Special Supplement: Small office SANs

Leading vendors are offering entry-level Fibre Channel and iSCSI SANs at record low prices. And you can get a lot for your money.

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Storage August 2006 Special Supplement

Prices for entry-level Fibre Channel and iSCSI SANs keep falling, putting them within reach of companies with modest storage budgets.


Even smaller businesses need the benefits that SANs and other networked storage systems deliver, particularly in terms of centralized management and backup. Yet these businesses have favored DAS, which leaves them struggling to manage scattered storage and backup data on isolated servers. That's not only costly, but risky.

"Every small business has some data that is extremely valuable," says Mike Karp, senior analyst, Enterprise Management Associates (EMA), Boulder, CO.

The need for capabilities like centralized management and backup, data replication, mirroring and snapshots makes "networked storage necessary in the SMB [small- to medium-sized business] space," says Steve Duplessie, founder and senior analyst, Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), Milford, MA.

Beyond backup, SMBs "need to be able to grow their storage at a moment's notice and without causing application downtime," says Duplessie. "Networked storage enables SMBs to get most of the benefits large enterprises get." And, he adds, "they need to get it without it costing a fortune and without their needing a Ph.D. to plug the stuff in."

Until recently, it wasn't feasible to deliver networked storage in the form of Fibre Channel (FC) SANs to SMBs, especially smaller organizations. But the falling cost of storage, the emergence of iSCSI, and efforts to simplify the management of FC SANs through GUIs and wizards are making SANs more accessible to companies with limited IT resources.

Storage vendors are developing easier-to-use SAN and NAS products and pricing them within reach of smaller organizations' budgets. Even Microsoft Corp. is getting into the SMB SAN game with its Simple SAN initiative. These products are priced low, and features may have been trimmed and offer only limited flexibility/scalability. In addition, SMBs can opt for a variety of small office/home office USB-based storage offerings.

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Storage August 2006 Special Supplement

Cost and skill hurdles
Depending on whom you ask, the SMB category ranges from any company not in the Fortune 1000 to mom-and-pop operations. A Harvard Business School program intended specifically for executives at small-sized businesses sets an annual revenue of $3 million as the minimum eligibility size.

A recent survey by the Boston-based Yankee Group gives some reasons why SMBs struggle with SANs:

  • Fifty percent of respondents have less than 5TB of storage.
  • Forty-six percent employ three or fewer IT people.
  • Sixty percent budget less than $50,000 for storage, and 59% spend no more than $10,000/TB.
"You can now get what amounts to a small, 250GB SAN from vendors like Netgear and others for $400," says Karp. Running Ethernet and mirrored SATA drives while using only a router to connect multiple hosts is admittedly "a lightweight approach," he adds. However, he's talked with vendors planning more powerful low-end systems that use larger disk drives and incorporate a switch rather than a router.

Those Yankee Group survey respondents willing to spend $10,000 can get quite a bit more. "Today, $10,000 buys 1TB of disk, a couple of HBAs [host bus adapters] and a switch," says Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at StorageIO in Stillwater, MN. "And I'm not just talking about little-known vendors--even EMC sells 1TB of storage for that money."

With a storage budget approaching $20,000, an SMB can get a fairly sophisticated FC SAN. "In shopping around, I've seen FC SANs populated with disk drives [that cost] $12,000 to $15,000," says Mike Magaldi, director of technology at St. Mary's and All Angels School in Aliso Viejo, CA. He checked out one FC SAN offering for $9,999, but it didn't come with disks. For $20,000, Magaldi has found a choice of FC SANs that includes sufficient disk and management capabilities, including backup software. The school currently operates an FC SAN built on Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co.'s StorageWorks MSA1000 array. With the help of wizards included in the HP storage, Magaldi set up the FC SAN and backup system. "Wizards helped a lot. I had no idea about LUNs," he admits.

One thing that doesn't come with a low-priced SAN is the help of a skilled storage integrator. "We don't work with companies at the small end of the SMB market. The problem is designing the FC infrastructure," says one storage integrator who doesn't want to get calls from small companies. He recommends considering iSCSI for the SAN because it eliminates the problem of building an FC infrastructure and acquiring FC skills.

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Storage August 2006 Special Supplement

Technical skills
SMBs know how to set up DAS as shared network drives and folders in Windows. They also know how to set up an Ethernet network. But creating LUNs on an FC SAN or setting up different RAID levels requires technical skills many SMB companies don't have. "At the least, these companies need software that automatically sets up RAID groups and abstracts LUNs to the familiar drive letters," says Scott Robinson, chief technology officer at Datalink Corp., a Chanhassan, MN-based storage integrator that also doesn't handle small business projects.

