What are the SAN requirements for SMBs?

Low cost and ease of use are driving small to medium-sized businesses toward iSCSI-based IP SANs.

By John Sloan
SANs are ripe for significant expansion into the small to medium-sized business (SMB) market. This expansion will be led by low-cost storage server solutions that offer both iSCSI for IP SANs and traditional NAS capabilities.

In researching the needs of SMBs, Info-Tech has found that SAN solutions for the SMB market must have three critical attributes:

  • They have to be inexpensive. The top of the SAN price range we use in our SMB scenario is $30,000. But the ideal SMB SAN should be below $10,000;
  • SMB SANs have to be very easy to install and operate. SMBs have neither the staff nor the time to dedicate to storage management. Installation and management must be within the realm of basic server/network administration; and
  • SANs have to be Windows-friendly. The growth area for SANs is in extending the benefits of consolidated storage to midrange and low-end x86 servers. While x86 servers running Windows (or Linux) are important to all enterprises, they are the bread and butter of SMB IT infrastructures.

For all three of the above “must haves” we see encouraging trends in the networked storage market. Beyond meeting the needs of SMBs, solutions will emerge over the next 18 months that will redefine networked storage for all enterprises. These trends include

iSCSI emerges as the best alternative for SMBs-SANs are block-level storage managed behind a network switch. An IP SAN uses an Ethernet switch and the IP protocol for storage traffic. IP SANs are the future of network storage in the SMB space, even though some vendors may be loath to call their iSCSI solutions a SAN.

Microsoft’s Simple SAN initiative-Device manageability is a primary concern for SMBs, and Microsoft’s Simple SAN initiative addresses the issue of complexity as well as SAN integration with Windows infrastructures and Windows server applications.

“White-box” SANs-SMBs are more likely to purchase commodity PCs and servers through resellers, and steps by Intel to create white-box SAN products for resellers moves SAN technology closer to commodity status.

Over the next 18 months, storage vendors will attack the SMB space with lower-cost, easy-to-implement iSCSI-based SANs and SAN/NAS combinations. In addition to providing good value for SMBs, these products will also have considerable potential for larger enterprises as they seek to extend the benefits of networked storage to midrange and low-end servers.

The typical SMB occupies the lower end of the SME market (see “What do SMBs want?” at the end of this article). While all SMEs have similar goals and motivations for storage purchases, companies in the lower end of the spectrum-SMBs-often stand apart from midrange to larger SMEs due to limited budgets, staff, and skill sets. Although all SME IT shops must deal with limitations, such constraints are a key trait of SMBs.

Enterprises invest in SANs because they want to ensure the highest levels of availability and recoverability for critical data, and they want to achieve maximum utilization of storage resources in a consolidated utility infrastructure.

Although SAN implementers don’t always use terms like “utility infrastructure,” they do tell us that consolidation, cost control, improved management, availability, and recoverability are all primary drivers for acquiring a SAN. Of course, the need to increase overall storage capacity is an issue all enterprises face.

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In a recent survey, Info-Tech asked IT decision-makers in SMEs to identify their storage priorities for 2006. The most frequently reported priority is the “effective backup of critical data” (33%). “Achieving a specific storage capacity” and “consolidating infrastructure” are the next most common goals (see figure, above).

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When the responses are parsed by enterprise size, we see a different emphasis among smaller enterprises than larger ones (see figure). The goal of “effective backup of critical data” is rated higher among smaller enterprises, growing with size up to the level of 500 employees. This growth is attributable to an increasing need to store and archive data to meet regulatory requirements. Larger enterprises (>500 employees) likely already have an archiving infrastructure in place. For smaller enterprises, this is new territory.

For larger enterprises, the second-biggest priority after backup is infrastructure consolidation. However, for small enterprises the second-biggest storage priority is device manageability. Small enterprises have limited internal technical resources to devote to storage management, while large organizations are more likely to have internal technical expertise for storage management. As company size increases, the importance of device manageability declines.

Info-Tech believes that building a consolidated utility infrastructure should be a primary driver for SAN implementation. The seriousness of “server sprawl” is concurrent with the number of servers being managed. It is not surprising that “consolidating infrastructure” ranks low as a storage priority among small enterprises, but grows in importance with enterprise size. For SMBs, consolidation is a consideration only for mitigating the cost of future infrastructure growth.

