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Network storage options abound

More databases, more documents to track, more network-based applications to back up. What's a small business to do?

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are increasingly turning to networked storage to help them better manage an onslaught of storage demands.

When Fiskars Brands Inc., a $204 million Madison Wis.-based manufacturer of kitchen and garden tools, deployed an enterprise resource planning system two years ago, its data storage needs skyrocketed. Since then, Fiskars has been adding networked storage to the direct-attached storage (DAS) system it was using.

"Our storage needs have been growing continuously," Fiskars CIO Herman Nell said. But the combination storage approach means Fiskars is keeping pace.

On average, businesses are seeing their storage needs double every two years, according to Craig Stanley, vice president at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc.

That trend is holding true for SMBs as well. According to New York-based research firm Access Markets International Partners Inc., storage spending by SMBs is growing at nearly 20% per year and will reach $20 billion by 2009. It expects the growth in spending on storage area networks (SANs) to grow even more quickly, at 29% a year.

"The next time that these SMBs are upgrading their systems or making a storage purchase, they are looking at networked storage," said Anil Miglani, a senior vice president at AMI Partners. "This is a major shift."

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SANs, NAS and DAS

Networked storage comes in two flavors: network-attached storage (NAS) and SANs.

NAS devices are IP-based, so they can plug into a business' existing network. NAS lends itself to storing files that need to be shared in a business. The NAS approach is generally considered the least costly and disruptive.

Businesses can also opt for a SAN. The SAN requires the addition of a Fibre Channel network, which makes it a more expensive option. But businesses get what they pay for: a faster network for accessing large files and databases without frustrating delays.

With DAS, businesses simply add more disk space as they need it. Disks on multiple servers need to be backed up and replicated, which can be time-consuming. After a business reaches 6 terabytes (TB) of storage, DAS can be unwieldy, Stanley said.

Networked storage is becoming more popular because DAS is falling short. As businesses store terabyte after terabyte of information, DAS storage becomes complex and ultimately costly to manage.

Many businesses use only 30% of their disk space, Stanley said. Even though the cost of DAS storage has been dropping by about 35% per year, most businesses' storage needs are growing by 45% per year. That means their storage spending is continuing to increase, even as prices fall.

After a business reaches 12 TB of storage, networked storage becomes less expensive than DAS -- even when startup costs are considered, Stanley said.

Despite the obvious benefits, there are drawbacks to networked storage choices, said George Schulz, a senior analyst at Evaluator Group, a Denver-based research firm.

Businesses need to be aware of their existing network capacity before adding storage to their LAN, Schulz said. If their network is already near capacity, adding storage traffic could create bottlenecks, which slow down database searches and network performance. Before adding NAS devices, Schulz said, businesses may need to upgrade their networks to accommodate the additional traffic.

The SAN, NAS combo plan

Dave Thompson, vice president of IT at Fort Mill, S.C.-based Muzak LLC has found that a combination of SAN and NAS works best. Muzak, which distributes music to retailers such as Gap Inc., stores 1.6 million songs on its network. In total, Thompson estimates that he stores about 25 TB of data.

Thompson stores the company's large music files -- as well as databases that get heavy use and even Web applications -- on the SAN because of its speed advantage. The company puts directories, spreadsheets and other data that takes up less bandwidth but is often shared on its NAS. Thompson estimates that he has about 8.75 TB of data on the NAS and 16.25 TB on the SAN.

Despite its size and complexity, Thompson said this system is much easier to manage than a DAS system.

"With this approach, I have one central point of manageability," Thompson said. "I have no great worries."

It's an approach that Stanley said more businesses should consider. "Use SAN where you have to -- and NAS where you can," he advised.


This was first published in August 2005

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