Home labs prop up storage users' skills

Home office storage has become more sophisticated -- so much so that enterprise storage administrators say they're using it to help them hone their skills for work.

As storage requirements grow everywhere, small office/home office (SOHO) storage is another category in which today's products dwarf the last generation. Now, with 1 terabyte (TB) NAS boxes on consumer shelves and all the parts necessary for a Fibre Channel (FC) SAN available on eBay, storage administrators for enterprise companies say their home "labs" are helping them come to grips with storage planning at work.

"I like to say I have VMware in my coffeemaker," said Tory Skyers, network administrator for Fox and Roach Realtors, the nation's fourth largest realtor and a subsidiary of Prudential Financial Inc. "It's a joke, but barely."

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Skyers is more than happy to share the saga of building a FC SAN at home. The SAN was entirely 1 gigabit per second (Gbps), and all the disks were SCSI -- Skyers said he got most of the half-terabyte system in parts on eBay.

"It's actually funny how cheap these parts are," Skyers said; for example, his FC-connected SCSI array cost $22 on the online auction site. An old Compaq 1 Gbps FC card cost him $4. A newer QLogic FC card was more pricey, at $700, but the complete system, he said, including processors, memory, RAID controllers, and IDE and SATA disks -- tiered storage in the home -- set him back around $5,000.

"I guess I'm obsessive-compulsive in a way," he said. "I need to know as much about what I work with as possible. I can't take it apart and test the limits, much less break stuff, at work."

The initial push, he said, was to learn about FC signaling, how fast it can go, and how to get performance numbers from it. "I didn't want to just read the information off someone's marketing media," Skyers said.

One thing Skyers said he learned quickly about FC was that compatibility issues between different cards can be frustrating.

"They're both running the same protocol," Skyers said. "I don't get why one slightly newer card won't work with the older one."

Wrestling with the FC SAN -- contrasted with the rest of his Ethernet home network and the advent of new high-capacity NAS boxes like Buffalo Technology's new Drivestation Duo, which packs 1 TB of storage into a $500 product -- has made him convinced FC will soon be a thing of the past at work as well as at home. In the enterprise space, Skyers said, he compares Sun Microsystems Inc.'s "Thumper" 24 TB DAS array to the Buffalo box. "If I can have a subsystem in a box like that that's the size of something like Nexsan's ATABeast with about a gazillion drives, and I can hook it up to my IP switch, throw one in another place for disaster recovery (DR), what do I need a SAN for?" he said.

Meanwhile, Skyers said, his home experiments have only deepened his love for VMware, another key component, he said, in consolidating down into a box like Buffalo's. However, he said, through experimentation he has learned that VMware is "very picky" about installing on a SCSI drive in the physical host. "I tried a Linux trick to present a SATA and an IDE drive to it as a SCSI disk, but no dice," Skyers said.

What's next? DR and exploring the WAN -- echoing enterprise trends. "A cousin in Florida and I are going to set up separate islands of storage several hundred miles apart, and then see if we can replicate back and forth to them over low-bandwidth connections," Skyers said.

Frustration with data management -- at work and at home

Jeff Boles, IT manager for the City of Mesa, Ariz., says he thinks home storage is a "canary in the mine" for the enterprise. "What you see at home today will become active in the enterprise tomorrow."

Boles said he uses a NAS device and open-source software Debian for management. He boots the NAS device from a flash drive and mirrors it to another identical box. The clients that connect to it are a variety of laptops.

The problem he wrestles with, Boles said, is similar to one being articulated in the enterprise today -- data management and classification. Boles, an avid photographer, stores around 40 gigabytes (GB) of digital photos at any one time, as well as various versions of those photos that have been touched up. "There's a pressing need there to be able to correlate versions of the same file," he said. "There's really no good versioning system -- and it's made data proliferate. My biggest beef with storage in general, at work and at home, is the absurd gap between how data is structured and how it's physically stored."

Unlike Skyers, Boles said he thinks the distributed-storage model is here to stay, but the advent of huge drives, mammoth NAS systems and continued data management headaches at home tell him "enterprise data will continue to centralize in a similar, if not totally identical way."

The enterprise had better get its act together quick, Boles said, as end users learn how to create an unimaginable variety of data types on devices like cell phones, iPods, digital cameras, Blackberrys and PDAs. "Seven to eight years ago, hobbyists were getting heavily into digital multimedia," he said. "Now it's everywhere you look in the business world."

Keeping skills sharp

Even if home computer labs don't point to sweeping trends, they can still be important for administrators to keep their skills sharp, according to Tom Becchetti, senior infrastructure engineer for a large financial company he asked not to be named.

"I had a complete lab in my basement that included, Brocade, Crossroads, MTI, Solaris, AIX, HP-UX, Linux, Windows, though I had to take it all down when I moved at the end of August," Becchetti said, adding that he had donated the equipment to a local college. "At one point, I actually had a virtual mainframe running on a Linux box -- there's all sorts of neat stuff you can do."

The biggest benefit to playing around at home, Becchetti said, was that it's helped to keep him current with every operating system on the market, especially those he doesn't use often at work. "My job today has me working with Linux and Windows mostly, so I keep AIX and Solaris going at home, in case we get new systems or I end up going somewhere else in the future," he said.

Business booming, backup still a problem

Buffalo's DriveStation product is just one example of cheap, consumer-oriented products that are hitting store shelves in enterprise-level sizes. Netgear, Inc., and Zetera Corp.'s z-SAN, first sent to store shelves in time for last year's Christmas season, has shipped 100,000 units since its release, according to a recent Zetera press release.

"There's no question data is exploding in the home, and that home users are becoming more and more storage-savvy," said Jeremy Anticouni, CTO with MakeItWork.com, a Buffalo partner and onsite tech services consultant to home users and very small businesses in California.

However, he said, as home and small offices start creating huge data repositories on what can seem like limitless disk, backup is often neglected.

"That's one of the biggest challenges we face as a service provider," he said. "Security and ease of use are concentrating more and more data in these central repositories, but users don't have other resources the enterprise enjoys, like tape libraries."

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