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Managing data storage in small businesses: A data storage strategy tutorial

In this tutorial on managing data storage in small businesses, learn about how to choose the best data storage strategy, what your networked storage options are, and the pros and cons of working with a VAR.

While small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) might not have the resources larger enterprises enjoy, they still run into many of the same data storage problems such as capacity issues, shrinking data backup windows, data sharing and remote access. They still have similar problems managing data storage. Compounding the problem is the fact that many SMBs don't have a dedicated IT person. So it can be challenging to determine the ideal small business data storage strategy.

This tutorial can help you understand which architecture is right for your environment, whether it's direct-attached storage (DAS), network-attached storage (NAS), or a storage area network (SAN), and the key factors in choosing a VAR. Learn the best data storage strategy for your small business in this tutorial.



DAS devices for SMBs 
Shared SAS becoming popular in smaller businesses 
Network-attached storage systems dominating the SMB market 
Selecting a value-added reseller partner 



Many SMBs start with internal storage or a single storage device directly attached to a PC or server, and then upgrade to networked storage as their needs change. Liz Connor, a senior research analyst with IDC, said that as a result of new businesses moving through the storage device progression, the direct-attached storage market is garnering considerable attention from both enterprise and consumer storage vendors. "We've always seen a lot of enterprise guys basically offering chopped down versions of some of their mid-tiered systems to the SMBs," Connor said. "And now we're seeing a lot of what we consider personal storage vendors pushing up into that space."

Personal storage devices, such as the Iomega Corp. eGo and the Seagate Technology FreeAgent Go portable hard drives, are easy-to-use USB devices. Just plug them in and start storing your data. Both the eGo and FreeAgent Go offer up to 1 TB of capacity per device. Iomega also offers the Prestige and eGo desktop devices with up to 2 TB of capacity, and Seagate has the desktop GoFlex Desk device with up to 3 TB of capacity.

According to Connor, Seagate and Western Digital Corp. own the personal storage market. Surprisingly, Samsung has made a huge push through its channel partners into the personal storage market with its USB external hard drives. Other vendors include Buffalo Technology Inc., Hitachi Data Systems Corp., LaCie Ltd. and Toshiba America Inc.


Editor's Tip: For more information about direct-attached storage, read our tip on DAS devices in 2010.



Shared serial-attached SCSI (SAS) is a relatively new option for SMBs in which storage arrays directly attaches externally to multiple servers. Shared SAS is a combination of networked storage, because it is shared, and DAS, because it is directly attached to the servers. Shared SAS can be switched or not switched. "For smaller environments it works well," Yezhkova said.

"Shared SAS is broadly positioned for server-focused environments," Yezhkova said. "It's good for SMBs, but it can also be used in large enterprises as well, or at least departments of large enterprises. Where we mostly see switched Shared SAS is in blade server environments."

Because Shared SAS has distance limitations, a blade server environment is an ideal use case. "Shared SAS provides enough capacity that can be added to blade servers to serve the needs of a relatively small organization," Yezhkova said. There are also limitations in the number of storage arrays you can directly connect to the servers, and you also have to have native SAS connectivity or install SAS adapters on all connected servers.


Editor's Tip: For more information about serial-attached storage, listen to our podcast on shared SAS and how it offers networked storage on a budget.


SMBs typically need to move from DAS to a networked storage device when they need to share data across multiple locations, servers or PCs, require remote access to stored data, or implement a virtualized server environment.

According to Dave Pearson, a senior research analyst for IDC's Canada Infrastructure Solutions Research Group, deciding which architecture to adopt is the big challenge. Do you implement a NAS file-based system, or go with a block-based system using iSCSI or even Fibre Channel (FC)? Not surprisingly, Pearson said for most SMBs, it comes down to cost. "Storage is a very commoditized kind of technology," Pearson said, "at least in the perceptions and buying behaviors of Canadian businesses. Far and away [cost] is the criteria by which [SMBs] are basing their decisions."

But should it be? Pearson doesn't think so. "Storage performance, the ease of integration to an existing system, and the ease of management are areas in which small and medium businesses should be focusing their efforts a little bit more," Pearson said. "[What] they need to be doing is looking at past projects, white papers, and case studies from partners and vendors that reflect workloads similar to what they are doing. Match your environment to a published case study to find the best architecture for your needs."

Currently, network-attached storage systems dominate SMB networked storage and iSCSI is slowly making its way into the market. Some storage devices feature both, such as the Netgear Inc. ReadyNAS Pro Business Edition, which scales up to six drives and 12 TB of capacity. FC is reserved for special cases where the SMB needs a high-performance block-based solution.

According to Natalya Yezhkova, IDC's research director for storage systems, FC requires too much infrastructure, too much upfront cost, and specialized administrative skills for most SMBs. Ethernet-based iSCSI is making headway into the SMB market as a block-based alternative to NAS because of its lower upfront costs and protocol familiarity. Pearson said FC over Ethernet (FCoE) will eventually see more use in the SMB market, but not for a while. There is no significant FCoE use right now.


Editor's Tip: For more information on network-attached storage systems, and networked storage, download our free e-guide on networked storage for small businesses.



If you are considering directly approaching vendors to acquire your storage infrastructure, you may not have the choice. Many vendors will strongly suggest that you work with a reseller or integrator. "Small and medium businesses don't often have the choice to deal direct," Pearson said. "They can make hardware purchases, but if they need a complete solution, they'll need a VAR [value-added reseller]." While this might sound harsh, it's not. You will get much more attention and information from a VAR than from a vendor.

Many of the major vendors aren't set-up to support every implementation. According to Pearson, companies like EMC Corp. do roughly 70% of their business through the channel. Choosing a value-added reseller partner may be the single most important decision you make concerning your small business storage strategy. "VARs should not only be considered storage sellers, but also as advisors on what storage to choose," Yezhkova said. "An SMB customer should be comfortable with using a specific VAR in terms of how well the VAR can understand the SMB's storage needs."

Both Pearson and Yezhkova recommend choosing a VAR with the most experience in your particular situation. Use published case studies and personal recommendations to judge a VAR's knowledge and experience with your type of environment. "It's an incredibly difficult task for me to vet the abilities of the [VARs] I'm speaking with," Pearson said, "so what I have to do is speak with people who have already been through the process with them." Yezkova added that VARs need to have extensive experience in the best practices other SMBs are using, and be willing to share them with you.


Editor's Tip: For more information about VARs and SMBs, read our article on whether or not value-added resellers are a good fit for SMBs.


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