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Networked computer storage was once an afterthought for many small businesses. But new and affordable storage technologies are now making it possible for small businesses to implement storage strategies that once were strictly the province of large enterprises. This article discusses these new strategies, along with the storage issues that are currently facing small businesses–and how small businesses are solving them.

The state of small business storage

With computer storage getting more inexpensive every year, small businesses have responded with purchases of easy-to-deploy storage technology.

A casual approach to server and data accumulation still works if there are only a few employees in the business, and a limited amount of data to manage. However, if the business evolves to where it simply can’t function without 24/7 availability of online applications and databases, and it begins storing gigabytes of data, it needs to take a serious look at its computer storage strategies.

Small-business IT has discovered that it must begin to do what its counterparts in larger organizations have done for some time.

For disaster recovery: IT needs to meet with management to develop comprehensive disaster recovery plans, and to determine the data that the business cannot afford to be without.

Both management and IT need to define how long the business can survive if a disaster destroyed all business computers, applications and data.

For future company growth: IT needs to determine how much time is lost shuffling data between computers and end users, as well as accounting for backups, security and maintenance of data.

Company IT should also estimate applications that are likely to be added to the business in the next 12-24 months, in addition to taking a look at how much storage capacity and applications have historically expanded in the business. Looking at both past and future storage usage will assist in producing an estimation for storage that can comfortably support company growth in an orderly fashion.

Six storage issues for small business

Small businesses want secure, available and easily managed data–but they also operate on razor-thin margins. The top storage issues for today’s small business are:

— Uptime: Most small businesses now have an Internet presence, and need a way to compete in a 24/7 economy, especially if they offer online services and order fulfillment. This means that order systems, customer data, product data, and service descriptions–the heart and soul of business information–must be readily available.

Companies cannot meet this requirement unless they have thoughtfully orchestrated storage strategies that address the requirements of redundant data, and methodical data backup and recovery procedures for failover. Backup and recovery operations need to occur simplistically and in a manner that everyone can understand. Small business IT also wants to eliminate most of the “batch processing” window that forces IT to manually perform data backups on weekends and at night during the week.

–Security: Sarbanes-Oxley, customer information privacy standards and other government- and industry-mandated data security measures apply uniformly to both small and large businesses. The trick is developing an ironclad information safekeeping strategy.

Methodologies that small businesses are employing and evaluating include: write once, read many storage–encryption of stored data (available in a SAN (storage area network) environment); authentication tools; segregation of applications like e-mail and client data; and segregation of the SAN network from the production network via a server “wall.”

— Data management: One way to solve “server sprawl” is to find opportunities to consolidate servers under a single data management process.

“Many small businesses have one or two servers that become ‘silos’ of information that they are now looking to stitch together,” said Mike Jensen, vice president and chief architect of Dot Hill, a storage networking products provider. “An opportunity we see is to consolidate this data into a single storage solution that can adapt to multiple operating environments such as Windows, Linux, UNIX and Novell.This way, if an organization has a diversity of applications, they still have only one storage resource to manage.”

Sanrad’s vice president of Market Development, Zophar Sante, agrees. “A consolidated data approach is simpler. It allows companies to remove disks from servers and to use centralized storage,” Sante says.

— Cost: Cost is an issue for small businesses, which increasingly see that they have to adopt an enterprise-style storage environment, but on a shoestring.

“Many small businesses are looking at network storage and SANs at larger companies, and asking themselves how and where they can apply it,” said Howard Shoobe, who is responsible for Dell’s Entry NAS and SAN Product Group.

Shoobe says that many of his small-business customers aren’t aware of how inexpensive it can be to get into SAN functionality that can support ease of backups and consolidated storage; the cost can be as low as $5,000. Instead, he observes that many of Dell’s customers have moved to NAS because when they begin to work on storage, the first area they approach for consolidation is file storage and the ability of employees throughout the company to share data.

“This data can be written to a NAS or file server, and companies are instituting policies for backup that always ensure that the primary version of a document resides on NAS, and not on an individual client workstation,” says Shoobe.

Small businesses also look at utilizing existing IT assets when they address storage needs. Sanrad’s Sante says that many companies are looking at using IP since they already have it. This makes the incorporation of iSCSI IP-SAN or NAS practical and cost-effective.

