Apr 01 2005

Breathe a Sigh of Storage Relief

Storage evolves to help small companies better protect their data with fewer management headaches.


Rich Hepner, Architect and Technology Manager, Kubala Washatko Architects Inc.

For The Kubala Washatko Architects Inc., data-storage needs are growing like dandelions in spring. The Cedarburg, Wis., firm specializes in "green" design, creating plans for environmentally sound buildings, including museums, religious facilities and high-end residences. As the tools to model and draw these designs have gone digital, files have blossomed to sizes that threaten to overwhelm Kubala Washatko's storage environment.


"As time passes, we're seeing exponential increases in file sizes," says Rich Hepner, an architect and the firm's technology manager. "We have a high-resolution slideshow presentation that's a gigabyte (GB) in itself. Drawing files have increased from about 700 kilobytes (KB) to perhaps 6 to 8 megabytes (MB) over the past three years." He estimates that the firm's storage needs have grown 200 percent in the last five years.


Hepner is the one who worries about whether the firm will have enough capacity for all of this digital data. An architect by training, he became the technology manager by default, because his knack for computers made him the go-to guy in the 30-person company when a workstation misbehaved or the network ground to a halt. But because technology isn't his full-time job, Hepner needs storage gear that doesn't require much hand holding.


Storage vendors are responding to this less-is-more mantra. After years of primarily targeting large corporate data centers, makers of storage hardware and software see a ready market for products that appeal to the Rich Hepners at small companies across the country. A prime example is network attached storage (NAS) servers that connect to local area networks (LANs) using standard networking protocols and let small companies add capacity without having to interrupt business by bringing down the LAN. And new performance-monitoring applications automatically keep watch on the health of storage resources once they're in place.


"Storage technology has to be plug-and-play. If a small company has to send its information technology (IT) guy out for a week of training, forget it," says Jon Toigo, chairman of the Dunedin, Fla.-based Data Management Institute, whose members administer, manage and design data-storage infrastructure, and author of The Holy Grail of Network Storage Management (Prentice Hall, 2003). "Small businesses tend to be more tactical than strategic. They don't look five years ahead. They want to fix problems they have right now."


As a result, small companies will see a variety of new storage products coming along in the next year that have been "right sized." These are larger-capacity storage products using familiar technology platforms that won't require even part-time IT administrators to learn much in order to install or maintain their new storehouses.



Storage Central


While demanding easy-to-use storage systems, small companies also want increasingly sophisticated systems. Small companies are starting to require data recovery, redundancy and system hardening to survive failures, just like their larger corporate brethren, say analysts. Why? They are starting to realize that their critical data are at risk. Most small businesses lack a central data repository. Their vital records are stored only on one machine in a spreadsheet or perhaps within a customer relationship management application. So if that particular system crashes, the data disappear.


Accordingly, small firms are moving to networked storage so they can have a central place for all their critical data. Small companies with the biggest storage needs, typically architectural, legal and medical offices, are choosing NAS. At a cost of $4 to $5 a GB, NAS is an economical choice for small businesses. The IT manager plugs a storage-optimized server into the network. The network should automatically pick up an Internet Protocol (IP) address, and makes a pool of hard-disk reserves available for applications. As requirements grow, IT managers can add hard drives to the NAS server or even add more storage servers.


A related technology, called storage area network (SAN), has come down in price but remains significantly more expensive than NAS. The starting price for a SAN server is around $11,000, and that doesn't include the hard drives. As a result, only companies with specialized high-volume storage needs have SANs on their radar screens. SANs provide an expandable pool of storage space for information formatted in blocks, a type common to databases, so they might be a choice for companies running database-intensive applications such as complex financial analyses.


Another unappealing characteristic of SANs for small companies is the additional management burden. For example, many SANs rely on Fibre Channel networking, the traditional and fastest choice. But Fibre Channel is so specialized that few small companies are likely to have in-house expertise in installing and running it. "For the types of applications small businesses run—most are part of the Microsoft Suite—they are primarily looking for expansion room for lots of files, not necessarily storage for huge databases," Toigo says.


Long-term Options


"Storage will become an issue as we replace the documents that are now in file cabinets and store them in an electronic format."

Nevertheless, some small companies are considering all their long-term storage options. Kevin Hartigan, MIS manager at McWilliams Forge, a Rockaway, N.J., manufacturer of precision forgings for the aerospace industry, manages 150 GB of hard-disk storage, all on the individual hard drives of the company's PCs. But an electronic document management solution now in the works has caused him to think about centralized NAS servers or even a SAN. "I'm sure storage will become an issue as we replace the documents that are now in file cabinets and store them in an electronic format," he says. His main concern: the ability to do comprehensive backups should a data disaster arise.


Kevin Hartigan, MIS Manager, McWilliams Forge

He's not alone. More and more small-company IT managers are searching for effective backups and quick disaster-recovery systems as they hear the horror stories of their unprepared peers. One consultant recalls how a virus brought down one of his clients. The firm had to send its hard drives out to a data-recovery service to extract essential information. The salvage operation cost about $10,000 and took months to complete, yet still didn't recover all the data from the damaged disks. The disruption caused the company's business to suffer substantially. The entire situation could have been avoided if the client had invested in an adequate backup system costing a few thousand dollars.


To protect its data, The Kubala Washatko Architects uses a NAS server with two hard drives equaling 120 GB, and mirrors the data on a second unit for a total of 240 GB. The firm installed the drives about four years ago, and "they're about 80 percent full now," Hepner says. For backups, Hepner archives data every night onto two 300-GB hard drives. "I back up to one drive on odd days and to the other drive on even days. That makes it real simple to find the right data if we have to restore damaged or lost files," Hepner explains.


CEO Takeaway
Classify: Based on discussions involving IT, management, legal and other relevant departments, establish guidelines for ranking data importance by age, value to internal operations and compliance requirements.
Set a policy: Based on these classifications, set policies for how different data types will be stored, migrated from active access to archived storage and eventually deleted. As data decreases in use and increases in age, move to less expensive storage tiers.
Implement and document: Setting a policy and implementing it are a good start, but if you don't track what's being done, you won't be able to access archives seven years from now.

Hepner is eyeing larger storage servers that house three 400-GB hard drives to replace the current setup. The new units should provide enough added capacity for about four years if growth rates continue at the current pace, he says.


In addition to more storage hardware, a new generation of storage-management software is due out this year that should help small companies protect their data from catastrophe. Toigo advises companies to select storage-management tools that are easy to deploy but still provide accurate measurement of critical performance factors such as a global view of a company's storage reserves and what percentage of the total capacity is being used. By tracking usage over time, small companies can proactively add more capacity before runaway demand results in lost data. Some monitors even watch the temperatures of individual disk drives and flag hot disks that may be about to fail, according to Toigo. Management systems also can monitor backup procedures to ensure they were completed successfully.


Data storage needs may continue to grow like weeds, but small companies at least can look forward to a new crop of storage devices and monitoring programs to stay in step with all that growth.