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Data storage virtualization benefits for small businesses

Data storage virtualization can help SMBs by simplifying management tasks and refreshing storage systems.

What you will learn in this tip: Storage virtualization products aren't just for large businesses. There are a variety of data storage virtualization solutions that are easy to set up and are priced right for small- and medium-sized businesses.

With EMC Corp.'s recent VPlex announcements, data storage virtualization is suddenly hot again. But as with many previous data storage virtualization products, VPlex is aimed at the high end of the storage market. However, there are numerous storage virtualization benefits that can and should be enjoyed by small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Virtual storage for SMBs can extend the life of legacy storage and simplify provisioning with thin provisioning or dynamic LUN expansion, and ease some of the burden of data migration. Data storage virtualization can minimize storage management drudgery with a single management console for multiple physical storage systems. Perhaps its greatest benefit is the ability to refresh storage systems while minimizing outages and disruptions.

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Unfortunately, many storage pros believe there are no attainable low-cost storage virtualization options for SMBs. They're wrong. It's not inherently obvious, but there are actually quite a few affordable SMB storage virtualization choices available.

What is storage virtualization?

But first we must define what data storage virtualization is for SMBs. Storage virtualization abstracts the storage image from the physical storage. This allows many storage operations to be masked from the application and users of that storage. In other words, storage can be operated, maintained, and managed with fewer management tasks as well as much-reduced scheduled application and user downtime. In this tip, the discussion will be limited to three storage virtualization types: file or network-attached storage (NAS) virtualization, block/storage area network (SAN) storage virtualization, and iSCSI-clustered storage.

Products in the file or NAS virtualization space include Microsoft's DFS (distributed file system) and AutoVirt Inc.'s file virtualization software.

Microsoft developed Windows DFS for the small- to medium-sized business Windows-only (CIFS) business market and is part of Windows 2003 and 2008 servers. DFS Namespaces enables multiple different file servers' shared folders to be grouped into one or more logical namespace. Users see the namespace as a single shared folder with multiple subfolders and automatically connect them to shared folders in the same available Active Directory Domain services site. This alleviates unnecessary LAN or wide area network (WAN) routing. DFS Replication enables folders to be automatically synchronized between file servers locally or geographically distributed across a WAN.

DFS gets a short shrift because of its limited feature set, management, the small potential for remote users to access out-of-date files and its inability to work with non-Windows NAS. However, the price is hard to beat.

On the other hand, AutoVirt alleviates every one of DFS' shortcomings including working with non-Windows NAS while building on what DFS does well. Its management is user intuitive, provides great scalability beyond what can be done with DFS, is reasonably priced and solves many user problems.

Examples of some affordable Fibre Channel (FC) virtualized storage systems include DataCore Software SANSymphony, EMC AX, NX, and NS series, FalconStor Software NSS, IBM Corp. SVC, and NetApp FAS and V-series (IBM OEMs as N-series).

In the iSCSI-clustered virtual storage space, there are a wide variety of reasonably priced products. Some examples of these products include DataCore Software SANSymphony or SANMelody, Dell EqualLogic, EMC AS, NX, and NS-series, FalconStor NSS, Hewlett Packard (HP) Co.-LeftHand P4000 series, NetApp FAS or V-series (IBM OEMs as N-series), Nimbus sustainable storage, Pivot3 UVS and RELDATA-9240i.

Data storage virtualization questions for SMBs

All of these data storage virtualization products reduce operational tasks, management and scheduled downtime and are worth considering for most SMBs.

There are three remaining questions that an SMB might want an answer to:

  1. How difficult is data storage virtualization to set up? For the vast majority of the aforementioned storage virtualization solutions, it is the opposite of difficult. Most are intuitive requiring little expertise.

  2. What are the "gotchas" to watch out for? If the storage virtualization solution is an appliance, there will be an extra layer of management. The appliance will have to be set up and managed as well as the back-end storage. In general, each of the solutions will vary in their flexibility. But in order to provide an intuitive simple solution, assumptions have to be made by the vendor that inherently limits some of the flexibility. In other words, there may be some things that you may want to do but cannot because the parameters are not changeable.

  3. What does affordable really mean? Generally speaking, it means that the total cost of ownership is equivalent to or in most cases less than non-virtualized storage. MSRP is all over the map with differences in tens of thousands depending on features, performance and capacities.

Overall, if small businesses plan correctly, they can reap many benefits from implementing data storage virtualization in their environments, including simplifying management tasks and the ability to refresh systems. Plus, many products are affordable and relatively simple to set up.

About the author: Marc Staimer is the founder, senior analyst, and CDS of Dragon Slayer Consulting in Beaverton, OR. The consulting practice of more than 12 years has focused in the areas of strategic planning, product development, and market development. With more than 30 years of marketing, sales and business experience in infrastructure, storage, server, software, and virtualization, he's considered one of the industry's leading experts. Marc can be reached at

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