Keeping it cheap and simple with SANs


Jeff Pieper’s marketing design business runs on data, and he doesn’t mind swapping out a server or fiddling with cabling here and there.

But 45 minutes a day moving, compressing, decompressing and deleting files just so his 21 employees can do their work was too much for Pieper, president of marketing design firm Pieper and Associates Inc. in Torrance, Calif.

Rather than buying more servers and NAS appliances as his workload grew, he bought a Hitachi Data Systems Corp. Plug-and-play SAN Kit with 4TB capacity. At about the twice the price of a server, it seemed like an expensive and perhaps exorbitant risk. “Nobody our size has anything like this,” he says. “Everybody was just getting another NAS and another NAS” appliance as their needs grew.

But after a year, he says the Fibre Channel (FC) SAN has more than paid for itself in letting him spend more time closing new business and less time — about two hours a month — fiddling with storage.

Pieper’s story is typical of small and medium-size businesses, according to users and industry analysts. They say a wave of comparatively low-priced SANs, many bundled with preconfigured switches and host-bus adapters, are easy to install and can cut management costs by up to 70 percent compared to storage directly attached to each server.

Keeping it simple

These simple, or plug-and-play, SANs use either FC or iSCSI, although low-end iSCSI SANs have received more attention because of their affordability. ISCSI allows the SCSI commands needed to communicate with FC drives to be transmitted over Ethernet. This reduces hardware costs since Ethernet hardware is close to a universal office networking standard, and cuts management costs, since network administrators can install and manage storage networks without extensive retraining. Because of such benefits, research firm Gartner Inc. estimates sales of iSCSI SANs in the small and midsize market will grow from $300 million in 2006 to $2.8 billion in 2010.

While iSCSI SAN hardware costs 20 percent to 40 percent less than comparable FC hardware, both FC and iSCSI “Simple SANs” reduce administrative costs with easy-to-use software that automatically creates and resizes volumes, migrates and compresses data, and moves data among volumes and arrays as needed. Among the major iSCSI SAN vendors are LeftHand Networks Inc.., EqualLogic Inc.., Network Appliance Inc., Intransa Inc., EMC Corp. and Dell Inc., which resells EMC’s AX 150 storage array, which can be used in either FC or iSCSI SANs.

Vendors on the FC side include EMC and Hewlett-Packard Co., with bundles such as the EVA4000 Starter Kit, a 4GB SAN that ships with storage arrays, HBAs, SAN switch and host-bus adapters. And EMC sells a “SAN infrastructure pack” of FC switches and host bus adapters, says Gartner analyst Roger Cox.

Many low-end SANs are deployed to move away from DAS disk drives and to store bulky files generated by Microsoft Exchange e-mail servers. When it relied on DAS, the Jefferson Union High School District in Daly City, Calif., had to impose strict quotas on the e-mails and files that teachers and students stored on the network servers. Since installing a Hitachi Plug-and-play SAN Kit with 8TB of storage, the district eliminated limits on network storage and even encouraged students to post portfolios of their work online “so teachers can have access to students’ work over a period of time” rather than deleting the work at the end of each year to save space, says Silberman.

About a year ago, software vendor Quark Inc. in Denver purchased two 6TB Network Storage Module arrays from LeftHand Networks to store Exchange data, user files and software source code, says Mark Lawler, vice president of information technology. He says he chose LeftHand Networks both for its ease of use and because it cost less than rival products from EMC and Network Appliance.

Ease of use

While Lawler and his staff had to create volumes and authentication groups — “normal tasks you have to do with any SAN or NAS” — he says they had the SAN up in two days, even though they had “never seen a LeftHand product before.”

While Hitachi installed the SAN for Silberman, his staff was able to use the management software to reconfigure the array with only a half hour of training. He estimates his staff spends “20 percent to 30 percent less time in managing the storage than we did before.”

Lawler estimates his SAN cut his storage management costs by 70 percent compared with its previous DAS. Randy Ferber, a senior project manager at Computer Sciences Corp. who oversaw the installation of a LeftHand networks SAN at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles, estimates the hospital earned back the $157,000 it spent on 19TB of LeftHand storage in the first year by not having to hire the expensive administrative staff that an FC SAN would have required.

Several customers also praised the ease of adding more storage to iSCSI SANs. If Pieper’s current SAN runs out of space, he says, “all I have to do is get another box and plug it in the back and it keeps on going,” he says.

Implementation tips

The Ethernet networks used by iSCSI SANs are slower than FC, since they top out at 1Gbit/sec. compared to 4Gbit/sec. for the latest FC hardware. But the performance boost gained by moving to a SAN from DAS is so great many smaller companies don’t miss the speed of FC.

However, Tom Trainer, an analyst at research firm Evaluator Group Inc. in Greenwood Village, Colo., says that data warehouses or multimedia could slow down Ethernet networks because they move large blocks of data at the same time. For such business applications, he suggested considering FC SANs or at least putting the iSCSI SAN on a separate network segment.

Greg Schulz, an analyst at The StorageIO Group in Stillwater, Minn., also questions whether the graphical management tools so useful for today’s comparatively small SANs will still be effective “when you have to install 200 or 500 ports on a server.”

Gartner’s Cox also recommended that smaller companies equip their servers with dual host-bus adapters or interface cards, as well as dual switches and storage controllers to ensure uptime if one fails.

Many low-end SANs may also lack features such as strong encryption, continuous data protection, and local and remote replication that may be required by smaller companies in heavily regulated industries such as financial services, says Trainer. While some “simple SAN” vendors do offer such features, he says, they may boost the cost beyond what a small company can afford.

Finally, analysts says, every low-end SAN vendor must (and many do) provide virtualization capabilities that make it easy for customers to combine their various physical SANs within their companies as one virtual pool of storage as their storage grows.

Short-term benefit

But for many small companies still looking to move off DAS, such worries are far in the future while the benefits are clear and immediate. As Silberman says, “It’s a great relief to get this massive amount of storage, at this kind of price, and this kind of easy functionality.”


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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