Affordable Sans for small firms

The high cost of storage area networks has been keeping them out of reach of small and medium-sized businesses but network...

The high cost of storage area networks has been keeping them out of reach of small and medium-sized businesses but network providers are now offering affordable solutions to boost sales, writes Sally Whittle

Storage area networks offer IT departments simplified management of storage and improved data flow by removing storage traffic from the local area network. However, with average implementation costs topping $250,000 (£175,000), the San has historically been beyond the reach of smaller firms.

Instead, small and medium-sized enterprises have relied on direct-attached storage and network-attached storage (Nas) systems. These products work well where a company needs rapid file serving and has a relatively small storage requirement, says Anders Lofgren, an analyst at Giga Information Group. Not only is Nas cheaper than a San, but it also requires less additional hardware to make it work. "A San introduces new costs including the switch and hub connecting the Fibre Channel, whereas Nas can connect up to 100Gbytes of data right up to the Ethernet," he says.

Ease of management and affordability are two key drivers for smaller businesses, according to the Storage Networking Industry Association. "In our experience, smaller companies aren't really looking at Sans because of the cost and complexity," says John Taylor, the group's UK chairman.

"SMEs want something they can plug in right out of the box - and that isn't a San," adds Dave Smith, storage manager at Hewlett-Packard.

But that could be about to change. The big boys in storage - Compaq, HP, EMC, Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) and IBM - are turning their attention to these previously neglected mid-market customers in an attempt to bolster sales. Over the past two years, EMC has cut prices by almost 66% in a bid to protect its market share, and the company has seen turnover plummet by 20% over the same period.

"We are going to see a lot of effort and aggressive behaviour by suppliers for storage contracts of less than $100,000," predicts Jamie Gruener, an analyst at Yankee Group. "It is the kind of thing they might not have bothered with a few years ago."

Veritas, together with 34 other storage suppliers, launched the Affordable San initiative earlier this year, with the intention of providing customers with Sans for less than $50,000. As part of the programme, suppliers are targeting SMEs with configurations for two four-node server workgroups supporting applications such as Microsoft Exchange and SQL Server.

Elsewhere, suppliers are starting to offer cut-down versions of enterprise-class San products. For example, HDS has launched the Thunder 9200, a cut-down version of its Lightning storage range. "It is a modular system with a lower price and lower performance than the Lightning," explains Andy Williams, HDS' midrange storage manager. "It means companies can have up to 100 discs or 18Tbytes with all the management features of the larger Raid systems, but for $55,000."

IBM, meanwhile, has launched the Fibre Array Storage Technology suite, a group of midrange storage servers which are designed for use in Sans and offer capacities of up to 16Tbytes. With prices starting at $15,000, SMEs should be considering Sans along with other storage architectures, says Andreas Stickel, storage solutions manager at IBM's small and medium business division. "Yes, things like Shark are expensive, but that does not mean there are not products at a much lower price level," Stickel says.

For those companies that lack the skills to integrate the various elements of a San architecture, several suppliers offer the "San in a box", a totally integrated package which includes a Fibre Channel switch with a number of ports, high-performance software and disc storage. This type of package is usually pre-tested to run for specific applications, but may limit the company to one supplier for expansion.

IBM also offers three different out-of-the-box San packages, which includes the switch, LTO and installation service and support. Prices start at $35,000. A similar product from Compaq, the Modular Storage Array 1000, starts at $16,000 and includes installation and support, a 3x36Gbyte hard disc, six-port fibre channel, host bus adapter and replicator.

The cost of a San could fall even further over the next 18 months as standards for storage over IP are ironed out. Unlike current Sans, which run on costly Fibre Channel networks, IP storage uses the internet to transport data from users to storage arrays around the world. The technology also promises improvements in speed, geographic scope and data security. Cisco, IBM, Lucent and Nortel Networks have invested in the technology and are beginning to ship products.

Unfortunately for end-users, there are two standards for IP storage, which are incompatible with each other: the first, iSCSI, is backed by IBM, Cisco and Nortel. The second, Internet FC Protocol, is supported by Lucent and several other networking companies. The Storage Networking Industry Association estimates that IP-based Sans should be about 20% cheaper than Fibre Channel. "I can see it cutting £20,000 or more off the costs for a medium-sized company," says Taylor.

However, IP storage is still risky and users should stick with Fibre Channel for now, says Stickel. "I would advise clients to let larger companies prove that the technology works before doing anything," he says. "There will be gateways and hybrid systems for all the companies that have invested in fibre, so you are not going to miss out."

Case study: C5 shares movie sounds via a San   

The hurricane noises in the movie Cape Fear and the woodchipper effect in cult classic Fargo added atmosphere and depth to the moviegoers' experience - and around 40Mbytes of storage to the creaking systems at C5, a post-production company based in New York.  

A small company founded in 1989, C5 has produced sound effects and audio production services to many of Hollywood's recent blockbusters. The problem is that audio is a space hogger, explains Lew Goldstein, the company's senior editor and technical director. "We have 45,000 files - just one file, like the Boeing 747 which flies overhead in the John Travolta feature Get Shorty, is 8Mbytes," he says. Each editor working on files also had to make a copy locally, which made matters worse.  

A storage area network would improve storage and solve the sharing problem, but C5 had always considered Sans too expensive and complex. "That turned out to be a misconception," says Goldstein. In fact, C5 managed to build a 1.5Tbyte San for less than $35,000 (£245,000) using a combination of Gadzoox Fibre Channel, PCI-to-Fibre Channel cards bought from an independent retailer and drives bought on eBay installed in empty racks.  

The San has 16 nodes and allows editors to share files and collaborate on tricky projects such as the audio postproduction on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Award-winning director Ang Lee, was dissatisfied with much of the movie's audio, but using the San, members of the C5 team could work simultaneously on files and make changes quickly.

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