— Backups: Data backups must be done regularly and fastidiously. Because they’re a breeding ground for both human error and overtime costs, small businesses want to eliminate or reduce nighttime backups as much as they can. With centralized networked storage, businesses can have real-time data backups during the business day–and they can apply automation technology to perform nightly backups.

— Disaster recovery: Disaster recovery is important for small businesses. “Almost 90 percent of the small businesses we see are Microsoft shops, with a few that are running Linux,” said Zophar Sante. “All want the ability to replicate their data to another site.”

These businesses also want high availability of data, and multiple paths into data with built-in redundancy.

Trends and technologies to watch Technology developments constantly occur in the field of computer storage. Here are five key trends and products that small business IT should keep an eye on:

— Fibre channel and iSCSI IP-SAN: SAN technologies are continuing to deploy in small businesses as costs to purchase and implement go down. iSCSI IP-SAN in particular is a very affordable technology for many small businesses. Fiber channel SAN offers higher throughput (2Gbps compared to iSCSI IP-SAN’s 1Gbps). However, fibre channel SAN is also more expensive–and it requires technology knowledge that many small business IT professionals may not have. For both SAN technologies, data stores are connected to the SAN through HBAs, with the HBAs and other network infrastructure components significantly more expensive for fibre channel SAN than they are for iSCSI IP-SAN. Dot Hill’s Mike Jensen mentions a cheaper HBA now available for iSCSI IP-SAN that achieves 2Gb/second throughput. The tradeoff is a reduction in the HBA feature set, and in the number of interoperability certifications performed on the HBA.

— Snapshots: Dell’s Shoobe asks, “How many IT shops have had internal customers thank them for backing up their data every day? The reality is, you get the calls when someone has lost a file and wants you to recover it.”

Snapshot is an ideal technology in this environment, with its ability to takes snapshots of data in real-time–and at the intervals that you set for it to take the snapshots.

“These “point in time” copies of data and files are invaluable for backups and recoveries during the business day, ” said Shoobe. “We include Snapshot as part of the base software in the H100 series business servers that we sell.” Microsoft is also taking strong initiative in being a storage platform, and is incorporating its Virtual Shadow Services (VSS) in its operating system, which allows for the backup of live data in real time.

— Backup to disk: Small businesses are adopting backup to disk technology as hard drive costs continue to decrease. Backup to disk gives businesses faster backups than tape, and allows users to retrieve specific files.

— Microsoft Data Protection Manager:

This can be managed by end-users, and allows users to retrieve specific data files. Data Protection Manager stores files on a NAS server and keeps earlier versions of a file, so it is possible to retrieve an earlier file version if needed.

— Serial attached SCSI (SAS): Touted as the next generation SCSI, SAS will be able to use any type of disk drive in any storage array. This will allow shops to mix and match high performance, highly reliable and relatively expensive SCSI drives with lower cost SATA drives. SATA drives do not have all of the performance and reliability of SCSI drives, but they can still fit the bill for certain applications.

Dot Hill’s Mike Jensen predicts that SAS will begin to replace parallel SCSI connections in 2006. “The driver will be the inclusion of SAS interfaces on server boards in 2006,” he says. “SAS will see tremendous uptake in smaller businesses that operate between two and four network nodes. In terms of higher performance and connectivity, SAS is not as good as iSCSI IP-SAN or fibre channel SAN.”

The time is right

Small businesses are being pressured by their boards, customers, and regulators for stronger data management and protection policies at the same time that their IT budgets have remained flat. The good news is that there are now affordable technologies for network storage that didn’t exist two or three years ago. These technologies bring to small business some of the data management, protection and restoration techniques that only larger enterprises could take apply in the past.

Dot Hill’s Jensen points out key four data storage factors for small businesses. “First, they want technology that is ready to setup and install,” he says. “Second, they want flexible user interface options. Many prefer a Windows-based GUI to manage their storage, but others, especially those coming from a UNIX environment, prefer command line management. Third, small businesses want flexibility, The goal is to preserve your storage investments, and to have storage solutions that can work with many different types of operating systems, whether it is Windows, Linux, UNIX, Novell or even proprietary UNIX, such as HP’s HPUX or IBM’s AIX. Fourth, businesses want scalable storage. They want storage solutions that can easily add loads or accommodate new users.”

