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Multiprotocol arrays for better SMB storage management

Alan Earls
Multiprotocol arrays, a sort of the one-size-fits-all "box" have been among the solutions pitched to small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) as an answer to the challenge of managing different kinds of networked

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storage. The multiprotocol array, (also known as unified storage or hybrid storage), is designed to support both storage area network (SAN) and network-attached storage (NAS), and to deliver file or block level storage in a unified storage infrastructure. Also, because multiprotocol arrays are supposed to be protocol-independent, they should allow storage administrators to work with a wider range of products such as switches and servers. Furthermore, multiprotocol arrays can cut down on cabling, reduce overall storage footprints and potentially improve utilization.

However, although multiprotocol arrays have an important place in the SMB storage lexicon, analysts say it's not a magic bullet -- at least not for everyone: You've got to look under the covers to see if multiprotocol arrays will really deliver the kind of simplicity you seek in your data storage environment.

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Terri McClure, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), said her company has looked at SMB trends and found that server virtualization is on the top of the priority list. "To accomplish that will take networked storage," she said, along with infrastructure that can deliver either file or block data. "The attraction of a unified storage device is that you don't have to plan separately for different kinds of storage and you don't have to guesstimate what you will need," she added.

Interestingly, said McClure, ESG's research shows that SMBs are trying to reduce operating expenses (OPEX) even more than capital expenses (CAPEX), which would seem to mean that investments such as multiprotocol arrays are a good bet. "I think companies are looking at the sins of the past -- the stovepipe alignment -- and they are looking for alternatives that better utilize resources," she said.

Additionally, in contrast to enterprise customers that are focusing more on reducing power and cooling requirements, McClure said SMBs want to reduce floor space requirements. Of course, multiprotocol arrays can address either of those needs.

Bob Passmore, a Gartner analyst, also sees multiprotocol arrays serving enterprise and SMB organizations equally well. "I'm not sure there is much difference between their underlying needs, but I suspect there might be a somewhat of a different mix of Fibre Channel versus Ethernet-based NAS and iSCSI," he said. "Otherwise the attractions are similar -- the multiprotocol devices offer more flexibility for interconnecting systems."

Also, there aren't huge differences in multiprotocol arrays among the vendors. "The real question is what the SMB can afford,"' he noted. "For smaller companies it can be a problem but for bigger companies it is not an issue." According to Passmore, for relatively modest amounts of storage capacity, multiprotocol arrays start at around $10,000. "And of course the sky is the limit on the upside," he added.

Michael Karp, founder and principal analyst at Infrastructure Analytics says that putting a lot of different functionality in a box can be a step in the right direction for many SMBs. And in that regard, the vendor playing field is relatively level, with EMC Corp., Hewlett Packard Co (HP), IBM Corp., NetApp and many of the smaller companies all doing a decent job, he said. Among the products that Karp sees as particularly SMB friendly are the EMC Celera NX4 and Clariion AX4, the IBM DS3000 and DS4000 and the HP StorageWorks X3000.

So what's the bottom line? Passmore said when it comes to multiprotocol arrays, SMBs should "be sure they think about what they are trying to do and what alternatives are available." McClure, who said for SMBs, the benefits outweigh the pitfalls, recommended paying attention to an important detail: "Make sure that whatever you choose has good VAR service and support, since they will rarely get good support or training direct from the vendor."

And, she added, "Make sure you get customer references from the vendors you are considering -- you want to talk to people who have done it before."

About this author: Alan Earls is a Boston-area freelance writer focused on business and technology, particularly data storage.


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