Buying guide: storage

Pick the right storage technology to manage your company's information growth.
Written by Staff , Contributor
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Q. Which type of storage product does the job best?
The best way to answer this question is to first identify the storage issues facing SMBs. Fast-growing companies typically share these four main pain points listed below:

1. Information's relentless growth

This means that companies must struggle to manage an IT infrastructure that will only become more complex. A typical SMB is looking at between 5 percent and 10 percent information growth every month.

2. Growing companies must innovate on a shoestring

Budgets today can be lean and mean, making it tough for the CEO or CIO to fund every strategic project that crosses his or her desk. Moreover, companies with smaller storage infrastructures tend to have a small IS staff.

3. Planning for growth

This takes up a large amount of technical resources. Many companies have inadvertently exacerbated the problem by building infrastructure on a piecemeal basis that depends largely on the quick deployment of off-the-shelf applications. While this keeps initial spending low, it makes it more difficult to build a unified infrastructure in the long run.

4. Technical staff wear several hats

Smaller companies tend to have fewer people doing more things, so broad-based expertise is needed together with simple tools that are easy to use, as there is limited time for training.

SMB Buying Guide

Did you know?
Throwing more storage at the problem under any circumstances is a bad idea.

Bottom line:
Across the board, SMBs have all cited e-mail management, backup and recovery, consolidation, data archiving and business protection as their top IT concerns. Notice they did not cite that they need more storage. Ironically, the traditional attempt to solve these problems was, and still is, to throw more storage and server capacity at the problem, purchase more tape and tape drives, delay upgrades to newer operating systems and business applications to stave off the need for more storage and acquire point products to patch problems.

Types of storage
There are four types of enterprise storage platforms:

1. DAS (direct-attached storage)
DAS comes with the computer or is directly connected to a single server via RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) arrays or tape libraries. A RAID system consists of two or more disks working in parallel. DAS products can still be found in many enterprises' IT infrastructures today.

DAS is best suited for companies with low availability requirements and looking for localized file sharing between just a few servers. For companies that are expecting rapid data growth, DAS is limited in its scalability, performance, availability and can be very complex to manage as servers proliferate.

DAS should be regarded as a interim step towards network storage as from a cost efficiency and administration point of view, networked storage models are simply better suited for information sharing, management, protection and security. Just to add, the DAS attributes cited above can equally be applied to other forms of non-scalable, low availability storage such as optical jukeboxes and tape libraries.

2. CAS (content addressable storage)
CAS is a new category of storage that has recently been introduced to help companies meet their fixed content and corporate compliance requirements. For example, companies with vast repositories of fixed content assets--such as an image bank, graphics design firm, online music store, insurance companies, architectural or law firms--all could essentially be users of CAS.

This type of storage has three main business benefits. Firstly, it enables affordable online access to your fixed content assets. Secondly, it has the capabilities to address governance and regulatory needs. Thirdly, it is perfect for active archiving in a mid-tier package at a mid-tier price. CAS is a complementary storage platform to SANs and NAS. Costs are lower because CAS uses less expensive drives and data on a CAS system reside near-line instead of offline to tape. This provides a much improved service level than tape backup or other forms of archival systems. CAS is much faster than tape but is unsuitable for high performance storage tasks that involves high levels or transactions, updating or heavy read/write.

Companies can easily store and retrieve vast amounts of digital fixed content--archived e-mail, electronic documents, drawings, video, and even MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) data--and be sure of its authenticity and integrity. There are CAS storage systems today that are purpose-built to enable compliance with enterprise governance needs and the most stringent regulatory requirements.

3. NAS (network-attached storage)
NAS devices do one thing really well: They enable companies to share files across heterogeneous platforms over a very cost-effective Ethernet and IP (Internet Protocol) network. It takes the load off servers and allows users to access the same data without server intervention. The three main NAS benefits are ease of installation, cross platform file sharing and data consolidation.

4. SAN (storage area network)
SAN is for companies that are likely to have different types of servers, storage and platforms within a single IT environment. These companies often find it practically impossible to manage information resources effectively. Therefore, information storage consolidation through a SAN becomes a key first step in streamlining the management of the entire IT infrastructure. The business benefits of SAN include reduced costs, protection of information, increased business flexibility and simplified management of the information storage environment.

SAN is one method of increasing connectivity between storage and servers by using switches. The technology benefits for a SAN include fast access to data, storage management flexibility, and scalability. For example, business applications such as data warehousing, SCM (supply chain management), ERP (enterprise resource planning) and CRM (customer relationship management) typically require high performance database access and transaction processing.

The only storage platform capable of supporting this level of business activity and demands are Fibre channel-based (FC) SANs. FC-SANs offer the highest speed connectivity in the storage networking world. At FC speeds, data is typically moving at 2 gigabytes per second within the network. New and improved SANs being introduced in 2006 will be double that number.

FC-SANs allow information to be stored, written, retrieved, recovered and move around in the storage network at almost instanteous speeds. For example, when you go to the ATM to retrieve your bank account balance, the information is probably coming off from a SAN. FC-SANs offers the best performance, availability and flexibility for the business. It is the top tier of storage platforms. Now let's say, you want all the benefits of a SAN but can't really afford the price tag that comes with it and don't really have high performance requirements. The next best option is IP storage.

