Open-Source Options for Small Business - Page 2

By Drew Robb | Posted April 16, 2009

Storage

More recently, plenty of open source storage applications have become available, though they’re more complex than and not as user-friendly as the productivity applications. On the backup side, there are Zmanda and Bacula. If you want to copy data between disk-based systems at different sites (known as mirroring), you can check out DRBD. You’ll find downloadable Network Attached Storage (NAS) software at FreeNAS.

If you want to get even fancier, Sun’s ZFS file system is available free for operating on the OpenSolaris platform. ZFS provides a high level of data integrity, mirroring data between sites for disaster recovery purposes, and it helps you build massive data repositories.

A competitor of ZFS for advanced storage functionality is Red Hat’s Global File System (GFS).  It offers storage virtualization features. Finally, there is the Linux Logical Volume Manager (LVM), which is used to build large disk-based storage systems.

But software such as ZFS, GFS and LVM is not something a business owner should fiddle with on his or her own. If you don’t have the IT staff to figure out this open source software, a ready-made storage appliance may be the answer.

“The use of open source-based appliances in the SMB market seems to be becoming more prevalent,” said Nickolett.

Sun, for example, has a range of Unified Storage Systems (formerly known as Amber Road) that have preinstalled OpenSolaris and ZFS. Sun has combined open source software with inexpensive servers to reduce storage costs and provide heavy-duty storage that is easy to manage. Sun partners greenBytes and Nexenta Systems provide an alternative to Sun-based hardware in this category.

“Amber Road is a NAS system essentially,” said David Trachy, a principal engineer at Sun. “We are certainly seeing more and more end users adopting open source.”

Like Nickolett, he wouldn’t expect SMBs to pick up open-source storage tools and cobble themselves together unless they are already technically sophisticated. Instead, he suggested a readymade appliance.

“There are many good open-source storage appliances around now, which means you don’t need to hire an expert to build one for you,” said Trachy. “Appliances drop the cost of storage and provide high performance.” 

One Sun small business customer is Digitar Inc. This e-mail processing company holds 50 TB of data for its customers by combining SUSE Linux, OpenSolaris and Sun hardware.

“Our entire operation is based on open source and the financial perspective is the biggest reason,” said Jason Williams, COO and CTO of Digitar. “But there are performance benefits too. ZFS has saved our behind more than once due to its mirroring capabilities.”

Open Source or Not?

Compared to a few years ago, the open source goody bag is impressive. And according to International Data Corp (IDC), Linux now accounts for 14 percent of all servers in use, so it’s obvious that open source is catching on in a big way.

But does that mean that all small businesses should rush forward and adopt it? Not necessarily.

“For some smaller business, particularly those that have IT experience, open source storage can be a good fit assuming it provides business and economic value,” said Greg Schulz, an analyst with StorageIO Group.

People who are more familiar with traditional environments that include products from Microsoft Dell, HP or IBM, however, open source should probably be implemented on a limited basis to see how well it does in specific areas – perhaps the desktop or office suite.

Schulz also suggested using a managed service provider or trusted reseller who is familiar with open source and can bring it into the company without overwhelming whatever limited IT resources exist.

“Avoid jumping on the open source bandwagon just because it’s open source,” said Schulz. “There should be an economic and functionality benefit for going open source. Look at support and maintenance costs as well as who will be maintaining the solutions over the next several years and their skill sets.”

Nickolett recommended that once SMBs gain more comfort with open source, they should create a plan to migrate 10 percent to 15 percent of their IT footprint to that platform as part of a strategic cost reduction effort. Such a move could even result in better deals and smoother service from long-term vendors and resellers – if you let them in on the plan.  

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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