How reliable are the top turnkey SANs?

What low-priced, easy to use SANs can do for SMBs

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 U.S.-based marketing design firm Pieper and Associates.

Rather than buying more servers and NAS appliances as his workload grew, he bought a Hitachi Data Systems 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 US$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, EqualLogic, Network Appliance, Intransa, EMC and Dell, 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, 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 California 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 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.

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