Storage resource management: SMB Buying Decisions

SMBs are saving big with storage resource management software. Must-have software products come in all shapes, sizes and prices.

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Definition: Storage resource management (SRM) is an industry catchall term that can include anything from storage virtualization on a storage area network to managing data backup. For the purposes of this guide, we will focus on core SRM elements summarized by Steve Duplessie, senior analyst and founder of the Milford, Mass.-based Enterprise Strategy Group: "The primary purpose of SRM platforms is to identify what is out there, where it is, and who put it there."

Key features include:

  • Centrally monitoring utilization rates and capacity on physical storage devices and logical storage units such as volumes and logical unit numbers.

  • Sending threshold alerts when a disk or volume reaches a preset capacity level (e.g., 90% full).

  • Identifying and locating files by attribute, such as format (e.g., MP3), application, age or frequency of access.

Benefits, paybacks

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are Hewlett-Packard Co.'s fastest-growing SRM customer segment, a vendor spokesman said. Forced to meet ballooning storage demands with limited IT resources, more and more SMBs are migrating to networked storage and SRM software that takes the complexity and grunt work out of storage management.

More on storage

Storage planning for SMBs

Systems management essentials

For example, Cupertino, Calif.-based Symantec Corp.'s CommandCentral has helped Health Alliance Plan of Michigan reduce storage administrator man-hours by 90% and cut storage total cost of ownership by 12% ( see related story).

By proactively monitoring utilization rates and capacity levels, companies can ensure an application or server won't quit because it runs out of storage space. Health Alliance Plan uses CommandCentral to forecast storage needs months ahead instead of playing catch-up with capacity demands.

By identifying unused capacity on a SAN, companies can make efficient use of shared storage capacity on the SAN, rather than simply purchasing more disks whenever a server or application runs out of space.

Clearing out the deadwood from end user files can significantly shrink backup windows and improve performance, especially for email applications like Exchange. One medium-sized university used EMC Corp.'s VisualSRM to recover 40% of its disk space, and reduce backup and restore time from 24 to four hours.

Costs

  • Bellevue, Wash.-based Teracloud Corp.'s Teracloud Storage Framework Lite costs $395 per month for managing up to 20 terabytes (TBs). Customers pay only for those months it's used.

  • Tampa, Fla.-based Northern Parklife Inc.'s Northern Storage Suite charges $1,100 for a host site license for managing up to 1 TB on a single server. Three TB and unlimited licenses are also available.

  • EMC's VisualSRM starts at $3,000 for managing 1 or 2 TBs.

  • The list price for Tek-Tools Inc.'s Profiler base pack, including the server, five host agents and two database agents, is $4,000. StorageProfiler pricing starts at less than $4,000 for a basic SAN or network-attached storage (NAS) device.

  • Symantec's CommandCentral suite starts at $20,000.

Technology trends

Recent market consolidation has eliminated a number of independent SRM vendors. However, SMBs can still find SRM platforms to fit their needs and budget, from remaining independents like Tek-Tools, Softek Storage Solutions Corp., Teracloud and Northern Parklife.

Market leaders like EMC, HP and Veritas/Symantec, are also targeting SMBs, with low-end versions of their enterprise SRM suites and with modular platforms.

For example, EMC is in the process of integrating its VisualSRM, which tracks disk capacity and utilization rates by application, with DiskXtender, which does hierarchical storage management and archiving. EMC also offers VisualSAN, an automated storage provisioning and SAN monitoring tool.

HP's Storage Essentials suite "is probably overkill for an SMB," admits John Kelly, product marketing manager at HP. However, SMBs can purchase individual modules, such as File System Viewer, which does file-level scanning and reporting; an automated provisioning module; and a SAN monitoring module.

Tips and gotchas

Don't be tempted into paying for features and functions you don't need. "When you get into über products that do everything but clean the dishes, expect to pay big bucks, and rip your hair out trying to use them," Duplessie warns. A basic SRM product, such as Northern Parklife's Northern Storage Suite, takes up to a week to set up, including defining policies like user storage quotas. A full suite can take months.

On the other hand, you should choose a product that will scale up to your future needs, in terms of both capacity and function. A modular system for example, allows you to add more advanced capabilities like automated provisioning; automated, policy-based data migration; or chargeback down the road.

Make sure the product supports your particular mix of storage devices and operating systems. Does it manage storage on NAS devices? On SANs?

Find out what templates, wizards, and prefabricated reports a vendor offers. They can take a lot of pain out of setup and configuration.

Product sample

HP.com (Storage Essentials)
Northern Parklife
Symantec.com (Veritas Command Central)
EMC.com (VisualSRM)
NTPsoftware.com (NTP Software Inc.'s Storage M&A)
Teracloud.com (Teracloud Storage Foundation Lite)
Tek-Tools.com (Profiler)
Neopathnetworks.com (File Director)

Expert Viewpoint: David G. Hill, principal, Mesabi Group LLC

"SMBs should start by focusing on basics instead of trying to buy everything at once. Whether or not you can justify sophisticated functions like automated provisioning depends on how much pain you're suffering: how fast are you running out of space.

"It's important for an SRM tool to tell you not just that a disk is 80% full, but how long will it take to become 90% full.

"Ask the vendor for a hands-on trial for a month. Everybody says their product is the easiest; everybody has a GUI and wizards. Make sure a vendor's 'one-touch' approach is granular and flexible enough to meet your unique needs.

"Software setup should take a day for SMBs. Planning and design, including policies, could take a month or longer.

"You have to decide whether storage management policies are the responsibility of IT or business users. If you want moving data around to be transparent to end users, it's IT's responsibility. But if you have retention policies or legal issues, you need to get users involved in the process.

"Data is easy to capture; hard to throw away."

Elisabeth Horwitt is a contributing writer based in Waban, Mass.


This was first published in September 2006

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