Solving the Small Business Storage Dilemma

For large enterprises looking to bolster their storage capacities, an overabundance of Network Attached Storage (NAS) and Storage Area Network (SAN) solutions threatens to turn storage into a commodity market. No wonder storage giants such as EMC are racing to strengthen their storage management software because the software, not the physical storage setup, will likely differentiate storage companies from one another going forward. Low-end storage--primarily through low-cost IDE hard disks--is also being turned into a commodity--the amount of storage capacity you can purchase for next to nothing is sinful.

What about the small business that lies between the highly managed world of enterprise storage and the "Backup? What backup?" world of individual users. For the ever-growing small-business market, high-end storage solutions or cheap IDE hard disks haven't solved the storage dilemma. So who serves the small-business market?

Increasingly, support for the small-business market is coming directly from Microsoft in the form of Windows-based technology. As one might expect, the software giant is always looking for ways to grow, and the small-business market is growing 8 percent to 10 percent annually in a time when most markets that invest in IT are stagnating. I first discussed Microsoft's small business offering, Windows Small Business Server (SBS) 2003, about a month ago (see "Well Timed Follow-Ups, Part 1: Windows SBS 2003" at http://www.winnetmag.com/articles/index.cfm?articleid=39454 ). Like all Windows Server 2003 software versions, SBS 2003 offers a variety of storage-related improvements over previous Windows Server versions. These changes can help small businesses take better advantage of those small, inexpensive hard disks that individuals are snatching up every weekend at Best Buy. Here are some SBS 2003 features that dramatically improve the storage picture:

- Improved backup. Although Microsoft dramatically improved the underlying backup technologies in Windows 2003, only SBS 2003 includes a backup tool that fully exploits those capabilities and provides the "computer guy" (i.e., the employee who knows the most about computers) or service provider with a friendly way to set up a backup schedule and determine which files get backed up. You can configure the backup tool to email notifications to select users when certain events occur. For example, you might want to receive an email message whenever a backup succeeds or fails or when disk capacity is getting low.

- Automated System Recovery (ASR). All Windows Server versions support ASR, which helps restore the OS, applications, hardware configuration, and system state to a known state in the event of a catastrophic failure.

- Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS). All Windows Server versions support VSS's ability to make snapshot backups of key data files. This feature can help you recover an accidentally deleted or modified file by using a simple shell extension.

- Microsoft Dfs. Windows 2003 lets you use one Dfs namespace to easily unify storage from multiple drives and systems. In doing so, you can seamlessly add storage to a system and not affect the underlying drive letter structure.

But what options are available to small businesses that aren't using a Windows Server infrastructure? Many hardware makers, including Snap Appliance, sell a range of NAS devices that work in mixed OS environments, in small workgroups of Windows computers, in large domain-oriented networks, or in any configuration you can think of. Snap Appliance, in particular, creates products that work in large and small businesses. Recently, I evaluated one of the company's low-end workgroup servers to determine how it compared with a roll-your-own solution using off-the-shelf parts.

Snap Appliance's workgroup products are simple to set up and consist of a black box that contains the drive and associated electronics, a power cord, and an Ethernet cable. When you add a Snap Server to your network, it appears as a network share that you can access from virtually any environment. I tested the server against Windows 2003 and SBS 2003, Windows XP and Windows 2000 clients, Linux, and Mac OS X. The device has an embedded version of Linux that provides a simple Web-management front end and Windows-compatible sharing capabilities. The Snap server also includes PowerQuest's DataKeeper for Windows client backup software and other useful tools.

Compared with the Best Buy hard disk special, Snap Servers appear to be relatively expensive. For example, a Snap Server 1100 with an 80GB hard disk costs about $550 through direct mail companies, whereas an off-the-shelf disk would cost less than $100. But this comparison is a bit unfair; Snap Appliance can justify the cost differential in a variety of ways. First, its storage solutions are Plug and Play (PnP) devices that require just minutes to configure. Second, the devices are instantly accessible over the network, and you don't need any networking knowledge to share them with other users. Finally, you don't need to take down the server to add storage: You can add Snap Servers or similar devices to your network whenever you need additional storage.

Snap Servers make sense in many small-business environments, especially environments that fall into two categories. The first category includes environments in which systems management tasks are offloaded to a full-time employee who is unlucky enough to know something about computers and thus becomes the de facto computer guy; Here, a Snap Server or similar device is immediately beneficial because you don't need to open up the server and the management tools are straightforward. In the second category, administrative duties are offloaded to a services company that remotely administers the small business network. Because these workgroup-oriented appliances include a remote-accessible Web management interface, the installation and configuration can be transparent to the customer. These services companies are, not coincidentally, one of the primary ways Microsoft plans to deploy SBS 2003.

Ultimately, adding storage in a small-business environment comes down to convenience and cost. If you have technically competent staff and the downtime won't be a problem, a simple hard disk upgrade can solve many problems, especially if you have an OS that can use advanced storage capabilities. But increasingly, even the smallest businesses can't afford any downtime. For these companies and companies with no formal technical staff, NAS devices such as those that Snap Appliance provides are filling a void.

I'm curious whether you have any small-business-related storage requirements, needs, or solutions. Please drop me a line and let me know what you think about storage and small businesses.

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