That was the case with Freeman Companies, a Dallas trade-show exhibition producer. "We're a small IT shop and had $14,000 to set up shared storage," says Lance Ballew, information services manager.

Having outgrown its 600GB Dell Inc. DAS, Freeman Companies was forced to try something new. After looking at the low-end offerings of Dell and HP, the company turned to Nimbus Data Systems Inc. in San Francisco for two 1.3TB iSCSI boxes.

"I wasn't that familiar with this kind of storage. I had always dealt with DAS. Nimbus Data talked us through it," says Ballew. The Nimbus support team set up a remote WebEx session and even logged on to walk Ballew through the setup. RAID 5 turned out to be simple. "You tell the software how much you want to format for RAID 5 and it just does it," says Ballew.

To save money, Freeman Companies used Microsoft's Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) for replication. "Because we got VSS with Windows Server, we didn't have to buy replication from a storage vendor," says Ballew. However, the firm's old Microsoft Server 2000 cluster didn't work with some of the newer technology because of the way Windows Server looked at the adapter cards. "Nimbus talked me through the problem and then kept calling me back to check that each step worked correctly," says Ballew.

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Storage August 2006 Special Supplement

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SMB SAN options
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SMB storage options
The newest initiatives come from a broad array of vendors and attempt to alleviate storage complexity for SMBs. The idea is to build much of the capability into the OS, typically Windows Server, and to then provide a GUI and wizards to mask the underlying complexity. What SMBs give up in flexibility and control, they save in not having to hire skilled staff.

FC SAN options for SMBs are limited. But several vendors, such as EMC and HP, offer scaled-down FC SAN-in-a-box products. Lesser known vendors like Winchester Systems Inc. and Xiotech Corp. also offer similar options (see "SMB SAN options," this page). Most of the starter SANs use iSCSI, which runs on an SMB's Ethernet network. "These starter SANs make SANs possible, but you're going to give up some things," says StorageIO's Schulz. For instance, they typically offer limited RAID options, either mirroring or RAID 5, and often don't include remote replication or snapshot capabilities.

The list of vendors offering iSCSI SAN-in-a-box products is growing and includes EqualLogic Inc., Intransa Inc., LeftHand Networks Inc., Nexsan Technologies Ltd., Nimbus Data Systems and StoneFly Inc., among others. "These companies have a lower cost structure than the big vendors so they can offer a low price," says Schulz. The products typically include slower, less-reliable SATA drives but come with RAID protection, a basic GUI setup and management tools.

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Storage August 2006 Special Supplement

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Buyer beware
Where low-cost storage vendors cut corners:
  • Compatibility testing
  • Burn-in
  • Redundant components
  • No-name components
  • GUI management software
  • Technical support
  • Features (RAID, replication, snapshots)
  • Additional ports
  • Expansion bays
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For really low-cost SANs, there are "third-tier vendors who may put together low-cost, unbranded components and skimp on burn-in and testing," says Schulz. Some advanced skills may be needed for debugging and compatibility testing of these systems (see "Buyer beware," at right).

Microsoft's Simple SAN initiative promises to drive the low end of the SMB SAN market. "It's because of Microsoft that SMBs will be able to do networked storage," says ESG's Duplessie. "Microsoft makes things cheap and easy compared to the expensive, complicated status quo. [It] can also get the other vendors to play nice. SMBs benefit when Microsoft pulls out the stick."

For SMBs that have standardized on Windows Server, Microsoft offers an array of advanced storage functionality like replication (using VSS), iSCSI initiators and multipathing IO (MPIO) built into the OS. This allows an SMB to avoid purchasing similar functionality from the storage vendor while reducing the likelihood of implementation, integration and compatibility problems. Microsoft's Simple SAN program has attracted a large number of storage companies, including Brocade Communications Systems Inc., EqualLogic, HP, Hitachi Data Systems, IBM Corp., LeftHand, LSI Logic Corp., QLogic Corp. and others.

SMBs can also opt for NAS rather than SAN and still get the advantages of centralized management and backup. The problem with NAS is its file orientation. "Some applications like SQL Server or Microsoft Exchange prefer block storage, not file-based storage," explains Datalink's Robinson.

"You can run database applications on NAS," says Schulz. "You just have to take some precautions as to configuration." The biggest drawback is slower performance. Most small businesses don't run high-volume, high-performance database apps, so they're not likely to notice performance degradation.

Compared to even a year ago, SMBs have quite a few storage options beyond DAS and NAS. Today, they can opt for FC or iSCSI SANs, and choose among the most reputable vendors in the industry. They'll probably still need to spend more than $10,000 if they want an FC SAN, but that price barrier could change soon.

This was first published in August 2006
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