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File virtualization technology considerations for SMBs

NAS filers implemented to address unstructured data growth are now taking up large amounts of IT administrators' time. This tip explores file virtualization and how presenting multiple NAS boxes as one pool of storage can ease storage management burdens.

Many SMBs have a messy, storage-management predicament, which developed in tandem with explosive, unstructured data growth over the last few years. Plug-and-play  network-attached storage (NAS) appliances gained favor, because they can quickly provide file-based storage capacity and easily add additional units as capacity needs grow.

NAS filers implemented to address unstructured data growth are now taking up large amounts of IT administrators' time. This tip explores file virtualization and how presenting multiple NAS boxes as one pool of storage can ease storage management burdens.

Best practices for implementing file virtualization

Although it seems clear that file virtualization allows SMBs to do more with less, some SMBs have concerns about adopting the technology. Many of these organizations are wary of another quick-fix for a complicated problem.

Jeff Boles, senior analyst/director at the Taneja Group, advises SMBs to identify their biggest pain point, and then focus on the degree to which file virtualization will address that particular problem. They should also examine worst-case scenarios to avoid unnecessary risk.

Six months ago, Adam Baum, IT architect for the city of Mesa, Ariz., evaluated file virtualization to address the complexity of the city's highly distributed environment. He opted for a less-expensive alternative to file virtualization by using Microsoft Cluster Services. Baum kept all the server names as aliases so employees could use their same namespaces. Over time, he's modified employees' behavior by changing log-in scripts and using persistent mapping. New employees are introduced to the new official namespace, but the old names can also be referenced so they all point to the correct location of users' data.

For SMBs that are evaluating file-virtualization solutions, at least three major issues should be considered. They are the estimated cost, range of consolidation and degree of complexity.

Cost is the knock-out issue for many SMBs, because the entry point for file-virtualization products is at least $10,000. Since the ROI of file virtualization is often realized in soft dollars, IT administrators may find it difficult to win over their decision-makers.

To quantify file-virtualization benefits, the estimated reduction in management hours can be applied to the estimated increase in available administration hours. Those additional hours can be spent attending to the organizations' most familiar IT-related irritations, such as slow network performance. Addressing day-to-day irritations often results in more contented employees, an improvement that is also difficult to quantify. The management savings might also be great enough to mitigate the need to hire additional IT staffers.

Realistic expectations of storage-resource consolidation should be applied to the file virtualization decision. Before the acquisition process gets too far along, the SMB's network must be inventoried and assessed to determine if there are enough stranded NAS boxes and uncontrolled storage resources to justify pooling them. After a file virtualization approach has been decided upon and implemented, the network must be continually monitored to identify further consolidation opportunities and to stave off unnecessary capital expenses.

Ramping up a file-virtualization solution will pose initial complexity, so the IT administrator must be qualified to implement the solution or to vigilantly oversee a contracted VAR or integrator. A realistic estimate concerning ease of use, or conversely, added complexity, of the virtualization solution must be considered to preserve the health of the network. SMBs should determine if the solution can be implemented during off-hours with minimal disruption for the users. Staging the solution before organization-wide roll-out is also preferred. It might be necessary to roll-back the solution in response to complications such as compatibility issues. Fully understanding the complexity of roll-back is essential.

There are varied levels at which a file virtualization can penetrate an environment and affect successful roll-back. If the goal is individual file migration or ERP system manipulation, the virtualization solution will be deeply integrated with the IT environment and therefore rather complicated to uninstall. If virtualization will be used for simple file-server migration, the product will likely be easy to implement and easy to remove.

File virtualization products for SMBs

File virtualization costs and pricing models vary greatly and can be confusing. Product costs range from $4,000 to $60,000.

Current file-virtualization products include Attune Systems Inc. File Maestro, startup AutoVirt Inc. ($25,000 per domain), Brocade StorageX, EMC Corp. Rainfinity ($42,500), F5 Networks Inc. ARX500 ($58,000 per pair), and Hewlett Packard (HP) Co. PolyServe. Microsoft Corp. Server 2008 Enterprise with Distributed File System (DFS) namespaces and replication for 25 clients starts at $3,999.

With any new technology, SMBs should weigh the applicable cost/benefits of file virtualization and compare available products. Sometimes a knowledgeable VAR or integrator can help wade through file-virtualization options, make appropriate recommendations and implement the solution.

Ann Silverthorn has been writing articles and white papers about the management, storage, and protection of data for nearly a decade. She can be contacted at

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