Are Big Storage Solutions Right for Small Business?

Building a data storage and backup system is a lot like buying an insurance plan. You know your small business should have it, but you hope you never have to use it. For small businesses — often without dedicated IT staff responsible for storage and backup — having that insurance policy is critical. And just like buying an insurance plan, it’s very important that you carefully evaluate all the options when building a storage solution into your small business network.

A panel of technology industry giants met recently at Storage Networking World in Phoenix, Arizona to discuss how the capabilities of large-scale storage equipment are being made available to small- and medium-sized businesses. Traditionally reserved for enterprises due to the associated cost and complexity, the price point of storage hardware and software is making the technology more attractive to smaller organizations.

“Our SMB customers have many of the same storage needs as larger companies,” said Claude Lorensen, Microsoft’s technical manager for storage technologies. “They want better disaster recovery, for instance, yet lack the skill set or budget to implement existing equipment.”

With storage needs growing at 50 to 100 percent per year in small businesses, there is a growing need for easy-to-deploy storage technology to improve the total cost per Gigabyte (GB) of storage. SMB’s typically utilize DAS (define) — a server or two that has data storage space included within the box. Users typically log on store their files on the networked server. DAS can also mean a collection of desktops spread around the office each with their own hard drive. Transferring data might even require couriering a floppy disk to an associate in another room.

This kind of an operation is okay if there are only a few of you in the office or if the quantity of data remains relatively low. But once online applications and databases contain the heart and soul of your business, or the volume of information goes above about 50 GB, it’s time to take a look at beefing up your small business storage foundation. Some points to ponder include:

  • What data can the business not afford to lose?
  • How many days could you survive in the event of a disaster that destroyed all your computers and/or their contents?
  • How much time is being wasted by using floppies, backups of individual servers and workstations, or in adding servers to cope with the explosion of data?
  • How have your storage needs expanded in the past year and what are the projections about how much more you will need in next year or two?

If the answers to these questions indicate that your current mode of operation has the potential to endanger the survival of your small business, it is time to act.

“If backing up your 15 servers takes all night and is not done when people arrive for work next morning, you have a storage problem,” said Mike Smith, executive vice president of Emulex. “If you have one server that is full of data, another sitting empty and you can’t easily move around the data, a storage network might be a better way to go.”

Data backups, for example, can often be greatly simplified by using a centralized storage box. And if the losses during downtime could be very steep, a disaster recovery system should be considered, complete with offsite copies of everything deemed vital to your daily small business operations.

Yet with $100,000 being the entry point for many storage products, and their management being more complex than the instrument panel of a Boeing 747, no small business would ever even consider such an option. Or would they?

Lorensen tells the story of a 120-man company that was using two aging non-Windows servers with DAS. They switched their 120 users to six Windows servers and set up the type of storage network normally reserved for larger operations. He and other storage executives believe that as prices continue to drop, this type of network plus storage upgrade will become more commonplace.

“Storage costs are falling at 35 percent per year,” said Anders Lofgren, senior storage manager at Computer Associates. “By using Linux servers and cheaper disks, there may be a business case for small businesses adopting sophisticated storage set ups.”

Another alternative for cheaper storage would be an upgrade to Windows Server 2003. It comes with much improved storage features that small businesses can use out of the box.

Don’t even think about the fancier end of the storage market such as fiber optics or exotic storage boxes that have enough storage capacity to contain a small country and a price tag bigger than that country’s GDP.

“A lot of small businesses will do fine with DAS,” admitted Smith.

If data performance, storage capacity and disaster recover requirements are relatively mild for you small business — stick with the storage solution you have in place.

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