Fibre Channel vendors eye SMB market

Storage area networks are mainstream in large enterprises, but SAN adoption in small to medium-sized businesses presents challenges.

By Thomas Hammond-Doel

Direct-attached storage is still the dominant storage architecture in the small to medium-sized business (SMB) market. However, several trends may drive adoption of Fibre Channel storage area networks (SANs) in the SMB space, including the following:

  • Storage capacity is increasing rapidly, driving the need for ease of scalability;
  • Storage resources are under-utilized, and IT shops are moving toward server and storage consolidation;
  • Data backup is coming under increased scrutiny as SMBs struggle to meet regulatory compliance mandates. Disaster recovery and backup are constantly gaining in importance for SMBs; and
  • SMBs are becoming "content aware" and are storing different types of data with varying levels of value on different types of storage devices. This trend lends itself to hybrid storage architectures that can include SANs.

Fibre Channel SANs have a place in the SMB market, but to present a value proposition there has to be a clear understanding of the challenges that need to be overcome.

What differentiates the SMB market?

Generally, SMBs have fewer than 1,000 employees and annual revenues of less than $100 million.

Often, SMBs do not have a person or staff dedicated solely to storage. And those who handle routine storage tasks may not have an in-depth understanding of SANs or their potential advantages versus DAS or network-attached storage (NAS). And even if the staff does understand the advantages of a SAN, it is difficult to justify the expense to upper management.

Some of the challenges that SAN vendors face in the SMB market include education, ease of use, applications, and cost.

Education—Generally, the SMB market believes that adding storage means adding another server or simply replacing hard drives with higher-capacity drives. The Fibre Channel Industry Association and its members are expanding their focus to educate end users in the SMB market about the potential advantages of SANs. This effort includes counteracting the claims that Fibre Channel is complex and costly by stressing ease of use and low-cost SAN implementations.

Ease of use—The migration from DAS to SAN is becoming less daunting. Tools, wizards, and guides for installing and maintaining Fibre Channel SANs have become much simpler and easier to understand and incorporate defaults for typical SMB configurations. Also, many vendors have created relatively low-cost bundled SAN configurations to ease the migration from DAS to SAN. In addition, Fibre Channel hardware drivers and standard GUIs for SANs are being integrated into operating systems.

Applications—The applications running in SMBs can be broken down into several basic classes, such as online transaction processing (OLTP), e-mail, Web serving, and streaming media. A Fibre Channel SAN may be the most appropriate storage architecture for applications such as OLTP, video editing and streaming, engineering, and any "mission-critical" application where high-speed data access and reliability are critical.

Cost—Depending on its size, every business has a threshold of pain for investing in its IT infrastructure. SMBs typically consider expenses as up-front costs without taking total cost of ownership (TCO) into account. From an SMB perspective, this may actually make sense since most servers come with a three-year warranty, and the expected life of a server is three years. Even so, $25,000 to $30,000 for a storage system may create a barrier for many businesses. Fibre Channel vendors need to make fundamental tradeoffs to attain the price points demanded by the SMB market.

SAN justification

One of the main reasons for SMBs to consider SANs is server and storage consolidation. According to a report from Access Markets International (AMI) Partners Inc., reducing the number of servers in a medium-sized business saves $50,000 to $100,000 in license fees and operating expenses.

Another major advantage of a SAN is a significant decrease in, or elimination of, downtime. However, it's difficult for many SMBs to estimate the cost of downtime.

The SMB SAN market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 43% over the next few years, while the enterprise SAN market is expected to grow at a 5% growth rate, according to AMI Partners. Couple the CAGR of the SMB SAN market with the expected explosion of data they will be handling and the need for migrating to a scalable storage infrastructure adds up to a tremendous potential opportunity for Fibre Channel SANs.

However, to fully accommodate the needs of the SMB market, Fibre Channel SAN vendors need to overcome several challenges, including educating the market about the benefits of SANs, demonstrating financial and technical justification for the migration from DAS to SAN architectures, making the implementation of SANs easier, and working with SMBs to identify the applications where Fibre Channel is the best solution.

Thomas Hammond-Doel is a board member and treasurer of the Fibre Channel Industry Association (www.fibrechannel.org), and director of technical marketing at Emulex Corp.

This article was originally published on April 01, 2004