Prime Time For SANs

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In a recent CRN Solution Provider poll, about a quarter of all solution providers said they were currently selling SAN solutions, a respectable number considering that for the past 10 years SANs have largely been confined to complex solutions for large enterprises.

But now many solution providers see the technology sitting squarely in the "early majority" adoption phase, with a mass market opening up for a proven technology. In the January poll, an additional 17 percent of solution providers said they were considering or planning to jump into SAN solutions, a sure sign that this elevator is on the ground floor and ready to rise.

Another sign is that within the past year nearly all the major storage networking vendors started shipping products and bundles aimed at bringing SANs to small businesses. For solution providers weighing the opportunity, the time may be now to climb on board. But there are a few things to know about the technology and the market before jumping in.

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While cutting-edge enterprises are enhancing their mature SANs with storage virtualization, small businesses are still early adopters. If they have heard of SANs at all, they don't understand the benefits or they worry that a SAN is too expensive to even consider, solution providers in the market say.

That means sales cycles can be long, averaging from one to four months. But a typical project also runs about $10,000—and much higher for some—with 75 percent or more of those dollars coming from deployment services, the CRN poll indicated. That spells profits. Averages, though, mean little in a market where deal sizes are all over the map.

The primary barrier to selling a SAN to a small business is cost, solution providers said. A basic SAN, including the storage capacity and the deployment, can cost anywhere from $5,000 on up. James Rupprecht, sales engineer at Valcom Networks, a Salt Lake City-based solution provider, said it is important to show small businesses how the advantages of a SAN far outweigh their costs.

"You have to convince the boss that their data will be safer on a SAN than on a couple of beefy direct-attached hard drives," Rupprecht said. "And it's more scalable, so they don't need to buy new equipment when their data grows. And they get snapshots and replication."

A SAN can be affordable if solution providers work with a variety of solutions to meet small storage budgets, said Eryck Bredy, president of Bredy Network Management, a Woburn, Mass.-based solution provider.

One option is a custom solution. Instead of buying a name-brand iSCSI storage array, Bredy helps many of his customers install DataCore Software's SANmelody software on an off-the-shelf PC-based server and turn it into an iSCSI array. "The software starts at $1,178," Bredy said. "It can be set up for IP SAN or Fibre Channel. There's no need to go out and buy an EMC box. Then the customer says, 'Oh, I thought it would cost tens of thousands of dollars.' "

Explaining the benefits can be tougher. From a technical perspective, SAN, NAS and internal storage all share the same model of providing access to a company's data, but each technology handles that data access in a very different fashion.

As the name implies, storage area networks are all about networking storage. SANs are built from unique hardware components—RAID storage arrays, switches, hubs, bridges, servers and cabling—that come together to create a high-speed storage system. The variety of components involved makes SANs very customizable and infinitely scalable.

That flexibility allows VARs to design the perfect SAN solution for their customers and not sacrifice future scalability or limit upgrades. Unlike NAS, SANs provide low-level access to data blocks, which is very similar to the method used for internal ATA/SCSI disk drives and is often referred to as block storage. That translates to impressive speeds— speeds that can exceed several Gbits per second.

NEXT: SAN connectivity.

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SAN connectivity can be accomplished in several ways. Currently, the leading SAN physical interface comes from Fibre Channel, with signaling rates of 2 and 4 Gbps. The downside of Fibre Channel is the specialized management expertise needed by administrators to deploy and maintain the SAN. An alternative to Fibre Channel is iSCSI—a serial implementation of the common SCSI protocol—which offers speeds of 1 Gbit and works by carrying SCSI traffic over an IP infrastructure.

While iSCSI blurs the lines between NAS and SAN, iSCSI still transfers data via blocks rather than as files via SMB/CIFS or NFS, as NAS does. Why is that important? Simply put, NAS is hampered by the need to transmit a complete file over the network via an intermediary server, while a SAN can just deliver the requested data in blocks to the associated server.

The benefits offered by SANs don't just end with speed and flexibility. Small businesses will benefit from how SANs consolidate storage elements into Logical Unit Numbers (LUNs). Each LUN is typically owned by a single server, and as far as the server is concerned, the LUN looks like a local, internal hard drive. SANs can host multiple LUNs, each assigned to its own server, which helps to improve storage utilization while creating storage pools.

