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Storage area network options for SMBs

While many SMBs are increasingly looking to deploy a storage area network (SAN), many experts agree that a full-scale deployment could be overkill.

"Just like not everyone needs a four-wheel-drive vehicle,

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not all companies need a full-scale SAN. It's important to align your storage technology with the tasks you have at hand," said Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at The StorageIO Group.

He said SMBs are facing tremendous pressure from the storage industry to go big and bold with their storage. "They've been told they need to keep up with the Jones' -- in this case, larger enterprises -- to succeed. But then they end up overspending," he said, and added that in this economy, that's incredibly dangerous. In addition, many don't have the time, expertise or reason to use a majority of the features of today's full-scale Fibre Channel and iSCSI SANs.

More importantly, these SANs might not even be the appropriate solution for SMB storage dilemmas. For instance, Microsoft Corp. has said that Exchange Server has a lower TCO when used with a direct-attached storage (DAS) solution, such as a high-performance serial-attached storage array, rather than a SAN.

Alternatives to deploying a storage area network

Schulz said companies should consider the following alternatives before committing to a full-scale storage area network:

  • DAS, which connects directly to a server or multiple servers
  • Network-attached storage (NAS), which provides file-level access to storage
  • Hybrid NAS/ISCSI, which supports file-level and block-level access

"The easiest way to determine if you can do without a pure SAN is if you have a single location and or multiple locations that don't need to share data. Then you'd be fine with a DAS or NAS solution," said Natalya Yezhkova, research manager at IDC.

However, if you're storage is spread across several sites and want to move data between them for remote access, business continuity and disaster recovery, then you'll most likely need a SAN, she said. Also, if you have an application, such as credit card processing, that requires a high transactional volume, then a SAN might be the better bet.

SMB SAN packages

The good news for SMBs these days is that even the largest of vendors -- including Dell, EMC Corp., Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co., IBM Corp., NetApp and Sun Microsystems Inc. -- have portfolios featuring scaled-down storage offerings that allow you to start small and grow into a larger SAN environment. Some vendors even help SMBs protect hardware investments by requiring only an adapter to switch between protocols, such as NAS to iSCSI, if they eventually upgrade to a SAN.

Some examples of these products include Dell's PowerVault NX 1950; EMC's Celerra NS Series/Gateway (which also supports Fibre Channel); IBM's System Storage N3300 and NetApp's FAS series appliances. Schulz said hybrid offerings for smaller SMBs start in the sub-$10,000 range.

For Steve Fletcher, IT director at environmental remediation firm Sky Research, Inc. in Ashland, Ore., that kind of flexibility has been critical to keeping infrastructure and management costs low. Originally, Fletcher had made an investment in NetApp NAS appliances to support his 80-employee Windows File Sharing environment of user home directories and Oracle databases. However, his data storage needs soon grew to include a block-based SQL Server. Rather than adding a Fibre Channel SAN, he turned to an alternate strategy -- NetApp's hybrid Ethernet-based NAS/ISCSI appliance. "I can centrally manage and store file and block storage without the heavy expense of Fibre Channel," he said. He admitted that incorporating iSCSI into his network did require some additional skills, but added, "Fibre Channel would have required a lot more."

How to get up to speed on SAN storage

SMBs can benefit greatly by reaching out to your peers for advice on choosing a storage strategy. "They may have overspent on a solution and can share how they got back on track," said Schulz.

He suggested that SMBs "take a step back" and consider the applications and policies you are trying to support before deciding upon a storage strategy. You should weigh the following:

  • The expertise of your staff or outsourcer
  • The capacity, performance and availability requirements of your applications and data
  • The disaster recovery, failover and compliance needs of your business
  • The environmental and economic energy constraints you face

You can connect with other SMB storage teams through industry organizations such as the Storage Networking Industry Association and the SCSI Trade Association, as well as through your vertical industry groups.

He adds that seminars and blogs offer tremendous opportunities to find out the criteria companies used to match their application and data needs to an appropriate storage strategy.

You can also partner with an outsourcer or consultant who specializes in storage networks. Whatever approach you take, it's critical to take the time to bring multiple vendors in and test-drive the technology in your environment. "It might require time and a slight disruption to your network, but you'll save time and money in the end by making sure the strategy you pick is best for your business," he said.

Gittlen is a freelance technology editor in the greater Boston area. She can be reached via email at sgittlen@verizon.net.

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This was first published in February 2009

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