What’s in store?

The notion that storage management is complicated is long gone as vendors push simpler and more affordable solutions for SMBs

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By  Caroline Denslow Published  October 9, 2005

Introduction|~||~||~|Not so long ago, technologies such as storage area networks (SANs) were tre-ated with some trepidation by sm-all-and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). It was as if these — and other, newer, storage technologies — were only meant for big enterprises or data centres. There was a perception that they were too costly to buy and too complex to manage. Much of this was indeed true. They were expensive, running into thousands — even millions — of dollars. And only a company that had a full-fledged IT department could put them to work. All that has changed. A SAN box can be purchased for well under US$10,000. It also comes pre-configured, so you no longer need to be an IT whiz, or indeed employ one, to look after it. In fact, you can have it up-and-running in less than 30 minutes. And your reseller is more than well- equipped to take care of the management task, as and when needed. Lower prices and ease of use have put SAN, NAS and other high-end technologies well within the grasp of SMBs. But do SMBs need to implement such solutions? ||**||Fear of data loss|~||~||~|In the past, storage backup and disaster recovery tended to be an afterthought for SMBs. But that may not be such a smart thing now. According to research firm IDC, around 80% of small business PC users still have crucial data on their desktop PCs and notebooks. This data is not backed up regularly. Moreover, analyst Gartner estimates that less than 50% of medium businesses and only 25% of small businesses have disaster recovery plans in place. Yet the fear of losing data is all too well-founded. Several studies make a rather grim point: most small businesses never fully recover from a severe data loss and go under in less than two years. “The question to be asked is: What if I lose my data? What if I cannot retrieve my e-mails?” says Bjarne Rasmussen, vice president, technology services, Computer Associates (CA), Arab Countries and Pakistan. The risk of losing data is only one side of the story. Most fast-growing SMBs witness an explosion in data volume. It is not uncommon for an SMB to accumulate anywhere between 500Gbytes to a few terabytes of data within a couple of years of existence. The rate at which firms, both big and small, add data is growing as their dependence on IT grows. Increasing deployment of solutions such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM) and pro-duct life-cycle management (PLM), has contributed to this growth. “These solutions quite literally generate a tidal wave of data through the innumerable transactions which happen through these solutions. And this data has to be stored and managed efficiently,” says Qais Gharaibeh, sales manager, EMC, Middle East and North Africa. Digging out any meaningful information from such a large data pool is hard and time consuming. Gharaiubeh concurs: “Inefficient management could result in a colossal loss of productivity not only on account of disasters that come without warning, but also in searching for information when it is required.” ||**||Storage offline|~||~||~|SMBs have responded to the growing data mountain and risk of loss by using offline backups. The price of such storage has been plummeting, making them attractive to cost-conscious SMBs. CDs, zip drives and small capacity tapes cost next to nothing. Even higher capacity USB drives can be had for a couple of hundred dollars. These have served the backup needs of small businesses. File folders from different computers are copied on to one or more of these media at regular (or in most cases, irregular) intervals. These are then kept onsite. On the face of it, this looks like a simple and practical way of dealing with growing data volume and managing the risk of data loss. But in reality, neither objective is truly achieved. The current generation of computers are equipped with 20-80 Gbyte hard drives. These can no longer be practically backed up by traditional hardware. As employees frequently need to access stored data, there is a good chance that media with small-form factors (such as CD or zip drive) might get misplaced. None of these methods allow for any meaningful archiving, thus making the process of retrieving data a time-consuming hit-and-miss affair. Onsite storage of backup hardware does little to insure a firm against accidental risks such as fire. As a result, SMBs typically have a highly fragmented computing and storage environment. Many of the solutions implemented do not work with each other. “A fundamental reason for these issues was their lack of knowledge and the expertise within to deploy storage solutions,” says Gharaibeh. This resulted in over-dependence on vendors — even for trivial issues. As a result, they were not able to maximise their returns on investments in storage systems. There is often a reluctance to embrace a comprehensive storage solution amongst SMBs. “SMBs are typically budget-conscious and looking to deploy as few people in IT as possible,” says Abderrafi Belfakih, manager, systems engineering group, Cisco, Middle East. The perception that such solutions cost too much or require expensive IT resources to manage them causes many to shy away from adopting even entry-level solutions. “Over 50% of companies in the region have their storage attached to the server. Direct storage is costly,” says John Bentley, sales director, Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), Middle East. Neither of these perceptions is, however, true. In the last couple of years, vendors have cut prices and added features that turn geek-sounding SAN and NAS into user-friendly plug-and-play devices. “Products are becoming more and more user-friendly, and specific to SMBs,” says Katie Spurgeon, channel manager, Symantec — which now owns Veritas. More progressive SMBs are looking at such solutions. “It is a good backup solution that can serve as a small backup server as well,” says Ashraf Helmy, product manager, HP, Middle East. NAS starts at US$4000. It comes with software that can automatically create backup and can serve up to 50 users. It requires virtually no management and could even turn out to be cheaper in the long run. “Currently, most companies have no benchmark of how much it really costs. They have no idea of utilisation rates of existing resources. Globally, it can be as low as 10%. They are not aware of total costs,” says Belfakih. ||**||Virtualisation|~||~||~|Storage solutions go beyond merely storing data in a secure manner. They bring intelligence and therefore management capabilities to the table. Technologies such as virtualisation