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Price of a storage solution is an important consideration for all SMEs, but again, we see different priorities for the smaller enterprises. Price is generally the leading motivator for all enterprises when selecting one storage solution over another (see figure, above). However, when the numbers are broken down by enterprise size, larger enterprises (those with >500 employees) rank “corporate standard” slightly ahead of price as the primary decision motivator. For the smallest enterprises, price leads by a wide margin, while “corporate standard” is not even a consideration (see figure, below).

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These trends point to the emergence of SAN solutions that address the storage goals shared by all enterprises while meeting the unique needs of SMBs.

SANs based on iSCSI block-level storage over Ethernet (IP SANs) have emerged as a legitimate alternative to Fibre Channel SANs across all enterprises. IP SANs are the preferred option in small enterprises, where spending on Fibre Channel SANs is virtually non-existent among companies with <100 employees. In enterprises with 100 to 500 employees, Fibre Channel and IP SANs compete more equally for customer attention. Fibre Channel still dominates in larger enterprises, although a healthy percentage of those organizations are looking at IP SANs (see figure).

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SANs based on iSCSI and Ethernet have cost advantages over Fibre Channel SANs; they don’t require the specialized network gear or staff training required by Fibre Channel SANs. Price is a leading motivator for SMBs when choosing SAN solutions. Larger enterprises are more likely to have a previous investment in Fibre Channel and are more likely to adhere to it as a corporate standard.

When a large enterprise cites “corporate standard” as its reason for deciding against a given storage solution, we interpret this as meaning, “we considered other suppliers, but their technologies are not standard within our environment; therefore, we opted for the supplier that is already entrenched within our organization.” In contrast, SMBs have no such legacy encumbrance.

IT decision-makers in our survey are almost as likely to purchase IP SAN storage as they are Fibre Channel SANs. This is significant given that iSCSI is a relatively new technology with a very small installed base. Where some Fibre Channel purchases are upgrades or additions to existing Fibre Channel infrastructure, iSCSI purchases are likely to be first-time buys.

Our numbers do not indicate how many of those looking at NAS devices will be acquiring iSCSI port capability in those devices. Providing IP SAN functionality without using the word “SAN” could lead to some confusion. For example, when we asked what kind of storage IT decision-makers are buying in a given quarter, “IP SAN” is fairly strong relative to Fibre Channel SANs and NAS. But how many NAS purchases include support for iSCSI?

A single storage solution that provides both iSCSI (for IP SAN functionality) and a NAS front-end is the ideal solution for many SMBs. A NAS gateway combined with IP SAN functionality provides a comprehensive networked storage solution. IT decision-makers should consider NAS-only appliances only if their capacity requirements are well below 1TB, the budget is severely constrained, and if file-level networked storage is all that is required.

The SAN/NAS combination has traditionally been achieved by adding NAS to a SAN through a NAS head or gateway. But some vendors are also adding iSCSI to NAS devices. NetApp, for example, has always been a leading NAS appliance vendor, but it became an early IP SAN pioneer and leading iSCSI vendor by adding iSCSI to its storage devices.

More products will emerge that eschew the SAN or NAS labels. Hitachi Data Systems’ recently unveiled AMS1000, for example, is billed as a multi-protocol array that has embedded support for Fibre Channel, iSCSI, and NAS. And Microsoft’s release of Storage Server 2003 will lead to more Microsoft-based storage server solutions that function as NAS and iSCSI targets.

As Ethernet switching moves up to 10Gbps and iSCSI support improves in server operating systems, many SMBs will achieve IP SAN storage even if the solution has been billed as NAS or a storage server that includes iSCSI.

For SMBs, SANs have to be inexpensive as well as easy to install and operate. It has been stated in jest that Microsoft should have called its Simple SAN initiative the “Simpler SAN initiative,” or even the “Less Dauntingly Difficult SAN initiative.” With storage device manageability a major consideration for smaller enterprises, any step toward easing complexity is a step in the right direction.

