Easy Storage for the Little Guy: Has the Time Come?

Some storage vendors have an unrealistic idea of what constitutes appropriate storage solutions for small business. They’ll tell you about “inexpensive systems” for under $100,000 or mind-boggling Storage Area Network (SAN) architectures that are now “SMB ready.” Any small business that’s tried to implement one probably found out it wasn’t nearly as ready as its manufacturer hoped.

“Most storage manufacturers attempt to put products into the small business space by stripping down their existing solutions,” says Ryan Malone, vice president of partner and channel development at Zetera Corp., a supplier of storage systems. “However the skill sets found in small businesses, and how they use storage, differ dramatically from what you find in big enterprises.”

The typical small business, of course, doesn’t have specialized IT staff, which is a requirement to deploy SANs of almost any kind. If they are lucky, they have one IT person. If not, it’s usually the boss spending late nights boning up on Storage for Dummies.

Inexpensive Storage Boxes
The good news is that 2006 perhaps marked the year when some storage systems actually deserved to be called easy to use and that prices continued to plummet.

“The biggest thing that I noticed is the decrease in prices that made everything more affordable,” says Chip Nickolett, owner of Comprehensive Solutions Inc., a small business based in Brookfield, Wisc, that offers IT services.

Electronics retailer Fry’s, for example, recently advertised a 2 Terabyte (TB) network attached storage (NAS) box for $1,699. The Buffalo TeraStation from Buffalo Technology may or may not be right for every small business, but you’re unlikely to find anything better than the price — less than a dollar per GB.

Zetera’s Hammer Z-Series is another inexpensive box, though far more feature rich than the TeraStation. It provides 1TB of networked storage for $1,299, as well as a few features found in higher-end systems — better utilization, better performance and more scalability. According to Malone, it has an installed base of over 120,000 units and was designed specifically for small businesses.

And there are plenty of other products around suitable for smaller concerns.

“The Infrant ReadyNAS NV by Infrant Technologies seems to come close to the ideal when it comes to satisfying the S side of SMB,” says Rob Enderle, an analyst at the Enderle Group of San Jose, CA.

ReadyNAS NV is a NAS appliance that a small business can plug in and run. It costs around $1,500 for 750 GB and $2,200 for 2TB.

Greg Schulz, an analyst at storage consultancy StorageIO Group of Minneapolis, suggests two other possibilities. “The LeftHand Networks redeployment kit transforms HP Proliant servers into storage systems,” he says.

In addition, “NetApp StoreVault is a multi-function (SAN and NAS) storage system that scales to about 6TB as well as snapshot and remote mirroring with starting prices under $10,000.”

How’s Them Apples?
Apple Computer is another contender for the small business storage crown. Its Xserve server carries two dual-core Xeon processors (either2.0, 2.66 or 3.0 GHz). The base configuration, at $2,999 includes three hard drive bays (up to 2.25 TB of storage, as opposed to 1.5 TB in the previous version), an optical drive, plenty of ports that will take all kinds of connectors and an unlimited-client license of Mac OS X Server. All this comes in a very compact design.

It gets really interesting when you add in Apple’s Xserve RAID box, which provides up to 7TB of storage in a small form factor. Prices start at $6,000. “We’ve used the Apple Xserve RAID array for the past two or three years,” says Nickolett. “We have two of them and love the performance, reliability and cost.”

According to Alex Grossman, senior director of server and storage hardware at Apple, Apple storage works out at around $1.86 a GB. The company has also been upgrading its storage gear so that it uploads and downloads faster. Grossman says it is now twice as fast as the same unit of one year ago.

“We’ve shipped over 76 petabytes (PB) of storage in the past two years, with 40 percent of it going into non-Apple environments,” says Grossman.

For more advanced SMB users, Xserve RAID can be transformed into a SAN known as the Apple Xsan relatively inexpensively — when compared to traditional SAN expenditures. “You can convert Xserve to a SAN,” says Nickolett. “People using Linux or Unix seem concerned since it is from Apple, but to me this is one of the best all-around values.”

Digital capture and photographic post-production firm Industrial Color, for example, has deployed an Apple Xsan. This small business operates a total of 21 Xserves and two Apple Xserve RAID boxes. Its Xsan holds 42 TB of digital images.

“We store our images on an Apple platform and use it to host our creative applications,” says Christopher Mainor, IT director at Industrial Color. Retouchers access the photos residing on the Xsan to make the required changes. Every version is saved on the Xsan and can be retrieved at any time. In addition, each revision is backed up daily.

Do it Your Dell
Many smaller outfits, however, might not need a storage server to host company files. In some cases it is possible to get by with a regular server. Not everyone, after all, needs the amount of space required by companies like Industrial Color.

In that case, a server such as Xserve, or an inexpensive box by HP, Gateway, IBM, Dell or a white box provider may suffice.

Custom theatrical drapery manufacturer Sew What? of Rancho Dominquez, Calif., for instance, uses a Dell PowerEdge 860 server. Despite what the owner feels is rapid data growth, she still has plenty of room on the Dell machine.

“Our Web site helped our business grow nearly 45 percent last year and managing all of the business it generates requires a lot of storage — from global customer information to thousands of drapery and fabric images to QuickBooks files,” says Megan Duckett, a small-business owner and founder of “Sew What? “With the power and scalability of the PowerEdge 860, we still have plenty of room to grow and soon will be able to host our Web site in-house.”

The PowerEdge 860 has a dual-core Intel Xeon processor and 146 GB of internal storage for a price of around $1,000.

Storage Horizons
While that is a summary of some of the high points of small business storage for 2006, what lies in store for 2007? Most analysts agree that good times are ahead for the SMB sector.

“Small business owners can look forward to higher degrees of storage automation and even more aggressive pricing,” says Enderle.

Schulz concurs. He believes that more solutions that are assigned and sized for the SMB space will come onto the market. It’s time for people who evaluated storage systems a few years back and were put off by price, complexity or the potential return on investment to take another look, he says.

“Today’s solutions are being designed, built, marketed, sold and serviced with the small business customer in mind,” says Schulz. “This means that they are more affordable, more scalable, more feature function laden and more robust than in the past.”

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.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

Must Read

Get the Free Newsletter!

Subscribe to Daily Tech Insider for top news, trends, and analysis.