Networked Storage: What’s Out There?

— Network attached storage (NAS)

Network attached storage is storage that is directly attached to a network server. It facilitates the storage of data at the server–and not on the client workstation. NAS is inexpensive and easy to install. One downside with NAS is that centralized data storage is tied directly to a specific physical device which could fail. Businesses utilizing NAS need strong data backup and restoration procedures. On the other hand, NAS allows for user file sharing–while SAN does not.

— Fibre channel SAN

Fibre channel SAN is a comprehensive SAN solution that is often used by large enterprises. It is becoming more affordable to small businesses–but it is still four or five times the cost of iSCSI IP-SAN. While fibre channel SAN is costly and requires specialized network expertise that many small businesses might not have–its 2GB throughput is twice that of iSCSCI SAN. Most small businesses do not require this kind of throughput–but businesses with extremely high traffic might.

— iSCSI IP-SAN

iSCSI IP-SAN takes iSCSI IP-SAN commands and translates them so they can be used over ethernet. Because iSCSI IP-SAN utilizes ethernet, where small business network technicians already have strong skillsets, there is little additional training involved (unlike fibre channel SAN). Businesses can also use their existing network cards and switches, making infrastructure investments much lower than they would be with fibre channel SAN. Data throughput with iSCSI IP-SAN is at 1 GB/second, which is half the speed of its fibre channel counterpart.

How To Optimize Your Networked Storage

— Centralize your storage

When you centralize your storage, you position yourself to build in redundancy and failover for all of your data since it is in one place. “Instead of adding individual servers, disk and storage, companies should look at bringing everything together on one box,” says Dot Hill’s Mike Jensen.

In a centralized data strategy, server data is segregated within the monolithic storage device. “An iSCSI solution allows you to partition your data, assigning each partition to an individual server,” said Sanrad’s Zophar Sante. “That partition becomes a logical disk drive that you can format any way you wish. You can uniquely name it and back it up.”

— Get cache for your storage system

Sites should get 2GB of cache, if possible. This has a tremendous effect on performance in a shared storage environment because multiple servers are writing at different times. The cache buffers allow for processing fluctuations, since there are always both the low- and high-use periods in the data processing cycle.

— Perform regular backups

Some small businesses still perform data backups haphazardly. All critical corporate data should be backed up–and backup operations should be set for periodic “snapshotting” during the day, nightly backups, and weekly rolls of data to tape for purposes of data mobility in case there is a disaster recovery scenario that requires you to move to another location.

“Many small businesses backup over a LAN, but in a LAN environment you are limited to 1Gbps throughput, “I would recommend backups from a consolidated, central server over SAN, where throughput can be 2Gbps, if you are using fibre channel SAN” says Dell’s Howard Shoobe.

Sante also recommends that businesses consider including Snapshot and VSS (Virtual Shadow Services) support from Microsoft for mid-day backups.

— Develop a data backup and recovery architecture

Small businesses need to formalize their approach to data management, backup, and recovery with an overall architecture and plan. In doing so, they have a consistent approach to storage and data safety that can be uniformly applied.

Procedurally, disk backups can be used for intra-day snapshots and nightly backups. At the end of the week, data should be archived to tape. Tape is still the portable media required when it comes to hotsite, warmsite or coldsite data recovery and restoration. To avoid nighttime IT shifts for backup during the week, disk autoloader technology can be used that fires off every night in an unattended mode.

— Develop an offsite storage policy

One phase of storage policy is how you administer storage onsite. But the other phase should involve an offsite location where data is kept for emergency situations. Some small businesses address offsite data storage by keeping their data at different company office locations. Others team with like businesses to house each other’s data. Still others opt to use commercial hotsite, warmsite and coldsite storage. In all cases, data that is to be restored should be on moveable media. Rolling data to tape once a week is the best way to achieve portable data media for data restoration and recovery.

There are three commercial options for disaster recovery and data restoration:

— Hotsite, which features almost instant failover and file recovery, is a subscribed service, and is the most expensive disaster offsite storage option;

— Warmsite provides an unconfigured server that must be configured to your specifications and then loaded with your data;

— Coldsite stores only data on media, and does not provide any computers or networks.

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology practice for technology companies and organizations.

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