What about SANs for SMBs?

Q: As a financial analyst covering the data storage industry, I've heard a lot about the opportunity for storage area networks (SANs) in small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs). However, when my small firm went to research SAN solutions for our little server room, we found the costs to be prohibitive. What products exist for the SMB market, how do I find them, and how do they differ from higher-end products? —.Financial Analyst New York City

Jacob Farmer
Cambridge Computer
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This is a confounding question, not just for end users, but also for manufacturers of SMB SAN products. The manufacturers I consult for are always asking me to differentiate their SMB products in ways that don't cannibalize their high-end efforts.

Most of the bigger vendors have tried marketing cookie-cutter SAN solutions ("SANs in a can") for lower-budget customers. While these products use the same disk drives and channel interfaces as enterprise-class products, their wings are clipped in subtle, but sometimes significant, ways.

The problem with cookie-cutter approaches is that the "solutions" often come up short. Many SMBs are looking for the same feature sets (e.g., high performance, lots of capacity, etc.) as big businesses, but are often given a lot less. The challenge for vendors is to provide SMB businesses with what they need without watering down their high-end products too much.

Component vendors have taken a different approach, offering SMBs a discount bundle that includes a handful of Fibre Channel host bus adapters (HBAs) or a small switch. Others choose to partner with other component manufacturers to market complete solutions based on components that can be purchased separately. I have heard end users refer to the experience of putting together this type of solution as the "SAN hits the fan," which speaks to the headache that often comes with doing it this way and the regret one later has for not having stayed with direct-attached storage!

I believe that what differentiates a SMB SAN from a big-business SAN is not so much what you buy as it is why you buy it, how you cost-justify it, and even who you buy it from. Big businesses tend to subscribe to ROI (return on investment) and TCO (total cost of ownership) analyses, which take into account all the indirect costs and benefits of a given technology. If a given purchase results in enough savings over a short enough amount of time, they buy it.

SMBs, on the other hand, tend to focus on the direct costs of a purchase. The limiting factor in this equation is cash. They have immediate problems and they have limited budgets, and whoever fits the solution to the budget wins the sale. If the product selection requires more administrative effort, so be it. The limited staff simply stays a little later that night.

The reality is that SMB SANs are and will continue to be sold and installed by the reseller channel. Integrating SMB SANs, after all, is what I do for a living.

So, if you're an SMB, check out a local VAR. Because they have a much lower cost associated with each sale than do the larger vendors, they can afford to focus on the needs of the SMB client. These VARs can assemble SAN components into a complete solution, including the features and support you need as well as excluding those that you don't.

As the market evolves there will be more and more solutions aimed specifically at the SMB marketplace. They will be either modular products with relatively low entry points and lots of optional modules or turnkey products pre-loaded with many of the bells and whistles, but limited in some way. Certainly iSCSI will usher in many lower-cost solutions that retain the functionality of high-end solutions.

In the meantime, the ingredients are available on the open market and there is a whole class of vendors eagerly awaiting the opportunity to help you tie it all together.

Jacob Farmer is the CTO of Cambridge Computer. He can be reached at jacobf@cambridgecomputer.com.

This article was originally published on March 01, 2003