Five ways to stretch your SME storage budget

Due to their budget constraints and technology generalist background, SMEs must work smarter to develop a storage strategy. Here are five ways to stretch SME storage budgets.

Most of the IT staff at small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are technology generalists rather than specialists, and their focus is invariably on what matters right now to the business. In addition, many storage vendors have made a poor job of packaging or explaining their offerings in a way that's meaningful to most SMEs. But SMEs can work smarter when it comes to storage. Here are five ways SMEs can develop a storage strategy that allows them to get a clear view of their overall assets and data storage demands without stretching their storage budget and available skillset.

1. Get free advice from colleagues and vendors. "Buying storage requires lots of planning and thinking, but it's doable by talking to colleagues at other companies and by taking good reseller advice," said Brian Atkinson, systems manager at Cobalt Sky, which provides data processing and reporting services for market research firms. "There's no way I'd be tempted to go out and buy something on my own," he said. "It's just asking to waste money."

Cobalt Sky, which has a staff of 19, is currently considering whether to implement a storage-area network (SAN) to improve the resilience of its Microsoft SQL Server-based customer databases.

You should also push storage vendors for product demonstrations and customer references. Ask for specifics, such as how upgrades are applied, hardware/software requirements and what support comes with the product.

There's no way I'd be tempted to go out and buy something on my own. It's just asking to waste money.
Brian Atkinson
systems managerCobalt Sky

"It's about asking things like do you need this or that option, and what happens if you don't have it. You might be a bit annoying, but it's your business and your responsibility to get it right," said Gary Smith, director of IT at Golfbreaks.com, which employs 70 staff.

2. Evaluate system performance. One catalyst driving some SME storage strategies is the realization that direct-attached storage (DAS) is no longer adequate. As you throw extra capacity at your direct-attached storage system, performance can sink and the siloed nature of the data is emphasised. At this point, many SMEs start looking at SAN or network-attached storage (NAS) strategies.

Another increasingly common driver toward shared storage is the move to virtualise x86 servers. Golfbreaks.com, for example, implemented a Hewlett-Packard (HP) StorageWorks 1500cs Modular Smart Array Fibre Channel (FC) SAN as part of a project to consolidate six physical servers down to three (running 11 virtual machines).

Golfbreaks.com's Smith explains the rationale behind the move. "With VMware, your resources are distributed and highly available, but it doesn't work without shared storage, which you need for redundancy purposes. If you don't have it and one of your virtual machines goes down at the same time as one of your disk arrays, then that's it."

The firm uses Vizioncore's vRanger Pro software to run full-image backups of all of its virtual machines, which are sent over the network and stored on the SAN.

3. Assess your current resources and available skill sets. The planning and research stage of any storage strategy should assess the storage currently in place, how much it's being used, who is using it and for what purpose. It should also evaluate what skills are currently available in-house or from existing partners such as resellers, and how current requirements are likely to change over the next six months to a year. You'll also need to consider how much money you have to spend on any new storage purchases.

Cobalt Sky's Atkinson advises taking the price of any given piece of equipment and dividing it by the number of years it will take to depreciate and be written off. "That way you see the yearly cost and it doesn't seem so expensive, particularly if you have a maintenance contract, which means that you're covered for support and any parts that need replacing," he said. "But you have to be careful to assess your future requirements and ensure you don't just buy for now. You could regret it two years down the line."

4. Explore your technology options. There are a number of technologies that are particularly well-suited to smaller businesses.

Network-attached storage, for example, is relatively cheap file-level storage that resides on the local-area network (LAN) and is a popular choice for SMEs.

SANs, on the other hand, deliver block-level storage that's more suited to very high-speed performance requirements. Storage-area networks traditionally used the Fibre Channel protocol, but that can be pricey because it requires specific skills to install and manage. However, iSCSI SAN offerings are making good headway in the market and are well suited to small- and medium-sized enterprises because they use TCP/IP on the LAN, as well as existing physical infrastructure and skills.

"Traditional SAN technology gives you a flexibility that NAS doesn't, but it comes at a price, which for us was prohibitive because it's based on proprietary hardware," said Kenneth Chan, senior principal experimental officer at the University of Liverpool's computer science department. Last year, Chan's shop implemented an iSCSI SAN from StorMagic. "ISCSI uses off-the-shelf components such as Ethernet switches and network interface cards that you'll find on any PC, so any IT manager can do it," he noted.

5. Determine compliance levels and match data to the correct data storage tier. Developing a storage strategy isn't just about buying more efficient equipment, it's a chance to make sure your data is legally compliant and stored in the most cost-effective way possible.

You must first determine how long corporate data needs to be retained for archiving purposes. That means matching data that you have categorised by business or legal importance to the appropriate data storage tier.

Hamish Macarthur, managing director at analyst company Macarthur Stroud International, said the starting point for such activity is often email archiving, but it should also include everything from word processing documents to information stored in databases.

"You have to establish an archiving strategy, which may perhaps just involve moving data onto lower cost disk if it needs to be accessed in the next six months." Macarthur explained. "If frequency of access is less than 1%, however, you could put it onto an even lower cost medium such as tape, although a very small organisation might take the view that it can treat all of its data in the same way," he said.

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