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Data storage capacity planning for SMBs

Assessing storage needs overtime can be a daunting task, particularly for growing SMBs. In this FAQ, noted SMB storage consultant, Tory Skyers, discusses capacity planning management best practices for SMBs.

Assessing storage needs over time can be a daunting task, particularly for growing SMBs. In this interview, noted SMB storage consultant, Tory Skyers, discusses capacity planning management best practices for SMBs. His answers are also available below as an MP3 download.

Table of contents:
Data storage pain points for SMBs
Determining the course of action for capacity planning
Ensuring the overall success of capacity planning
Disaster recovery and business continuity efforts
Green opportunities in capacity planning

Can you talk about the data storage pain points for SMBs and how an effective capacity management plan can alleviate these?

That's probably the No. 1 question I get. The biggest storage pain point for SMBs is essentially not knowing what to do, where their data is, how much data they have, finding it when they need it and leveraging the value of their data. Capacity management can help you put a giant lasso around that stuff, rope it in and get it under control, provided that you put the right tools, policies and processes in place.

What are the main issues to look at when determining the course of action for capacity planning?

Obviously there is a lot of detail that goes into that answer, but I can give a very generic, top-level answer. It's essentially knowing what your business is doing, not necessarily from a technology standpoint, but from a business standpoint -- in an 18-month time frame, to a three-year time frame, to a five-year time frame. You really need to plan out that far, but if you do, it's fantastic. If you have a five-year plan, it will trickle down more easily into getting your hands around capacity and growth.

The other thing you need to not lose sight of is compliance and regulations, which is becoming more of an issue today as things become more electronic and more and more lawyers and congress get involved. So your local company policy has a lot to do with how much data storage you use and require over these time frames.

There's a lot of people out there that will give you a very technical answer and say that you have to plan for this and that you take that capacity, divide it by X, and then you have a number. My opinion on this is that you go out and you look for a capacity tool that's within your budget. There are a couple of choices for SMBs: Quest Software Inc.'s Storage Horizon, IBM Corp.'s Systems Director and Ipswitch Inc. WhatsUp Professional. There are also a lot of integrated tools at today's SMB level, including storage area networks (SANs) and iSCSI arrays that you can use to track at a high level how much storage you're using. Some of the other tools will actually get a little bit deeper into what your data is and will give you pie charts of how many jpegs and things of that nature are on your disk.

Are there any management best practices for SMBs to ensure the overall success of the plan once its practices are implemented?

Again, you can get very detailed with that, but at a high level, that's the most critical part of capacity management. In my opinion, the best practice for management is frequent audits. Once you've acquired a tool and deployed it on all of your desktops and your SAN, and have started monitoring what data is going on, as a manager, you need to take a look at those reports, at the very least, once a quarter.

You must audit what's going on versus your policy. So take a look at what people are storing versus your policy, what your administrators are doing versus your policy and then if things are starting to slide in a certain direction, do something about it. By leveraging your marketing department and your internal legal and security teams, it can become a very strong argument for you to modify policy if users are demonstrating behavior that is necessary for line of business. If it goes outside of what your old policy was, you can use these tools to extract your ports and modify your policy. You can also give people little slaps on the wrist to ensure that people are adhering to the policy.

Empowerment is another big thing; empowering your administrators to bring these things up. If a senior executive is storing a 20 gig iTunes repository, the company may want to pay for it, but then again they may not. So empowering your admin staff to bring those sorts of things to the forefront is a good thing and it'll help you with capacity management.

Finally, you need to define your policies. This best practice is a moving target. Defining your policies and then adhering to them is very important and it's probably the most skipped step in the SMB space.

Can a capacity management plan aid in disaster recovery (DR) and business continuity (BC) efforts?

This is a hot topic, especially with Hurricane Katrina and some of the other events that have recently happened. There are a lot of businesses that are redoubling there efforts to get their data offsite. Just to recap, if you have an idea of what your data is valued, you know where your data is and you know what your data is, then you essentially have a really giant head start in developing a plan.

If your data is not valued very much and you can recreate it easily, you don't really need to spend that much money on disaster recovery and business continuity. On the other hand, if you're a 3D animation house that spends thousands of man hours creating unique models, it's probably a good idea that you get that data offsite. So capacity management will help you when it comes to how much of the data you currently have stored in your business that you actually need to take offsite. It will help you drive down to a specific cost of taking that data offsite and keeping your business running incase of a disaster.

Costs are a big issue when it comes to disaster recovery. Having a good capacity management plan, a good audit process and sticking to policy will help you know precisely what you need to have onsite and what you need to have offsite. Also, let's not forget about PCI and some of the other regulations that come down and dictate that you hold particular data offsite, secured and encrypted.

Are there any green opportunities in capacity planning and if so, what are the benefits of these opportunities?

Green is another thing that comes up a lot with SMBs and I guess there is a lot of religion and politics surrounding the term "green," especially when it comes to the data center. My thoughts on this are that you can use green to leverage and essentially sell to management because saving electricity is a contribution to the bottom line.

Not only that, but you can also use it in feel-good PR for your staff or other people that you deal with. For the most part, having a well-practiced and well-audited capacity management situation within your company will help you to not buy as many disks or buy the types of disks that you need for the jobs that you need them to do. It will also help you leverage larger arrays of disks in order to prevent them from the less efficient disks in your environment. But if you know what your data is, how long you need to keep it and what its value is, it's easier to put things off to tape. To use an old phrase, tape is the red-headed step child of the data center because it's the greenest one out there. It doesn't take any energy to store tapes on a shelf. That's pretty much the basics of green as far as capacity management in SMBs goes.

Tory Skyers is a senior infrastructure engineer and storage consultant, primarily focusing on the SMB space.

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