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The Great Storage Debate: To SAN or Not to SAN?

How do businesses know if moving to a SAN makes sense?

Remember the days when we spoke in terms of megabytes? It wasn’t that long ago. Yet here we are, racing through gigabytes of data without breaking a sweat.

At our video production company, Brella Productions, we speak in terabytes. And that’s not old data that’s stored out of reach. It’s what we work with every day. It’s not unusual for one of our video crews to ­return from a two-camera, full-day shoot with more than 500 gigs of footage. And as we’ve shifted into high-definition video, our storage needs have grown exponentially. Last year alone, the amount of data residing on our file servers more than doubled.

We need a lot of storage to do our work, but that’s not the full story. We need to back up that data regularly, have ready ­access to it and (because the footage from our shoots can’t be re-created) have complete confidence in that backup. In the days of videotape, we would simply keep the tapes so that if ­disaster struck — fire, floods, locusts falling from the sky — we could go back to them. As we’ve shifted to shooting digitally in HD, the time, cost and space required to back up our work has grown unwieldy. Individual hard drives are fast and cheap but not as reliable as we’d like. And disks are a very slow proposition when it comes to the amount of data we’re backing up. We knew we had to find a solution.

We started looking at storage area ­networks (SANs) just for backups, but soon realized that as our data needs grow, we may also put our primary file storage on the SAN. We settled on the EMC Clariion AX4, which ­offers the flexibility we need to start small and expand, adding more shelves and drives as needed. Our hope is this choice will mean fewer forklift upgrades.

We reached a point where a SAN was the only feasible solution. But we’re certainly not the norm, and SANs aren’t for ­every company. There are completely adequate traditional backup solutions for small businesses with small amounts of data. But for businesses with significant amounts of data or long-term storage needs, a SAN makes sense.

Know Your Needs

To determine whether a SAN is right for your business, make a list of the things you need now — backups, virtualization, file storage — and what you think you will need in the future. This due diligence will save you time and money down the road.

Here are some factors to consider as you start your research:

• Plan plenty of time for the rollout. SAN manufacturers and suppliers work primarily with large corporations, which move at a slower pace than small companies, so factor in extra time for the implementation. You might need to push your vendor to move faster than usual.

“As we’ve shifted to shooting digitally in HD, the time, cost and space required to back up our work has grown unwieldy.” 

• Look for solutions above and below what you might need. Make sure your vendor helps you explore all your options. Ask other small and midsize businesses what they do. Outsiders might make assumptions about your company based on your size. But no one knows your business the way you do. Make sure you know all the options. We have fewer than 50 employees, but our data needs are that of a major corporation.

• Make sure you have all the equipment you’ll need to make the system work. Most companies looking at solutions like ours have huge data centers. We only have a small data closet with two racks — so we had to add power distribution units and run in new power to hook them up. And if we hadn’t recently upgraded our switches, we would have needed to do that too.

• Be open-minded, and keep your plan flexible. As you set up your new SAN, you might get better ideas about how to best utilize it in your infrastructure. We constantly re-evaluate everything, and so should you.

Mark Mallchok is director of new media and Alyse Middleton is IT manager for Brella Productions, a video and multi­media production company in Evanston, Ill.

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Aug 20 2010 Spice IT

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