Watch this space

Data storage, recovery and retrieval become more pressing as SMBs grow. However, IT vendors are addressing these concerns with a range of innovative solutions and technologies

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By  Peter Branton Published  March 26, 2006

|~|Helmybody.jpg|~|Ashraf Helmy of HP Middle East. |~|When it comes to storing and sharing data, SMB needs vary widely. And often, these needs go unattended. According to research firm IDC, roughly 80% of small business PC users still have crucial data on desktop PCs and notebooks. This data is often not backed up regularly. Another research firm, Gartner, estimates that less than 50% of medium businesses and only 25% of small businesses have disaster recovery plans in place. Most fast-growing SMBs tend to accumulate tons of data. It is not uncommon for an SMB to accumulate anywhere between 500GB to a few Tbytes of data within a couple of years of its existence. That’s a lot of crucial information that, without proper backup, can be at risk. So where does a company start? If the company is small, lets say somewhere between ten to 20 users, the bare minimum that a company needs is a server. Any entry level server from any of the big IT vendors such as HP or IBM or Dell will do. The server allows users to share files and print through a networked printer. Most of these products are Intel processor- based and are generally available for around US$2,000. But if a firm is moving from an independently working desktop environment to installing a network and server in place, the ch- ances are that IT capabilities within the organisation are either non-existent or rudimentary. Therefore, choose a vendor based on the resellers’ capabilities and commitment. Essentially, focus on getting the right reseller since products are by-and-large standardised. But putting a server in place is not enough. There has to be at least one level — however basic — of data backup. You can start with a tape drive. “Most small businesses tend to use tape drives for backups,” says Hanan Kamal, marketing manager, Personal Systems Gr- oup and SMB, HP Middle East. Some companies use external drives such as those made by LaCie and Maxtor. They are essentially dumb hard disks that cost somewhere in the region of US$250 for a 300GB drive. There are, however, a couple of points to take into consideration before adopting these. Firstly, they need to be physically attached, and detached, every time you take backup. This makes the process manual. Someone has to take ownership of the process and not forget to take backups at regular intervals. Secondly, these drives merely backup data. They do not backup software or setup files. So if the server crashes only the data is protected. All software will need to be installed from scratch. Tape drives are more expensive — costing between US$400-US$1,000 — but can be attached directly. The tapes that store the data cost between US$30-50 per tape. There are software programmes that allow for automating the backup process. And since software and setup files are also backed up by the tape drive, restoring the system is easier. Generally if a firm is storing data ‘just in case’ it might need it, tapes will do the job. However, if there is a good chance that it may need to access or recover data from time to time, then it is better off using a disk. If the data being stored needs to be accessed frequently then SMBs should consider network attached storage (NAS). Originally, NAS was pressed as an exclusive enterprise class storage system solution. However, firms such as HP have twe- aked their offerings and made it more accessible for SMBs. Firms that generate lot of data and are constantly running out of storage space should consider NAS rather than load their ser-vers and desktops. NAS can store Tbytes of data, so desktops and servers can be kept empty thereby improving their performance. “NAS is a good backup solution that can serve as a small backup server as well,” says Ashraf Helmy, product manager, Hewlett-Packard Middle East, which is pushing its NAS solution as ‘Easy as NAS’. It comes with software that can automatically create backups and can serve up to 50 users. It requires virtually no management and could even turn out to be cheaper in the long run. Those firms that have four or five servers can opt for NAS, which is a plug-and-play solution starting at less than US$4,000. “It is so easy to use that; if you can use a kettle, you can use it,” Helmy goes on to claim. 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. Also, if a firm does not have an IT resource, then it has to incur 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,” Helmy adds, pointing out that five years ago, companies were running services based on PCs. “Most such companies are now running on servers. NAS gives them the option of a proper storage solution that is also affordable,” he says. But if an SMB has an online application and wants to ensure high availability, Storage Area Network (SAN) is the best option. “The moment you mention SAN, they panic. They think it is difficult to configure and too expensive,” says Helmy. In fact many of the solutions are pre-configured at a factory, and not at a customer’s premises. It generally takes less than 20 minutes for SAN solution to begin. Just like NAS, buying SAN no longer needs issuing a seven-figure cheque. New, cheaper versions that run on an IP network — therefore called IP SAN — such as EMC’s CLARiiON AX10 come for as little as US$6,000. So, should you go for NAS or 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 transactions, 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. “If you are running file services but do not need high throughput or availability, then NAS is ideal for you. On the other hand, if you have file services, database and e-mail applications and / or you need high performance and uptime, then SAN makes sense,” says Helmy. Meanwhile, Intel is making a foray into the storage space. Its solution — Entry Storage System SS4000-E — is targeted at sophisticated home users but Intel says it is perfectly suited for SMBs as well. Intel’s entry can only be a good thing for customers as the company’s offerings tend to push down prices and drive up innovative responses from rivals. For SMB storage this is very much a case of watch this space. ||**||

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