SMBs are attracted to industry-standard solutions for their low acquisition costs and because standardized and commoditized hardware (such as x86 servers and Ethernet networking) do not require specialized and expensive management personnel. SANs have traditionally opposed these SME requirements.

Microsoft’s Simple SAN initiative is a vendor partner program aimed at simplifying SANs through automation, standardization, and streamlined installation processes. The three prongs of the Simple SAN initiative are

  • Ensure interoperability with Windows Server 2003-Windows integration is a critical consideration for extending SANs to SME environments. Info- Tech finds that more than 61% of all storage purchases by SMEs are for Windows environments.
  • Work with vendors to reduce setup complexity-This involves reducing the number of steps required for setup and consolidating documentation and support. (For instance, documentation for setup should be from a single source. There must also be a single point of contact for SAN support.)
  • Help users to make informed SAN decisions-Through the Simple SAN program, storage vendors can indicate their commitment to reducing complexity and helping SMEs deploy SANs for their Windows server environments.

Examples of vendors that have been certified under the Simple SAN initiative include Brocade, Emulex, EqualLogic, HDS, IBM, and LeftHand Networks.

Microsoft recognizes that low-cost SANs for SMEs are set for explosive growth. In the past, the growth of industry standard x86/x64 servers has benefited Microsoft tremendously; however, those servers traditionally relied on DAS. As storage moves from servers to the network, Microsoft is keeping Windows in the picture by

  • Enhancing the iSCSI targeting and SAN management capabilities of Windows in Windows Server 2003 R2;
  • Introducing an improved Windows Storage Server 2003 R2 to make it the operating system of choice for NAS appliances; and
  • Promoting simpler to install and manage SAN solutions targeted at Windows-based SME infrastructures through the Simple SAN program.

If successful, these initiatives will position Windows well for emerging SME storage appliances that function as both NAS servers and iSCSI targets for Ethernet-based IP SANs.

Servers and workstations progressed from proprietary hardware to commodities based on industry standards. We see white-box SAN solutions as indicative of a similar trend in networked storage. These products will have strong appeal to SMBs, as well as in the departmental space of larger enterprises.

In November 2005, Intel introduced a storage enclosure called the Storage System SSR212MA, which is intended to provide users, resellers, and OEMs with a low-cost white-box SAN building block based on industry-standard hardware. The product includes an iSCSI controller, a Xeon processor, and space for 12 SATA drives for a total capacity of 6TB. LeftHand Networks’ SAN/IQ software is used for management and storage virtualization.

This initial step into white-box SANs was followed up in April 2006 with the announcement by EMC and Intel that Intel will resell another white-box product-SSR21PP, based on EMC’s AX150i array. Dell and EMC also sell the AX150i directly to the SMB market. The earlier AX100 has also succeeded in the SMB market with its SAN-in-a-box 12-step installation process and sub-$10,000 price tag.

While the signs are encouraging, there is still plenty of room for SANs to grow in the SMB space. In Info-Tech’s 2006 SAN Select Vendor Evaluation report, we note that the past 18 months have been very positive for the midrange market. Most of the action has been in the $30,000 to $160,000 price range. Despite the success of solutions such as the Dell/EMC AX100, the SMB market is far from being fully exploited.

New iSCSI SAN and NAS/SAN products for SMBs will also have a ripple effect on capabilities and pricing through all enterprises. All companies are looking to extend the benefits of centrally managed networked storage to their industry-standard server infrastructures.

The SMB space is often portrayed as the end of the SAN story. The tale begins with large enterprises using Fibre Channel SANs to consolidate storage infrastructure and boost storage utilization. Prices decline, management features move down market, and SAN solutions trickle down through the SME market.

But the SAN story is far from over. The next chapter begins in smaller enterprises. The x86 server story began with smaller enterprises and worked upward. When the industry-standard PC architecture moved from the desktop to the back office, it was first embraced by SMBs because it was inexpensive and “good enough.” In storage, SMBs need more capacity and can benefit from consolidated management, but are limited in how much they can invest. For them, iSCSI-based IP SANs will be inexpensive (or at least less expensive) and “good enough.”

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John Sloan is senior research analyst at the Info-Tech research firm (www.infotech.com).

This article was originally published on June 01, 2006