allow enterprises to make more efficient use of their hardware and network resources. “Virtualisation improves the agility of a company,” says Bel-fakih. Once you put everything on the network, many sites can share resources. You can have a situation where you have engineering and HR on one floor, and ERP and operations on the other. It is quite likely that an HR server is under-utilised, while ERP servers are over-stretched. You can build a virtual SAN that lets you have different user departments within the same switch operate in a virtualised network. “This creates opportunities to bring TCO down to a new low by centralised control of any number of sites, consolidate IT personnel, and have greater visibility into services,” Belfakih says. Another technology that goes by the name of storage resource management (SRM) can be programmed to assign different media types based on the nature of data — age, file type, etc. It can even delete duplicate files in an automated fashion, thus reducing data load. Symantec has tied up with Dell to offer one such product — the StorageExact — for as little as US$99. ||**||SMB specific |~||~||~|So what really are the options? Vendors such as IBM, HP, HDS and EMC offer a range of solutions that are specific to SMBs. Most of these incorporate features drawn from high-end systems. Those who have four or five servers can opt for a NAS, which is a plug-and-play solution. “It is so easy to use that, if you can use a kettle, you can use it,” says Helmy. This solution is an equivalent of a file server. The difference is that there is no additional software cost or cost of managing this solution. If a company does not have an IT resource, then it incurs an overhead cost every time something needs to be changed in the server. “You have to call an IT service provider. It is quite useful for large enterprises too, which can deploy this at their remote branches that have no IT staff,” says Helmy. Five years ago, companies were running services based on PCs. Most such companies are now running on servers. NAS now gives them the option of a proper — and affordable —storage solution. But if a SMB has an online application and wants to ensure high availability, SAN may be the only option. “The moment you mention SAN, they panic. They think it is difficult to configure, too expensive,” says Helmy. But the reality is that many of the solutions are pre-configured at a factory, and not at customer premises. It takes less than 20 minutes to get them going. “We have customers running just two servers with a SAN box. What matters is how critical availability is,” says Helmy. Do SMBs really need SAN? EMC does not see any fundamental difference between large enterprises and SMBs when it comes to storage requirements. “Data storage requirements of SMBs are merely scaled down versions of the enterprises. More than storage capacity, a SAN better suits the purpose of data consolidation,” says Gharaibeh. This enables organisations to drive down costs of data replication and backup. He cites an example of a small hospital, which has a core ERP application running along with four other applications. Each of these applications runs on a separate server. Let us assume each one is mission-critical for the hospital, and has to be replicated on a backup server at a remote site. Furthermore, it is a client requirement that the backups should be executed super fast. This requires dedicated links to the remote site from each one of the servers, which can drive up costs significantly. The other option would be to replicate each of these servers in a serial mode. In this scenario, replication could take up a lot of time. A SAN consolidates the data from each one of these servers, allowing a fast storage-to-storage replication with only one link to the remote site. “The mindset that SAN deployment is driven by data volume is not true. SAN deployment is actually driven by the number of applications that are running and the different computing environments in the organisation,” says Gharaibeh. “If an SMB has such a set-up, then a SAN can truly be a cost-effective option,” he adds. Vendors have also made sure their solutions take care of a heterogeneous computing environment. “Our products work across operating systems and hardware,” says Mohamed El-Shanawany, storage sales manager, for IBM’s Middle East and Pakistan operations. How does an organisation determine whether it needs a SAN or a NAS? Let us take the case of a publication house. In a publication house, there could be several users working on one large file say, an AutoCAD file. Here, users extensively share files amongst themselves. Such an environment requires a NAS. The criteria for determining whether to use a NAS or a SAN is better highlighted by considering the case for a SAN. If you have an environment where large files need to be circulated amongst various users; or in other words, you are in an environment where there are heavy transaction loads, then implementing a NAS will significantly slow down the network. For such situations, customers need to go for a SAN. Also, if the number of users is large, a SAN, which is a dedicated, high-speed network and separate from a LAN, is a better option. Let’s get critcal Finally, while choosing a solution, they need to consider the criticality of data for determining optimisation of data backups. Data that has not been used for a long time should be archived and moved to less expensive storage devices. “Companies need an information lifecycle perspective,” says El-Shanawany. Further, such data does not require expensive security measures or state-of-the-art information retrieval solutions, as is required by more critical data. Critical data needs to remain online, while the data that is not critical should be archived. Hence, the need to determine what is critical and what is not. Bentley comments: “Larger SMBs, or those with large am-ount of data, need to store different parts of data in different storage media.” Whatever the technology is, dealing with storage in a comprehensive manner is a must. “If you are running a 24x7 operation, you need a backup solution. More and more small businesses are going online,” says Rasmussen.“Either because they are using the web to interact with their customers, or because they are a part of the B2B initiative of a large enterprise,” he adds. And some SMB organisations are looking at solutions that go beyond quick and dirty methods of backing up data. “SMBs are looking at storage solutions actively because they want to consolidate and manage the infrastructure better — but without incurring too much personnel cost. SMB owners are cost-intelligent people,” says Belfakih. That is just what the new generation of storage solutions provides. ||**||

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