Rethinking storage: EMC helps SMBs organise storage

When EMC joined the IT Strategies for Network World's Small to Mid-Sized Businesses tour I recently hosted, I didn't know what to expect since the SMB market is a new emphasis for them. I assumed they would do more than talk about "a buncha disks in a big box," and they didn't disappoint.

EMC detailed their five-step process for better storage management:

1. Discover what you have.

2. Consolidate with networked storage.

3. Tier your storage.

4. Gain control - backup and recovery.

5. Gain control - Exchange migration and recovery.

I boil this down to three critical steps. First, discover what you have. This may be time consuming and painful, but worth the aspirin. Look at every disk in every server (so called DAS or direct-attached storage), and note their capacities and open space. Most companies find some servers overflowing their disk platters and other server disks full of cobwebs rather than data. Remember to check departments for any network-attached storage (NAS) units, because these storage devices are cheap enough for workgroups to buy when they aren't getting adequate service from the IT group.

Second, organise your storage. It's typical, but expensive, for companies to buy new servers when they just need more disk space. Don't be one of the server storage sheep, and break away from the herd by getting storage away from servers and putting it on the network. NAS units work to start, but the advantages of storage-area networks (SAN) keep going up while prices come down. A SAN pool on a separate data network connected by a special server can be monitored and manipulated much more easily than DAS or NAS.

EMC breaks this "organise" step down into consolidating storage (into NAS or SAN systems) and moving to storage tiers. This step is where storage expertise pays for itself.

Storage has a cost like everything else. High-speed, replicated storage such as RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) systems provide a great platform for active data (databases like e-commerce transactions, accounting and busy e-mail servers) but at a cost. Static files (the bulk of your storage) don't need to sit on high-peed drives. EMC suggests moving static data to slower disks where the information is more available than when moved to tape, but not as costly to maintain as your primary storage.

Data value drops over time. E-mails stay hot for a couple or three weeks, then their importance fades. But you can't delete them because you may need their information when a project ends, an employee leaves, you need to review a timeline of events or because some lawyer sent you a subpoena. Old e-mails can be safely transferred from your production mail server with high-speed disks to an older, slower disk system after a month or two. This unclogs your e-mail server yet keeps e-mails handy for later retrieval.

Finally, protect that data. I regularly harp on the need for backups to local storage and offsite storage, so I won't repeat my rants. EMC also has specialised tools for helping companies upgrade and migrate Microsoft server applications, like the ever-finicky Exchange server. Migrating data must be protected too, of course.

Will this cost a fortune? It can, but doesn't have to. Companies often have enough storage, but not where they need it. Moving storage around and moving to a network storage model may require more in time than it would cost to buy new hardware. But realistically, you probably need more storage.

Reseller surveys report that storage hardware remains atop the hot product list for every business. Since you're buying storage anyway, you may as well take the time to get smart about it and organise your information. Becoming "storage smart" as explained by EMC, may reduce the hardware you have to buy immediately, and reducing outlay is always good news. But organising your data means you can find the information you need faster, and that's great news.

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