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Affordable SANs for SMBs

Storage Expo : 20 August, 2007  (Technical Article)
A guide to storage consolidation for smaller businesses.
Steve Murphy, UK managing director for Hitachi Data Systems, explains that storage consolidation, through a SAN, is well within the reach of the SMB. Greater storage efficiency brings with it a more effective IT infrastructure, giving better support to businesses whose goals are flexibility, responsiveness and growth.

The forces of regulatory compliance, new media and email are conspiring to create a data monster of huge proportions. A company that had one terabyte (TB) of storage in 2001 would now, industry estimates suggest, be managing 10 to 15 TB. Typically, companies spend between 25% and 45% of their IT budgets on storage, so it is a cost that needs to be controlled.

The need to store ever more data poses three key challenges to the smaller company:.

1 Disparate storage - Organic growth brings a tendency to create islands of data that are associated with a specific application or are connected directly to a physical server.

2 Under-utilisation - Companies might have a large amount of storage capacity, but it might not be well-organised or fully utilised. Large enterprises with a mainframe environment can achieve 80% or higher in storage capacity used on a given storage system or server. However, a more typical average is around 50%, with some businesses seeing utilisation rates as low as 25%.

3 Managing storage is complex and time consuming - The more storage a business has, the more expensive it becomes and the more storage a business buys, then the more users will fill it with data. Management consulting firm McKinsey, estimates that for every US dollar spent on storage, around 80 cents goes on staff and other "soft" costs rather than on the arrays or software.

It is rare that a company can tackle the problem simply by choking off demand for storage. Line of business managers will always find new applications that generate a need for more storage, and sound business justifications to support their needs.

Small- and mid-sized businesses do not have the luxury of large IT teams to manage this expanding storage capacity. Nor do they have the budget to invest in some of the high-end storage systems that have been deployed by large enterprises, in order to improve the efficiency of their data storage and to reduce running costs.

The key to reigning in the data monster - and re-introducing order into a storage environment - is consolidation. In the last few years, networked storage has fallen in price, increased in performance and become easier to install and to manage. Technologies which were once only practical for enterprises are now within reach of the mid-sized company.

Any business with five or more servers with direct attached storage could benefit from moving to a storage area network (SAN), especially as technologies such as iSCSI, an alternative to the more expensive fibre channel, reduce the entry cost of SANs.

Technologies such as iSCSI are adding further flexibility especially at the lower price points, and offer an alternative for companies that might not want to make an investment in the high-performance fibre channel systems that were once the only route to a SAN.

Networked storage solves the utilisation problem by "pooling" capacity across servers, allowing applications to share capacity and breaking the direct relationship between servers and drives. IT managers can provision or reserve storage for a particular application or server from their management console, and redeploy that capacity in a matter of minutes. Depending on the system a business chooses, networked storage can be shared between more than one operating system, such as Windows and Linux.

The main networked storage architectures -SANs and network-attached storage (NAS) - can be used together, depending on the needs of a business and the type of applications it runs.

Conventionally, businesses have deployed network-attached storage for file-based applications. SANs typically handle data from transactional systems such as databases (known as block storage). However, there are plenty of exceptions: some businesses run high-performance SANs to share design or engineering data, whilst others use NAS for low-end database work or as a backup, because of its lower cost.

Some more advanced storage systems can now offer both NAS and SAN functionality in one box, further cutting costs and increasing flexibility for IT managers.

A few vendors, such as Hitachi Data Systems, also offer SAN Starter Solutions, including Plug and Play kits for Microsoft Simple that provide a complete SAN implementation - from the server all the way to the storage, whether a company is implementing its first SAN or extending an existing one.

A storage area network is the ideal vehicle for storage consolidation, as a business can calculate the capacity it needs, add a margin for growth, and then specify a storage sub-system that fits exactly that requirement. The SAN is not affected by the number of servers attached to it, and adding capacity is usually just a question of adding disks to the storage arrays.

This closer match between storage capacity and demand can immediately boost utilisation and cut costs, plus there are other benefits as well:

Simplified Management - Consolidating storage into a SAN means IT staff can manage storage capacity from one place, using one set of utilities. It also makes it much easier to provision new storage, or to move storage capacity between operating environments or applications. The majority of day to day management is done from a single management console.

Re-deployment of Servers - Storage consolidation, through a SAN, can also support server consolidation projects. Businesses that have added additional servers in order to add storage capacity, especially for applications such as file and print or email, may well be able to remove or redeploy some of those servers, saving on licences and other overheads.

Improved Back-up & Data Recovery Policies - A consolidated approach brings further benefits: the data is "all in one place" and businesses can enforce stricter standards for backup and data recovery policies.

Business Continuity - Where storage constraints had forced companies to buy more servers, storage consolidation can also allow them to reduce the number of instances of an application, whether it is an email server or an ERP or CRM system. Although a SAN might cost more than direct attached storage initially, it will be cheaper to run backup and recovery systems and more practical to implement business continuity measures, such as mirroring of data or replication to a remote site.

A Stepping Stone to Virtualisation - Consolidation is the first step in achieving a virtualised environment as it allows organisations to deploy a tiered storage architecture, which means it is possible to grow different storage tiers at different rates thereby allowing for better budgeting to meet storage requirements. The storage tiers can also be managed and provisioned differently, depending on requirements of the service level agreement.

Six Questions Companies Should Ask When Considering Storage Consolidation:.

1 Are you running your business-critical applications on server-internal or direct-attached storage?
2 Are some of your storage systems maxed out while others are barely used?
3 Are your storage management costs growing faster than your budget?
4 Are your environmental costs high - electricity, cooling, physical floor space?
5 Are your backup windows exceeding the time allotted?
6 Are you able to meet the availability and performance levels demanded by users & applications?

If you answer yes to some or all of these questions then your company will benefit from consolidation through a SAN.

Whilst there is obviously an initial cost in implementing a SAN, consolidating storage brings savings in the IT department: industry estimates suggest that staff can manage 10 times more storage in a SAN than in a direct attached environment.

Storage consolidation increases storage utilisation rates and slows down the growth in demand for storage, as both existing and new capacity is used far more effectively. There will also be savings on software licences, and possibly, server hardware.

Consolidating storage into a SAN makes management much easier - IT staff can manage a wide range of storage sub systems from a single console - and makes it easier to add, replace or reallocate storage within a network. There is no need to shut down a business process or the server it is running on just to increase its storage capacity, for example.

Companies consolidating their storage will also find that they can upgrade their backup and recovery measures and business continuity plans. They might, for example, be able to move to backup to disk rather than tape in the first instance. SANs also make it easier to support innovations such as remote replication or mirroring an application's data to a separate set of disks.

Hitachi Data Systems is exhibiting at Storage Expo 2007 the UK's largest and most important event dedicated to data storage. Now in its 7th year, the show features a comprehensive FREE education programme and over 90 exhibitors at the National Hall, Olympia, London from 17 - 18 October 2007

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