In-depth: Managing millions of megabytes

The number of megabytes and terabytes might be lower than those racked up in the enterprise and the technology currently being used might have a slight legacy feel to it but the SME sector still requires support from the channel making the right storage decisions, writes Amro Gebreel.

The number of megabytes and terabytes might be lower than those racked up in the enterprise and the technology currently being used might have a slight legacy feel to it but the SME sector still requires support from the channel making the right storage decisions, writes Amro Gebreel.

With everyone, both large and small, experiencing rapid data growth, coupled with a pressure to get the most out of that information there are real opportunities for resellers.
But as you would expect the options are fairly wide and those pitching products at the channel have plenty of advice of what an SME storage solution should look and feel like.

Cloud Computing
Inevitably one of the options that the channel is being urged to consider is to pitch cloud based storage. It offers a host of benefits, least of which is its topicality, and for SMEs which can grow quickly it does seem to have genuine benefits.

Paul Evans, managing director at Redstor, believes that Cloud based services save SME's capital expenditure on the necessary array of in-house infrastructure and software.

Such services also liberate overworked in-house IT teams who are freed of the responsibility and can focus their time and efforts with higher value business processes/transactions.
"With a backup-as-a-service cloud system, the level of data protection and amount of storage space purchased, can be precisely scaled to the value and size of each type of data. Online backup services give companies the same level of control over their data as equivalent in-house models but with additional benefits such as: no upfront capital investment on hardware, software and backup media, no tape, tape management and off-site storage costs, elastic capacity on demand and maximum data availability and data security," he says.

The situation is even worse for financial services companies or any companies that trade information (such as online retailers), as they require all data available in the event of a disaster to comply with internal/external regulations and ensure business continuity.

"And the problem is worse for SME's who are in periods of rapidly-fluctuating growth and cannot afford to host new applications on-site, and cannot afford to constantly purchase new backup tapes to cope with anticipated data-growth only to leave them unused, when the growth doesn't materialise. However, this can be remedied with a cloud backup service as data is protected in two remote, highly secure data centres with strong encryption levels and the amount of data-space can be scaled up and down in lockstep with demand."

Mike Worby, Business Development Manager at ComputerLinks, said that traditional disc or tape-based solutions for data storage and protection can be expensive, unreliable and prone to human error.

"When it comes to the running of an IT department, cost and expertise can be a huge issue for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Because of this, using cloud attached storage for back-up is a great solution as it can include the benefits of using on-premise devices, whilst also harnessing the financial benefits of cloud computing," he says.

"This means that organisations can back-up and restore data at network speeds when needed, alongside utilising the cloud for cost effective off-site data storage and disaster recovery. As both storage and back-up are addressed under one service it can also be easier for SMEs to manage in terms of compliance of data and back-up services. In addition, by offering the solution as a managed service, resellers provide skills and guidance to their customers, which is the real value the channel adds," he adds.

Worby suggests that cloud attached storage can be particularly beneficial for data rich industries that offer professional services. These are often smaller organisations where intellectual property and the written word are key to their businesses. In these cases, it is absolutely crucial that data is properly backed up.

The benefits of using the cloud are fairly compelling but for a reseller the first stage on that journey is one of educating the user and the advice is to ensure that when it comes to talking through the options the starting conversation is a comprehensive one.

"The channel should be making a concerted effort to educate its customers on the benefits of cloud storage. By adopting storage as a service, IT users can eliminate a number of concerns around provisioning both storage and related tasks such as backup," says Pete Hill, partner manager at C4L.

The network
The cloud might well be an option for some but getting more out of their networks is going to be another demand from many looking to their resellers for support.

Even inside an organisation there are expectations that smaller businesses will look to get more storage capacity out of their existing network. Network Attached Storage (NAS) and Storage Area Networking (SAN) are still seen by many in the channel as the bread and butter products.

"There is likely to be an increased channel focus on networked storage for SMEs, due to the expanded use of video and steady growth in home or remote working. At the same time, more and more small businesses are moving towards IP-based networks, meaning that data can be accessed from many more locations," says Paul Routledge, European storage business development manager at D-Link.

He says that currently, DAS (Direct Attached Storage) is one of the most common demands, "because it is simple to deploy and relatively low cost but only really offers a very basic level of storage for local environments"

But the danger is that islands are created in more dispersed organisations and that can undermine attempts to backup data cleanly.

"The main choice for customers is whether to adopt a Networked Attached Storage (NAS) or Storage Area Network (SAN) approach to network storage. SAN implementations, while offering the highest levels of performance and availability of any storage medium, have traditionally demand dedicated costly fibre channel technology in order to operate at the required level, as well as needing specialised, skilled staff to operate and maintain it. By comparison, NAS can provide cost-effective, centralised data access and storage that is readily available from any location on the network without such investment and so has been the preferred option to date," he says summarising the choice for users.

But even on top of those two choices things have become more complicated with the introduction of the iSCSI protocol which has made it possible for a SAN to be based on an organisation's existing Ethernet infrastructure.

"The channel needs to be able to offer both solutions as whether an SME chooses a NAS or SAN is essentially a matter of resources and, more importantly, business needs. While networked storage is a definite goal for many small businesses NAS may prove adequate to their needs. For others, the reduced costs and relative simplicity mean SAN is now a suddenly a more viable and attractive option for them," he says.

The other phrase that the channel is being encouraged to push is 'shared storage' which is certainly something that Hewlett-Packard wants to talk about to tap into the growth of virtualised storage.

