Dec 01 2005

Storage Savers

SANs might seem like the obvious answer to burgeoning storage demands, but small companies must consider the complexity of their holdings, not just their vastness.

The volume of data handled by database applications is exploding. New regulations require that systems retain more documents for longer periods. Applications that once responded quickly to user queries now bog down.


Does that sound like your company? If so, adopting a storage area network might help solve these problems. But when deciding whether to use a SAN, companies should not only consider the cost and the extent of their storage needs but also the types of applications they use.


SANs are essentially high-speed subnetworks of storage devices that make the data on those devices available to all servers on a local- or wide-area network.


But a SAN may be overkill for a business with fewer than 100 employees, says Bob Passmore, vice president of research with Gartner of Stamford, Conn. Indeed, most companies with fewer than six servers probably won't get a strong financial return on investment from a SAN, Passmore contends, because pricing still favors direct-access storage for networks comprised of six or fewer systems.



Dollars and Sense


If a company runs particularly complex apps on multiple servers, a SAN probably makes good information technology and business sense. "The potential for benefits from installing a SAN is proportional to the complexity of the computing environment, not the size of the company," Passmore says.


Here's why: SANs not only deliver higher speed but also greater storage flexibility than typical storage options. Users canreallocate unused drive capacity without having to physically move equipment. SANs can also reduce downtime during hardware updates and other outages. And they increase network redundancy because SANs directly connect multiple servers; if one server fails, a server performing a less critical task can take over for the failed server.


In addition, SANs give users the ability to easily expand their storage capacity to multiple terabytes. And if a company needs to migrate an application from one operating system to another, it can connect the new server to the SAN to gain access to the existing data, reducing the time and complexity associated with an OS migration.


There is good news on the expense side of the equation because SANs are becoming more affordable. Prices in general are dropping, plus a new type of SAN has emerged that uses lower-cost technology.


Until recently, most SANs ran only on Fibre Channel technology. Fibre components are pricey because they make use of highly specialized materials to offer throughput of 100 megabytes per second. In the past two years, however, the price tag on most Fibre Channel SAN products has dropped by half.


Plus, vendors have begun selling Internet Protocol SANs. Introduced over the last 18 months, the IP systems use standard Ethernet adapters, cables and switches—dramatically bringing down the price for moving to a SAN. IP SANs are about half the cost of their Fibre Channel counterparts.


A typical entry-level IP SAN is priced at as little as $5,000. But it will deliver only one-quarter to one-half the performance of a Fibre Channel SAN, primarily because of the lower-speed Ethernet connections.


Getting Started


The two types of SANs also carry different setup costs. It will cost about $16,000 to connect a typical small Fibre Channel SAN to two servers, says Kyle Fitze, director of SAN marketing for Hewlett-Packard of Palo Alto, Calif. The same setup for an IP SAN would run $2,100, he says.


In addition, the Fibre Channel SANs use special management software and require additional training, while the management of Ethernet connections is already part of the typical network administrator's skill set, explains Sanjeev Aggarwal, senior analyst of small- and medium-sized business strategies for the Yankee Group of Boston.


IT managers should expect that their companies will need to spend anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 for the management software—depending on the extent of the tools and functions and the size of the network. As for training, the main efforts come up front in learning about the hardware and software, specific coding requirements, interoperability specifications and processes that can be programmed to run automatically.


At Sebaly, Shillito and Dyer—a Dayton, Ohio, law firm that moved to a SAN because its data storage needs grew by more than 400 percent in the last nine months—the training has been a chief focus.


"We have plenty of expansion capability," says information systems manager Brian Clayton. "Our only real limitation now is education. We are taking courses on managing the SAN and are learning to develop scripts to automate some of the management functions. But running a SAN does require additional training."


A company will want to do an analysis of anticipated Fibre versus IP SAN costs. To do that, it should take a hard look at current and future storage needs, the experts say. Based on that data, the company can create a cost model for probable SAN usage that takes into account the expense of the hardware, the software, training and management of the network.


Aggarwal notes that IP SANs will seem cheaper because they "fit right in with existing network infrastructure and knowledge, making the overall total cost of ownership significantly lower than that of Fibre Channel SANs."


But like Passmore, Aggarwal points to the app requirements as the deciding factor in selecting whether to move to a SAN and then to deciding whether to go with Fibre Channel or IP. To speed up database applications—such as accounting, customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning systems—Fibre Channel SANs are worth the extra expense, he says.


Opting for IP


But there are some apps that are tailor-made for IP SANs, Aggarwal adds. Many small businesses could improve the performance of their e-mail systems by using an IP SAN, he says.


"Our research shows that the key application for businesses with less than 100 employees is e-mail," he notes. Because e-mail doesn't demand the performance that transaction-oriented database apps do, "IP SANs can deliver the benefits of consolidated storage without the costs generally associated with Fibre Channel SANs."


Both Aggarwal and Passmore note that small businesses should keep one other thing in mind when weighing a possible move to SAN: the future. Regardless of the type of connection technology, implementing a SAN can position a company's network for comparatively easy expansion, they say. So when looking at SANs—whether Fibre Channel or IP—businesses should take into account the likely long-term scalability and redundancy needs of their computing environment.



CEO takeaway
A SAN sounds good in theory—especially its ability to provide data redundancy. But unless you've got more than six servers supporting your network, don't even consider one because direct attached storage will still offer a better ROI.
Complexity of apps usually is a central driver in shifting to a SAN. If you have simple processing but loads of it, consider the possibility of an IP SAN, which won't be as pricey as its Fibre counterpart but will boost real-time data access.
When weighing a storage investment strategy, be sure to calculate expected network and data growth. If a data boom is likely in the near long term, a migration to a SAN might pay off relatively quickly.
As you run the ROI numbers, be sure to factor in training and software costs to avoid any ugly surprises after implementation.