Just what does that mean for the small business in practical terms? In addition to serving data to multiple servers, a SAN allows small businesses to centralize their critical data, making it easier to manage and back up that data than if it rested on hard drives directly attached to servers.

A SAN also can offer basic disaster recovery by making it easier to replicate that data to another site or to the Internet so that it is available in case of a server crash. And because multiple servers can access data on a SAN, small businesses can increase their storage capacity while purchasing fewer disk drives and servers.

But it is not an easy task to show small businesses the importance of implementing even a basic SAN, said Merrill Likes, president of UpTime, an Edmond, Okla.-based solution provider. "You need to get to their trusted tech adviser, often someone's brother-in-law or a son back from college," he said. "It's important to gain their confidence. Then it's not too bad. But the initial deployment can be difficult depending on how the customer handled its data in the past."

Part of the problem is getting small businesses to see a need for a SAN, said Michael Fanelli, a partner at TreTempo, a Dallas-based solution provider. "The problem with many small businesses is their information is more critical to them than for big companies, but they don't know it," Fanelli said.

VARs will find that SANs allow small businesses to implement enterprise capabilities, such as high-speed backups, distributed data stores, basic disaster recovery or even a remote storage solution. For disaster recovery, SANs offer several layers of data protection, starting with RAID technology and ending with LUN cloning or replication.

For solution providers, getting into SANs has never been easier thanks to the introduction of iSCSI solutions from a variety of vendors. ISCSI has brought the cost of SAN offerings from even enterprise storage vendors such as EMC, Hewlett-Packard and Network Appliance to less than $5,000, with the price often lower for smaller vendors' products. Other vendors, including Microsoft, use iSCSI target software that enables low-cost general-purpose servers to be turned into iSCSI storage devices.

NEXT: Reaping the rewards: SAN services.

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The cost of SAN equipment based on the Fibre Channel protocol has also fallen dramatically due in large part to preconfigured bundles containing a Fibre Channel switch and a couple of host-bus adapters from such vendors as QLogic, Emulex and Brocade Communications Systems. However, Fibre Channel is still too costly, complicated and difficult to mange for most small businesses.

Many small businesses got their first taste of SAN technology through low-cost combination iSCSI and NAS appliances from vendors such as Network Appliance. Now the push for simplifying SANs comes from many directions. Microsoft has become one of the driving forces behind SMB SANs. The company is pushing its Simple SAN concept into the channel and has signed on many vendors specifically to reduce the complexity of SANs and ease the integration of SANs into Windows Server Networks. The Microsoft Simple SAN Initiative has signed on vendors such as IBM, Hitachi Data Systems and EqualLogic to educate the SMB market about SANs.

One of the biggest challenges faced by Microsoft in the SAN arena has been cross-product compatibility. Microsoft's answer was to create a consortium of hardware, software and full solution partners to extend compatibility and ease multivendor integrations.

Even without Microsoft's help, deploying a basic SAN for a small business has become almost "plug-and-play easy." Companies such as EMC, HP, IBM and others are now offering "SAN kits." EMC's InstaSAN 4 Connectivity Kit bundles together a 4-Gbps eight-port Fibre Channel switch, eight 4-Gbps transceivers, two PCI Express Fibre Channel host-bus adapters and three 5-meter Fibre Channel optic cables with wizard-driven installation and configuration software. All a VAR needs to do is add one of EMC's Clariion AX150 RAID arrays for the storage component. EMC is not the only player. HP offers its StorageWorks Modular Smart Array 1000 Small Business SAN Kit, which offers similar packaging.

For solution providers looking to bring SANs to small-business clients, the reward is not in selling the SAN products, though, but in the services. In the CRN poll, 59 percent of solution providers attributed more than 75 percent of revenue from SAN deployments to services. For the top third of the sample, more than 95 percent of revenue came from services.

That sits well with solution providers like John Dusek, president and owner of Convergent Storage Solutions, an Apple Valley, Minn.-based solution provider that has been involved with small-business SANs for more than five years. In addition to selling the SAN, Convergent helps customers work with applications such as Exchange and SQL, implement data replication and eliminate the storing of duplicate data.

"The SAN is just one component of a total solution," Dusek said. "Services opportunities in the channel depend on how they intersect with things like Active Directory. And with applications. There's lots of services opportunities here."

With the interest growing in flexible storage technologies across all business sizes, small-business VARs will find the future bright for SANs and the potential for profitable service revenue as attractive as the technological advancements.