"As SME customers implement virtualised server solutions, they encounter the need for enterprise-class shared storage to support this environment, but often don't have the budget or the skills for "traditional" Fibre Channel-based SAN solutions. For these customers, HP would therefore suggest that SMEs adopt enterprise shared storage, allowing a low cost entry into shared storage with no limits on the extent to which it can grow," says Catherine Campbell, CTO, HP storage, UK.

"Another challenge many SMEs are facing is the move to Exchange 2010. Whilst some will take the opportunity to move to cloud-based messaging providers, others will choose to keep this in house," she adds.

One of the positives in the storage market from a channel perspective has always been the choices that they can offer customers. Some of the debates have been running for years like tape versus disk or NAS against SAN but for the channel is hands them more ways to approach the user.
That's also true with the SSD market, which is gaining a buzzword position in the storage world, and could be placed for an expansion in the SME market.

Steve Nicholls, director at CSA Waverley, told us that Although Solid State (SSD) storage technology has a bright future, there are two major issues of cost and long term reliability that need to be resolved before we see wider adoption.

The issue of cost can be linked to volume economics of manufacture and distribution, and no doubt in 3 to 5 years, the cost per gigabyte will have dropped. To improve the long term reliability of SSD's, a huge investment is being made to address this - focusing mainly on the write "wear out" issues.

"Putting aside these issues, the performance of SSD's is staggering compared to traditional rotating storage and there are many applications that benefit from the very high performance of this storage technology. A highly effective customer solution could consist of; a small pool of SSD storage, a moderate pool of fast disc storage and large pool of slow disc storage - coupled with an intelligent data mover to exploit these pools," he says.

"SME organisations that are migrating from old, unsupported versions of Exchange are realising that a SAN-based "mailbox" can cost four times more than a "mailbox" provisioned on direct attached storage. This is forcing organisations to examine solutions that can drive cost out of the company mail infrastructure," he adds.

There are also challenges posed by the rapid growth in unstructured data, otherwise known as digital landfill, has led many organisations to use large numbers of discrete 'network-attached' storage appliances.

"However, this presents the inherent challenges of data movement and management.  These issues can be best addressed by creating an architecture that employs a single name space / file system, across multiple nodes. Much work has been done addressing virtualisation of servers and storage, and the natural progression of this is client virtualisation.  By using less hardware, with a longer refresh cycle, can reduce deployment costs by 90%, maintenance costs by 60% and help desk calls by 40% - leading to very significant TCO reductions. However, care must be taken to architect an end to end solution that can handle the peaks in I/O that have naturally moved from the desktop, back into the corporate infrastructure," adds Nicholls.

There are many in the industry expecting the impact of the Thailand floods on the HDD market could hand some initiative to SDD sellers but that is currently being played out and no conclusions can be drawn yet.

Small capacity drives
One of the challenges for the channel is to keep all the options open and push technology that has perhaps not been considered for a while or has been perceived as fitting a particular market. Things could well have moved on and as a result fresh opportunities can emerge for resellers.

"The channel needs to be pushing storage devices that are really going to make a practical difference to their customers," says Tim Wright, Toshiba technical support manager at Toshiba Storage Device Division.

"Rack mount and blade servers are some of the largest power consumers in the office IT infrastructure but by migrating from 3.5-inch HDDs to 2.5inch HDDs, SMEs can dramatically reduce their energy costs. The 2.5-inch form factor is a sleeker; more energy efficient design that reduces costs as well as server storage space. While small form factor drives have not historically been used in the enterprise because of their typically lower capacities, in recent years there have been leaps and bounds in areal density development. This means that small form factor drives can now compete with 3.5-inch HDD capacity and RPM speed. Fast speeds and higher capacities enable businesses to access mission critical data at a moment's notice, placing the control firmly back in the hands of the business," he adds.
But the hardware is just one side of the equation and these days the users are often more interested in finding out about the management side of the equation. Simplicity might not be a word that goes that far with the big data explosion but the attempt to deliver clarity is one that is a serious proposition for the channel.

Kevin Collins, Go To Market director for Magirus in EMEA, sums the challenge up nicely: "The hurdle for SMBs to overcome with storage has been the 'complexity tax' i.e. the cost to consider in relation to administering complex storage solutions. You need to take into account the total cost of a solution including consultancy for implementation as well as maintenance and administration during the storage lifecycle."

But he adds that the vendor community and channel have listened and are now delivering simpler solutions.

It starts with helping a customer understand what the storage strategy should be and once you get past all the bells and whistles the focus quickly turns to the quest for simplicity.
"We are finding that more customers than ever are open to building the correct data lifecycle management strategy for their company around primary storage - archiving  - and data protection,  than just purchasing more storage with no real plan around management," says Kevin Green, core infrastructure practice lead for Trustmarque.

Simon Marrion, EMEA channel development manager at Scale Computing, told MicoScope that the channel needs to let SMEs know that they need a robust data management strategy that includes enterprise class storage and this can be achieved on a tight or constrained budget. 

"There are alternatives to the SME customer spending tens of thousands of pounds on a tier one brand storage supplier," he adds.

Whatever way the reseller starts the storage conversation with the user, cloud, hardware or management software the main results of exploring this side of the market is to reveal there are plenty of options for the channel.

Customers continue to face the challenges of ever growing storage, the challenges of dealing with that and then getting information from it and will no doubt have more questions about cloud options. The best placed to guide SMEs through that maze is as usual the well informed reseller.

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