the race to capture the storage market: Storage area networks (SANs) and network-attached storage (NAS).

Now here we get a little technical for a moment. But don't worry. It's not so bad.

A SAN is a high-speed, dedicated subnetwork that resides outside of the company's local area network (LAN). A SAN interconnects data storage devices with associated data servers through Fibre Channel, a technology used for transmitting data between computer devices at a data rate of up to one billion bits per second. Fibre Channel is optimal for SANs. Since it uses frames or blocks to move information, it can rapidly move large volumes of data in relatively small blocks. Fibre Channel also doesn't rely on a specific operating system or data format, providing flexibility for disparate operating systems or hardware. SANs can incorporate subnetworks with network-attached storage (NAS) systems, using the two architectures in a symbiotic manner.

NAS is hard disk storage, including multi-disk RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) systems. The NAS is set up with its own network address rather than being attached to the main server. By separating the NAS from the department server, files can be served faster because they are not competing for the same processor resources.

The SAN storage system requires each connecting host to have a fairly expensive host bus adapter with Fibre Channel; however, this provides high-bandwidth links directly to the storage system. In NAS, the host only needs to have an Ethernet card, which can communicate with the NAS unit using standard network protocols such as TCP/IP.

The SAN camp boasts speed, centralization, and reliability, whereas the NAS contingent touts simplicity and lower costs (SANs require more management because they employ a separate network cabling system). When you need mass storage, but cost is more important than speed, NAS is probably the better choice. For very large databases, digital video services, and complex search engines, a SAN is likely more appropriate.

Can't we all just get along?
The truth is the two architectures can be, and often are, complementary, rather than strictly competitive. All the debate about NAS uprooting the still very neonatal SAN industry or SAN being superior to NAS is misplaced. Each architecture has a place and often that place is interlinked with the other.

One thing that isn't likely to be debated is the continuing growth of the enterprise data storage market. Researchers are estimating the market to reach between $5 and $8 billion by 2003, up from a fraction of that in 2000. Long-term investors may want to look for potential investments in this rapidly growing sector. (A recent issue of the Motley Fool Internet Report focused on network storage and leaders mentioned in this column.) Next week, we'll begin to look at the storage leaders.

Vince Hanks is a full-time pharmacist in Michigan as well as a Drippin' Fool. To see the stocks he owns, view his profile. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.