How to develop a storage strategy for SMEs

Use these best practices to develop an SME storage strategy that will help you tier storage, choose SME-friendly technologies, and pick reseller or outsourcing options.

When developing a storage strategy for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), you shouldn't focus on the most obvious ways to save money. Instead, the aim should be to develop a comprehensive plan to ensure that data is stored in the most cost-efficient way, retained so that it's recoverable in case of a disaster and compliant with legislation.

A storage strategy for SMEs should comprise the following:

  • Analyse data by business value and legal importance so you can match data types to the most cost-effective and/or secure storage required.
  • Consider storage technologies -- such as network-attached storage (NAS), iSCSI and data deduplication -- that are suited to smaller businesses based on their low cost in terms of infrastructure, skills and utilisation.
  • Review outsourcing for functions such as backup.
  • Establish a good relationship with resellers and peers who can provide free advice.
  • Use money-saving purchasing strategies such as a longer equipment cycle and sourcing products more cheaply using less-conventional means, such as end-of-line products and secondhand equipment.

To develop an SME storage strategy, you first need to know what kind of information you hold and then rank it according to importance. That ranking can be guided by business measures, such as the critical nature of data by value or age, or by legal guidelines that could result in penalties or fines for lost or compromised data.

Editor's Podcast: What should small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) expect from storage vendors? Jon Collins, service director at Freeform Dynamics, answers that and other questions is this podcast.

Now that you have a clear understanding of your data and its priorities, you can use tiered storage to match different categories of data to different storage media.

For example, critical business data could be assigned to an iSCSI storage-area network (SAN) with Fibre Channel (FC) drives, while older data could be moved to a virtual tape library (VTL) disk array with cheap Serial ATA (SATA) drives and finally archived to secure tape held offsite. In this way, data is matched to media with a cost appropriate to its value, while performance is maximised on the most vital business systems.

In this way, a business can boost performance, speed access to data and limit the chances of a natural disaster or legal compliance issue affecting the company beyond recovery.

SME-friendly storage technologies

As businesses move toward more efficient use of application data or seek to virtualise servers, some form of shared storage becomes necessary.

Shared storage was traditionally synonymous with the Fibre Channel SAN. In this case, the client machines requested blocks of data from the storage-area network, to which they were connected by a dedicated Fibre Channel link that encapsulated SCSI commands. FC SANs are reliable and perform well, but are generally less well-suited to SMEs because they require additional network infrastructure and specialist skills.

By contrast, the simplest way of achieving shared storage for an SME is with NAS. Network-attached storage devices comprise a disk array with RAID protection and a controller. They reside on the TCP/IP local-area network (LAN) and use NFS (Unix) and CIFS (Windows) protocols to serve up file-level data to clients on the network. NAS is easy to set up and uses the existing LAN, so there's no need for specialised skills. Some NAS devices also incorporate virtual tape library (VTL) technology, which presents itself to data sources as a tape library so that data is held ready for optimally efficient streaming to tape libraries.

iSCSI SAN devices can be seen as something of a hybrid between NAS and FC SAN. They serve data at the block level to the file system on servers, and can be used for high I/O transactional data such as databases. They also use the existing TCP/IP LAN infrastructure like network-attached storage does and can make use of existing investments. Some NAS vendors offer products that deliver iSCSI SAN capability in a network-attached storage box.

Both NAS and iSCSI SAN products often incorporate advanced storage management technologies such as thin provisioning and storage management interfaces, which also help you work more efficiently.

Editor's Tip: Are you considering outsourcing your storage and/or backup? Here are some questions SMEs should ask potential service providers.

Data deduplication reduces the amount of data that needs to be physically stored by eliminating redundant information and replacing subsequent iterations of it with a pointer to the original.

Data deduplication products inspect data down to the block and bit level and, after the initial occurrence, only the changed data it finds is saved. The rest is discarded and replaced with a pointer to the previously saved information. Under the right conditions, block-level and bit-level deduplication methods can achieve compression ratios of 20x to 60x or more.

Data deduplication's killer app is in backup. It's too demanding of processor power to be used for most primary storage applications, although NetApp claims more than 7,000 of its customers are using data deduplication for non-transactional data such as home directories or virtual machine instances.

Essentially, data deduplication reduces the amount of data to be stored. This means it takes longer to fill up disks and tapes, which saves money. Data can be backed up more quickly to disk, which means shorter backup windows and quicker restores. A reduction in the amount of space taken up in disk systems (VTLs, for example) means longer retention periods are possible, bringing quicker restores to users direct from disk and reducing dependence on tape and its management. Less data also means less bandwidth, which means data deduplication can speed up remote backup, replication and disaster recovery (DR) processes.

Partnering with a reseller is another way SMEs can maximise their storage budgets. If you're looking for a reseller, here are some questions to ask.

  • How many customers with requirements like yours do they have? Get references and check them.
  • How long has the reseller been in business?
  • What percentage of the reseller's business is storage?
  • What experience does the reseller have with emerging storage solutions for SMEs?
  • Is implementation and maintenance included or priced separately?
  • What are the standard procedures for communicating with the reseller for support?
  • If issues arise what is the escalation process?
Editor's Tip: Need more ideas on how SMEs can work smarter to develop a storage strategy? Read Part 2 of our SME Special Report for more tips on stretching your SME budget and available skillset.

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