Storage and Small Business: Part One

Over the past year or so, vendors have issued a steady stream of press releases announcing their dedication to the small business market. HP, EMC , Network Appliance (NetApp), Computer Associates (CA) and many others have released SMB (small and mid-sized business) or SME (small and mid-sized enterprise) versions of existing storage products, or products dedicated to smaller environments.

Despite this greater storage availability, however, most small businesses appear to have remained interested in the very simplest of the available storage architectures. Known as Direct-Attached Storage (DAS), this involves having the storage contained within a server, or having a tape drive plugged into a server for backup.

“The vast majority of small organizations use DAS,” says Tony Lock, an analyst at UK-based IT consultancy Bloor Research. “Some may have some form of networked storage and a small percentage may have major storage requirements.”

Most SMBs appear to content themselves with a server and perhaps a simple backup structure. But some may venture into Network Attached Storage (NAS) or even a Storage Area Network (SAN).

NAS is the less complex option. It entails the addition of another server that is dedicated to file and print. This works well when a business has moved beyond one or two servers. The NAS box stores all company files, leaving the other servers to deal with core business applications. Such an arrangement tends to improve file access times, increases storage capacity and raises application performance.

When it comes to SANs, though, it is rare indeed for a business of less than a 100 staff to harness this technology. Why? A full-blown SAN requires dedicated IT staff and a high initial cost. Fortunately, the price of SANs has been brought down considerably by the introduction of storage networks that run on Internet Protocol (IP) i.e., the type of network commonly used today in small businesses to connect to the Internet. As a result, an IP SAN can be deployed by small businesses without having to import another layer of technical complexity.

According to International Data Corp. (IDC), the IP SAN market will reach $296 million this year. By 2008, it could soar as high as $2.7 billion.

“IP SAN’s are gaining momentum for small and medium enterprises,” says Natalya Yezhkova, a storage systems analyst at IDC. “The technology is easy to use, costs less than a traditional SAN and offers sufficient performance for many certain types of applications.”

Companies such as LeftHand Networks Inc. of Boulder, Colo., and StoneFly Networks Inc. of San Diego, Calif. have popularized the technology and now the leading storage vendors have followed suit with competitive offerings. NetApp led the IP SAN market last year with 43.1 percent followed by EMC with 22.1 percent.

Microsoft, too, is getting in on the act. It has teamed up with HP and Qlogic to market a Windows Server 2003-based Simple SAN. Small businesses can take advantage of a Simple SAN Program to consolidate DAS.

Now let’s take a look at two specific environments: a small business consisting of a handful of desktops and one with a few hundred.

An Attorney’s Small-Office Environment

Bonnie Lee Goldstein is an attorney based in Dallas who specializes in state and local government law. She employs an office administrator and a part-time receptionist/file clerk. The office contains four desktops and an IBM eServer running Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS). That server includes RAID functionality to protect data in case of a disk failure, and it’s attached to an IBM tape drive. The office uses CA Business Protection Suite, which includes CA BrightStor ArcServe for backup, CA Pest Patrol for anti-spy protection, CA eTrust anti-virus and other features.

The company performs full backups every night. It’s the office administrator’s responsibility to put a new tape in the machine each morning, and take the old one offsite for safe storage. In terms of cost, the CA software with a five-client access licenses cost $995. The IBM server came to close to $15,000 including about $3,000 for the tape drive. That provides the company with up to 200 GB of compressed data on one tape, far more than they currently use.

“I came very close to losing all my data so I really needed the reassurance that my data was protected,” says Goldstein. “I like to see the notification of a successful backup when I log on each morning, as well as having the ability to retrieve the last day’s or the last week’s work with ease.”

Goldstein, however, doesn’t have the time, energy or inclination to deal with IT herself. She hired Halogen, an IT services provider based in Bethesda, Maryland to help select, implement and maintain the solution.

“The size of the office didn’t warrant a SAN,” says Andy Bensinger, president of Halogen.

Multi-Site Small Business
Topeka, Kansas-based Commerce Bank and Trust, on the other hand, is very much at the high-end of the SMB space. With 500 people on a computer network that spans 22 branches, it has a total of 50 servers at one central location to serve all branches. As a result, it has a relatively sophisticated centralized storage and back up environment. In this arrangement, branches only have workstations. They can save files onto a server at the head office. These files are backed up regularly. Anything saved onto the workstation, however, is not backed up.

“We once had a server in a branch but we pulled it out,” says Steve Haas, Commerce Bank’s IT Security Officer. “You have to keep things very simple at the branch level, as it’s just not humanly possible to manage multiple branches individually.” He recommends that as soon as a business gets beyond two or three sites, it should take a look at centralizing its servers &#151 and that’s where SANs start to come into their own.

Commerce Bank uses an IP SAN by Left Hand Networks. It has a Left Hand storage appliance at each location, and Haas estimates the cost of the appliance at around $10,000 per branch. He particularly likes this approach due to its ease of installation &#151 it takes him a couple of hours to get an IP SAN up and running.

“Microsoft is making it much easier to implement IP SANs on a Windows platform,” says Haas. “If you can get a server up and running, you can easily set up an IP SAN.”

Choose Wisely
While Goldstein’s firm is at the lower end of the SMB market in terms of size, it elected to use high-end gear &#151 a sturdy IBM eServer for over $10,000 rather than going bargain basement and trying to make do with a cheap server for less than $1,000. And while Commerce Bank selected an IP SAN, there are financial services firms around with less than a hundred personnel who spent far more to implement a full-fledged SAN.

There are multiple factors to consider, therefore, when it comes to storage technology. A tiny office with basic IT needs could possibly make do with a PC, an Internet connection and a printer. That set up, however, should be supplemented with an inexpensive online backup service to protect any files the business doesn’t want to lose.

A small office like Goldstein’s, that has ultra-sensitive data and can afford a little more sophistication, should add a server with top-of-the-line RAID capabilities and some kind of reliable backup protection. But as the amount of data to be stored or the company size grows, there comes a time when a NAS box makes sense. This point might be reached once the company expands beyond a couple of servers, or when it starts to experience regular problems with its servers filling up.

And once a business gets up to about 100 people (this stage may be reached earlier due to the company having an IT-centric business or because of the amount of sensitive data it has to protect), it may be time to roll out an IP SAN.

“An IP SAN is perfect for a company that has one person assigned to take care of backup and storage across two or three sites,” says Haas.

In the second part of this series, we’ll take a closer look at vendor offerings that might satisfy the various categories laid out in this article.

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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