Storage ROI is a familiar concept to many small companies. "Small-business owners have always voted with their wallets," says Jon Toigo, chairman of the Data Management Institute, Dunedin, Fla., and author of The Holy Grail of Network Storage Management (Prentice Hall, 2003). "They're smart consumers when buying technology."
Fortunately, businesses have more opportunities than ever to wring out better returns on their storage investments. The key is to understand the strengths of each common storage choice and match them to the company's needs.
The first step in savvy storage buying is prioritizing data according to its importance to the business. This process can help companies free up space and postpone new storage purchases, which maximizes the ROI on storage investments.
For example, Rich Hepner, architect and IT manager at The Kubala Washatko Architects Inc., a 30-person design firm in Cedarburg, Wis., stores project data folders on central storage servers. Centralization allows him to cull unessential and duplicate data that could force him to buy more capacity than he needs.
Centralization also conforms to an ROI rule of thumb suggested by Toigo and others: Store data that's essential for day-to-day operations on the fastest storage devices, typically hard drives supporting the Small Computer System Interface (SCSI). Critical data include customer contact information, purchase orders or any data that companies need to consult quickly and frequently. SCSI's speed means increased ROI because employees spend less time retrieving critical data and customers receive better service when they call with billing questions.
However, last year's financial results may safely inhabit slower hard drives. ATA (AT Attachment) is the longtime economical technology, but a faster ATA version known as serial ATA (or SATA) has become popular. Although still slower than SCSI, SATA drives cost only about $1 per GB, which can accelerate investment returns in applications that aren't speed driven.
Technology isn't the only financial factor to consider. Where drives reside also can affect ROI. Drives may simply reside in each PC, an approach known as direct attached storage (DAS), which works well until the disk fills up from a graphics-rich marketing campaign. The common fix is to replace the old drive with a higher-capacity one, a time-consuming task requiring data copying and tinkering inside the PC.
Companies that frequently replace hard drives should consider network-attached storage (NAS). NAS uses a computer whose sole job is to house and manage storage. The NAS box attaches to a local area network (LAN), and has software that lets a technology administrator divvy up a pool of storage to everyone in the company who needs space. When someone hits a capacity ceiling, the administrator simply assigns another chunk of remaining space to that person. If the NAS computer itself runs out of space, the company can plug additional hard drives into it or attach an additional NAS box to the network. Neither task requires the data transfers or hardware fitting associated with DAS upgrades. The ROI benefit: A company's staff can do its job without interruption, and the administrator has time for more important tasks.
A cousin of NAS is the storage area network (SAN), which provides an expandable pool of storage space for information formatted in blocks, a type common to databases. SANs are an ROI consideration primarily for companies running database-intensive applications such as complex financial analyses or customer profiling. Because SANs accommodate specialized applications, companies must be comfortable with extended ROI schedules that reflect relatively high upfront costs and the specialized technical expertise required to implement and run SANs.