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How SMBs can make the most out of storage solutions

Flexible, cloud-based storage solutions used to be exclusively the realm of large companies. Their expense and complexity meant that smaller organisations simply could not afford to implement these sophisticated systems. So end users would either have to store their data on conventional network file servers or transfer them to a separate public cloud-based system for sharing outside the local area network. A seamless link between the two, at least at the corporate level, wasn't available in a cost-effective form.

Now, however, there are far more options to make a solution based on cloud technologies affordable for much smaller companies. The Exablox OneBlox NAS appliance, for example, provides the ability to create a storage system based on self-supplied drives, be they SATA, SAS or SSD. It can be managed via the cloud and offers WAN replication, so the same set of files can be mirrored to remote regional offices. There's deduplication, snapshots and data encryption available as well, and you don't need to worry about complicated RAID configuration because the system pools drives automatically. Yet it is cheaper and easier to manage than equivalent alternatives from NetApp or Dell, aimed at larger organisations.

On an even smaller scale, Gridstone supplies 1U storage components with a 2TB or 4TB capacity that can simply be plugged into the network. The devices are self-configuring and can be managed via a very standard Microsoft Management Console snap-in. The Gridstone system won't scale to the size of Exablox's OneBlox, nor does it have the advanced features, but it's a very simple way to build a distributed storage pool that can be quickly and easily expanded when required, thanks to the automated pooling.

There are more familiar names now providing options as well. Netgear's ReadyData storage appliances make use of the ZFS file system, which was designed by Sun Microsystems but is open source. The ReadyData appliances can act as iSCSI targets or NAS devices. Features include snapshots, block-level replication, compression, deduplication, SSD caching and thin provisioning, where storage is visible but not actually allocated on physical capacity until needed. Each appliance supports up to 48 bays, although there is a six-bay desktop version as well. The inherent scalability of ZFS means that an organisation could start with this desktop variant and scale up seamlessly as its business grows.

Much of this scalability is thanks to the availability of strong open source platforms like ZFS and Ceph. The latter can turn a distributed computer cluster into a single object, block and file storage system, with replication to create fault tolerance through having no single point of failure. Using commodity hardware, Ceph can scale up to Exabyte levels of data storage. Considering the ever-decreasing costs of processors and disk capacity, a flexible approach like this allows SMBs to take a relatively reactive approach to storage provision. They can specify what is needed now, then add more when capacity is being approached, by which time prices are likely to have dropped to an even more affordable level.

This approach is typically called "scale-out" network attached storage, and another vendor driving prices down is the appropriately named scale computing. Like the Gridstone offering, a company can start with a single low-cost appliance and then expand as the needs increase by adding more appliances, which seamlessly augment existing resources. In all these solutions, storage controllers are virtual rather than physical, with the storage linked via grid or clustering technology, so capacity can be expanded onto new hardware without having to move it off the old hardware.

However, the scale-out approach can do more than just provide a flexible means to add storage dynamically, as required. A cloud-based approach to storage allies naturally with a cloud-based approach to network compute and application resources as well. Scale computing also offers its HC3 product, which unifies storage and compute facilities in one. The nodes combine server and storage via virtualisation using Red Hat's KVM Hypervisor. You do need a minimum of three nodes, but it's still a far cry from industrial-strength cloud service configurations.

Very small companies can now seriously consider completely outsourcing their storage needs, however. Most of the well known consumer-oriented cloud storage brands also offer services aimed at businesses. Dropbox, Sugarsync and Box all have business offerings, and Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive and Amazon Web Services all offer storage based in the public cloud. Prices can be very competitive. For example, Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3) allows the utilisation of Amazon Glacier, which provides storage at the rate of $0.01 (£0.006) per GB per month.

However, this is not aimed at immediate retrieval. Amazon S3 storage with faster access costs $0.09 (£0.05) per GB per month. So 1TB would be $90 (£54) a month, which seems pricey compared to a 1TB SATA disk that would cost about the same amount to purchase outright. But this should be compared to the total cost of purchasing, running and backing up a server with this capacity. Many other services cost quite a bit less, too. A 1TB space on Microsoft SkyDrive would be $500 (£302) a year, and Box for Business is £33 a month for three users (£11 per user) and 1TB of storage. Carbonite offers storage primarily aimed at backup, with 250GB costing $229.99 (£139) a year, for unlimited users, and has the ability to retain deleted files for three months.

It's fair to say that the public cloud storage market is getting somewhat crowded, with many lesser-known players also available such as Zoolz, LiveDrive, OpenDrive, JustCloud, Egnyte, and Copy for Companies just a few of the alternatives. Copy for Companies offers 15GB for five users for free, and a 250GB Pro account is just $99 (£60) a year, making it even cheaper than Microsoft SkyDrive or Box for Business.

Whatever the size of your company, it's clear that the range of storage choice has exploded in the last few years, mostly thanks to the cloud. Whilst a pure public cloud solution might put too much emphasis on resilient networking and Internet connections, the private cloud options are getting cheaper and more flexible all the time. All these new options mean SMBs can make a whole lot more out of their storage solutions, for a much more competitive price than ever before.

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