For companies with limited budgets and low application performance requirements, iSCSI or IP storage may be an ideal option. In terms of price versus performance, the lower relative implementation cost of IP storage is an important factor for small businesses wanting to consolidate their IT infrastructures to effectively manage their information throughout its lifecycle.

Q. Why IP SAN or iSCSI?
The advent of iSCSI, which is a type of network connectivity technology like FC, offers a good entry point for SMBs to finally own a networked storage system. It is more affordable, allows companies to leverage their current IT skill sets within the company as every firm would have a local area network, easily extend their current file storage systems, and is easier to manage while enjoying all the benefits of information consolidation. iSCSI is a cost-effective way to consolidate stranded storage and servers.

ISCSI has significantly changed the dynamics of the SAN versus NAS debate. Current advanced storage systems recently introduced in April 2006 allow you to have both SAN and NAS "n a box" and a mixture of connectivity be it--FC or iSCSI, a mixture of FC or ATA hard drives. Two in one--SAN/NAS, FC/iSCSI connections, FC/ATA hard drives storage systems, in short, offers a very compelling value proposition.

Q. Under what circumstances would throwing more storage at the problem be a bad idea?
Throwing more storage at the problem under any circumstances is a bad idea. Across the board, small and midsize companies have all cited e-mail management, backup and recovery, consolidation, data archiving and business protection as their top IT concerns. Notice they did not cite that they need more storage. Ironically, the traditional attempt to solve these problems was, and still is, to throw more storage and server capacity at the problem, purchase more tape and tape drives, delay upgrades to newer operating systems and business applications to stave off the need for more storage and acquire point products to patch problems.

This is where we recommend fast-growing small and midsize companies to take a holistic information-centric approach to their storage planning. It's far easier than it seems, but concepts like information lifecycle management (ILM) have been around for a while, and ILM is a tried and tested approach that has proven to work very successfully for companies of all sizes.

Q. Where to start?
SMB should plan, build and manage their information infrastructure. It starts first with an audit that maps out their entire IT environment, followed by the classification of their data which tracks the lifecycle of each of their informational asset class such as databases, application data, contracts, invoices, customer data. That would give them a good handle on their performance requirements.

From there, they can go on to make a decision if they would like to use SAN, NAS or even CAS to archive and store their information for faster information retrieval and better management.

Most SMBs start with NAS consolidation as a first step and move on to combine SAN and NAS as their IT environment become more complex.

It gives them the best of both worlds as they enjoy productive protection which enables them to keep their business running at all times in the primary storage site and do all the housekeeping work on the secondary site, which also acts as a back-up copy, business continuity and fast information availability and file sharing. We are seeing an increasing number of customers deploying both SAN and NAS.

Q. How can you keep it simple?
The smart strategy is to break down the purchase process into smaller, more easily implemented components. The following four-step implementation process tends to work well in small to mid-sized businesses:

Step 1: Consolidate storage
It is not unusual for growing businesses to be heavily Windows based and rely on the attached storage that comes when they purchase servers. As a result, their storage resources are fragmented and difficult to manage. The reality is that consolidating storage doesn’t have to be complicated. For smaller companies, storage consolidation doesn't have to mean a SAN or NAS. It can be done with just one storage array with a mix of Fiber Channel and ATA drives. It doesn't mean more expensive storage; it means getting more out of the storage you have.

Step 2: Address backup and e-mail management issues
Many companies with smaller storage infrastructures have no companywide backup or e-mail management strategy; instead, they address recovery issues on a piecemeal, server-by-server basis. The business risk is huge, but they balk at the time and money necessary to build a comprehensive information protection and recovery policy. Backup software which automates many backup procedures and does so across the entire storage platform, can in itself constitute a simple backup policy.

Step 3: Build tiered storage
Again, growing companies might hesitate before moving into a tiered storage strategy, which ties the value of information to the price and performance of the storage where it resides. But implementing tiered storage is itself a relatively simple process. It can be as basic as having a simple storage array and having a mix of Fibre Channel and ATA disks, and doing snapshot copies.

Step 4: Optimize with management tools
By layering software on top of the storage infrastructure, IT managers can set automated data policies and manage information better, saving money and streamlining operations. There is host of software out in the marketplace designed to make your lives easier such as e-mail management, backup, data and e-mail archiving, content management, centralized management of heterogeneous storage.

Small and midsize businesses can approach information management step-by-step, such as starting with an e-mail archiving project, and work from there to other projects. Small successes will build their confidence and enable companies to progressively reap the rewards of a long-term plan.

Q. What else should I look out for (e.g. standards, emerging technologies, TCO)?
One thing that we do wish to emphasize is interoperability. Companies will do well to put interoperability right at the top of their selection criteria for ISCSI or FC-based storage systems as it affects a host of other issues such as investment protection, scalability, implementation and maintenance cost.

For example, implementing network storage such as a SAN can become very complex. The information infrastructure impacts every part of the IT environment from applications, servers to databases. Every device and connection must work well with the others. We strongly recommend assessing vendor claims. Find out how much they spend on ensuring interoperability. There are no short cuts. Ensure that you are getting the highest levels of interoperability as SMBs can least afford to find out that their storage system is having compatibility issues with another device or application in their IT infrastructure.

These tech tips were contributed by Verdayne Nunis, director of marketing, EMC South Asia.

For more storage related information, visit ZDNet Asia's storage management toolkit.

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