Not too long ago, storage networking was exclusively an enterprise-focused technology. Fibre Channel (FC)-based SANs were expensive, complex and required an army of storage-savvy IT staffers to maintain operational tasks. At the same time, small companies rarely believed they had sufficient requirements for SANs. Most SMBs had storage capacity requirements that were easily satisfied by server-resident disk drives.
How things have changed in a few short years! Like their enterprise brethren, small firms face a growing number of storage challenges such as:
Massive capacity growth. SMBs typically manage between 3 terabytes (TB) to 6 TB of data, with 60% to 100% capacity growth per year. With fewer storage specialists on hand, this growth rate can be a painful operational burden -- especially regarding backup and disaster recovery (DR) planning.
Security woes. Distributed storage has an often overlooked detriment -- it exacerbates data security. When confidential information resides on many servers, IT administrators have to implement multiple physical and technical security countermeasures for protection. This is an expensive, time-consuming and error-prone process. Often, security breaches are the direct result of human error, not technical vulnerabilities.
Cost constraints. SMBs are deploying more sophisticated technologies, but budgets are still meager, so IT is responsible for more daily work. They need ways to automate their workload and cut operating costs.
These business and IT pressures have prompted small organizations to jump on the SAN bandwagon. How do I know this? The Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) recently completed a survey of midsized companies in North America to assess their interest in storage networks. There were 202 respondents from more than 23 different industry segments. Of this diverse group, only 24% aren't considering networked storage. On the other hand, 35% have deployed networked storage, 13% are actively evaluating networked storage solutions and another 26% are considering it (2% of respondents answered "Don't know"). When it comes to storage network implementation, size doesn't matter anymore. More than half of the respondents were from organizations with fewer than 100 employees, 34% represented organizations with 100 to 499 employees, while the remaining 10% said they have more than 500 employees.
Big appeal for smaller companies
Why have SANs made their way downstream? Users point to the same types of benefits that initially appealed to enterprise companies. ESG asked SMB respondents with SANs to identify the objectives their organizations' achieved since implementing a networked storage infrastructure. More than half said "We've improved data availability" and "We have centralized backup/recovery." Forty-seven percent responded "We have improved storage utilization"; 46% claimed "We have reduced backup/recovery time"; and 41% stated "We have consolidated storage."
The data points to two different types of storage networking implementation. Nearly half of those responding claim they use storage networks for "All applications," while 46% use SANs for specific applications like database/OLTP, e-mail/messaging or business intelligence/data warehousing. Some small organizations are still deploying SANs selectively, while others believe consolidating information on storage networks has universal benefits. What about those who haven't deployed storage networks? Will they be buying any time soon? A whopping 42% will implement storage networks within the next two years, while another 11% will do so in a timeframe greater than two years.
It's safe to say that SMBs looking to implement storage networks in the next few years will have far more choices than their "bleeding-edge" peers who have already taken the SAN plunge. There are many new, complex computing and storage technology options to choose from. To avoid confusion, you'll need to do a lot of preparation.
With a raft of choices, it's important to note what's truly important and what's vendor rhetoric. Where should you start? ESG believes that small organizations should consider their options, research solutions and err on the side of caution. The following activities should be part of a storage networking implementation:
Include DR planning. Distributed storage makes business continuity (BC) and DR planning an operational nightmare, but companies gain some protection because they don't have all their eggs in one basket. With consolidated storage, losing an entire SAN's worth of data could have devastating consequences. Smart storage managers will recognize this risk and make sure to scope BC/DR issues in parallel with storage network planning and implementation. This will help to eliminate surprises--or even catastrophes--down the line.
Classify the data. No one likes this task, but it yields several benefits, including improved security and storage flexibility. (Dare I say information lifecycle management?) At the very least, pick the low-hanging fruit by segregating the most business-critical and confidential data as you develop aggregation strategies for distributed storage. This Tier 1 data set should be targeted at the highest performance, tightest security and most stringent BC/DR policies.
Find out what's going on in the home office. Remote offices with IT budgets and local staffs often solve tactical problems with a quick decision made in a vacuum. Resist this temptation and find out what's cooking on the storage front in the company's central IT. Is the gang at corporate planning on introducing new storage services like WAN-based storage capacity, centralized backup or distributed file systems? Remember, it may be more effective and economical to hitch your storage wagon to corporate IT, even if it means enduring a few more months of operational pain.
Investigate all storage networking technology options. Storage networking neophytes shouldn't rule out any alternatives before fully understanding and evaluating the costs, technology futures and internal fit associated with each choice. While FC is almost the default for enterprise storage networking, smaller organizations may be best served by iSCSI or NAS-based storage systems. This decision should be based on business requirements and storage knowledge, not just whiz-bang technologies. For example, shops with strong networking skills should probably think hard about iSCSI or NAS technologies that complement their strengths.
Think through storage network management. This may not be an immediate need because most SMBs start with relatively small storage networks. Nevertheless, it's worth considering how you'll make HBAs, switches and networked devices work together as SANs inevitably scale and require more management. At the very least, when vendors come by to show off their wares, ask questions to get a good picture of each product's management capabilities.
Don't forget to consider services. Even though the storage service provider market has been promising to be the "next big thing" for approximately seven years, there are viable service choices today for storage capacity, file distribution and backup. Explore this option with an open mind and a cautious eye. If you do opt for this alternative, make sure your services partner has a combination of storage skills, a high-availability infrastructure and financial viability.
This is just a brief list, but too often companies skip these steps, go into raptures over the latest technology and end up dealing with expensive post-implementation detours for years. This is truly an instance where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Storage networks are no longer just the playground of the digital elite. While many small organizations have deployed SANs and achieved measurable benefits, many others are just now planning their implementation strategies. Before jumping into the storage networking pool, ESG believes SMBs should plan carefully, consider the SAN environment and not just the technology, and contemplate all of the options. This advice may not sound like much fun, but it sure beats cleaning up a storage networking mess later.
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About the author: Jon Oltsik is a senior analyst and storage industry veteran at the Enterprise Strategy Group, focused on information security