Losing customer information, databases, email or financial records can damage any organization. As the current economy threatens even the most resilient SMBs, storage administrators must find creative strategies to store and protect the data that is central to the survival of their businesses.
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Applying conservative storage strategies
Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT Inc., said that data storage is "uniquely challenging" for SMBs because even when revenues fall, the volume of stored information continues to rise. King said that small business owners walk a tightrope over how to afford the storage they want and the storage they absolutely need.
Wasser Studios, a publications-project service provider, started to notice the economy's effect in mid-2008. Fortunately, the Seattle-based company's long-standing purchasing policy works well in a recession. Rather than following a three-year equipment cycle, IT manager Trevor Koop extends service contracts, buys products at the end of their lifecycle or a generation old, and even buys equipment advertised on eBay.
Koop said he's had good luck purchasing SCSI controllers, SATA array controllers, processors, motherboards, memory, power supplies and new tape media purchased on eBay.
For older hardware platforms that he's just trying to keep patched up, many parts can only be obtained from people who are dismantling their machines. But for essential equipment, Koop buys from proven sellers that offer competitive prices.
"We look for performance and dependability for our production environment. Our files are continually going back and forth, and our FTP server has to be extremely reliable," said Koop. "Our service contracts require us to retain data for six years in some cases."
Steven Jackson, systems architect at Indiana-based Haas Cabinet Company, said the economy has sparked an interest in resource recovery and rehabilitation, rather than replacement and expansion. The company has started extending hardware-support warranties on primary resources instead of purchasing new hardware at the end of support agreements. Haas has also been applying stringent data-archiving and clearing policies to insure that needed capacity is available.
Jackson said he's a proponent of open-source technologies and the use of commodity hardware when possible. In addition, to reduce the cost of maintaining and managing servers with local storage, he's been looking into iSCSI SANs and said the technology provides a good balance between performance and value.
Outsourcing storage attracted a lot of attention when it was introduced nearly a decade ago by storage service providers (SSPs). Unfortunately, the idea of dispatching data offsite through the Internet intimidated most storage administrators.
Today, many SMBs still think that sending their tapes offsite is safer than sending their data electronically to another location. However, outsourcing data storage allows SMBs to benefit from enterprise-level storage strategies. The service provider assumes custodial "banking" of the data and usually backs the data off to other locations, often to another power grid. Provided the data doesn't fall into the wrong hands, the data is actually less likely to be lost than a tape sent to an offsite vault.
Steve Perkins, president and CTO of NetMass, an SMB and managed service provider (MSP), said that the economy hasn't negatively affected his business. In fact, inquiries from potential customers were up in late 2008 and early 2009.
NetMass stores a petabyte of data on network-attached storage (NAS) boxes for its customers. The company uses enterprise-grade equipment and provides technologies such as compression, deduplication and replication to more than one geographic location.
Perkins buys equipment from a small number of well-established vendors and said he never "buys cheap." "Cheap causes headaches and doesn't serve our customers well. We're not rich enough to buy cheap," said Perkins.
Storage tips for the current economy
In a recession, it's tempting to cut corners and tighten your belt, but it's not advisable to do so with data storage. SMBs can use a simple exercise to develop a cost-conscious storage plan:
- Analyze data to determine how critical each type is to the survival of the company
- Assign a value to each type of data
- Categorize your customer data and determine how much capacity each category requires
- Inventory existing equipment and software to determine if they serve each level of criticality
- Leverage this information to guide the retention of current resources and the acquisition of new ones
It's possible to eke more time out of current equipment by extending service contracts rather than buying new. However, sometimes it's actually less expensive to buy new equipment. When buying new equipment, don't skimp, but don't break the bank either. Consider storage strategies like data deduplication and archiving.
With data deduplication, multiple copies of the same data are eliminated, yet all authorized users still have access to it. For instance, identical email attachments for multiple users soak up storage space. With dedupe, just one copy of the attachment is stored, but all owners of the data can still access it.
As for archiving, most organizations have data that never changes yet must be retained. That data is often included in backup routines, consuming time and capacity. Archiving removes the data from the active resources and stores it offline, so the static data isn't repeatedly backed up. An SMB can manually archive data, or if the cost is reasonable, purchase software that will automate the process.
A sensitive issue in conserving storage resources surrounds developing clear policies regarding what kind of data employees can store on company equipment. Software exists that can actually look for improper files and delete them. Also, don't hesitate to pick your peers' brains. According to Forrester Research Inc.'s report, "The State of Emerging SMB Hardware Trends: 2008 to 2009," peers are the most-valued traditional source of information for purchase decisions.
Many vendors are now taking enterprise-level products and creating versions that are attractive to SMBs. Investing in these technologies could actually save money. iSCSI makes SANs possible for SMBs that can't afford Fibre Channel. Virtualization, thin provisioning and storage management software can help you effectively administer data and make sound decisions for growing capacity needs.
Analyst Charles King said storage options for SMBs are increasing as NAS and iSCSI solutions get bigger, faster and cheaper, and vendors integrate storage-management software into their solutions.
"The economy is forcing everyone, vendors included, to pursue business anywhere they can find it," said King. "That means there are some great deals to be had, but it's doubly important to know that a product will provide for your needs before your break out your checkbook."
About this author: Ann Silverthorn has been writing articles and white papers about the management, storage, and protection of data for nearly a decade. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.