Sorting Out Your Storage Options - EnterpriseStorageForum.com

Sorting Out Your Storage Options

DAS, SAN, NAS... RAID, MAID, solid state technologies, grid storage, hard disk drive storage, tiered storage, tape storage... active storage, archival storage, remote storage, disaster recovery ... self-healing disk drives, virtualization, de-duplication, thin provisioning. ...

It would take pages just to list all the types, makes and models of enterprise storage options currently on the market. Then add a list of the features and benefits of each one and it's almost enough to make a storage administrator in search of a new, additional or supplemental storage system long for the days when a storage solution was whatever came with your server. Almost.

To make it easier for you to cut through at least some of storage-decision-making clutter and make an informed purchasing decision, EnterpriseStorageForum.com spoke with a few storage analysts to gather advice to narrow down the number of choices and help you find a storage solution that's right for your enterprise.

What's Your Problem?

Before you even talk to a vendor, "you have to determine what problem is it that your enterprise is trying to solve... and define your pain points and requirements," said Ashish Nadkarni, principal consultant at GlassHouse Technologies.

You also need to know what it is you are actually storing, that is how much and what kind of data (e.g., file-based, block-based, structured or unstructured), said Mark Peters, an analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group.

Other good questions to ask yourself and the people who will be using the storage, he said, include: How do you plan on utilizing this storage system? Is it for active storage or backup or archiving — or remote storage or disaster recovery? What applications are you running? Do you want the system to be automated? Do you need it be scalable? How important are speed and performance?

"You need to start from what you want rather than what a vendor or group of vendors is trying to tell you [you need]," said Peters, who added that "the challenge for the user is to actually know and define what it is they want."

To aid in that process, Greg Schulz, founder of and senior analyst at Storage IO, highly recommended drawing up a list divided into three columns or categories. In the first column should be those features and functionality you must have; in the second, those things you want or need to have; and in the third the features that would be nice to have.

For Schulz, must-haves include "availability, reliability, some level of performance, some level of capacity and scalability," specifically "RAID 1, RAID 5, RAID 6, failover, redundant controllers, ease of management, tiered storage, different types of drives (fast drives and slow drives) and tape." Yes, even tape, which all three analysts said isn't going away any time soon — and is actually a good, economical, "green" storage solution.

Things that fall into Schulz's want-to-have or nice-to-have bucket include de-duplication, thin provisioning and snapshots, features that have generated a lot of buzz and may be very helpful but aren't absolutely essential to storing data.

Above all, said all three analysts, stay focused on the essentials. If you happen to find a solution that meets all of your must-have requirements and can also provide you with some of your want-to-have or nice-to-have features — at the right price — then go for it.

Remember, "it's what you want out of a solution, not what a company wants to sell you," stressed Nadkarni. For example, if a certain amount of capacity is a must-have requirement, focus on that. If compliance is your main issue, make sure the solution you choose has a good track record when it comes to compliance. If you are looking for a disaster recovery solution, stay focused on that. And be sure to validate vendor claims by checking with customers and reviewing test results (for things like performance) if a company is new.

Watch for the Warning Signs

While the analysts we spoke with believed good enterprise solutions far outweigh the bad, it's still possible to make a bad choice, particularly if you ignore your must-have list, base your decision on marketing hype, are too emotionally involved with a vendor or brand, act too quickly, or go with the low-ball quote without taking into account the total cost of ownership and whether the system actually addresses most of your needs.

So what are some easy ways to avoid making a bad storage decision?

"When you hear the words revolutionary, the only, the first, or the fastest or the most reliable, the alarm bells should be going off," said Schulz. If vendors make claims about having the best or the fastest performance, "have them back it up by showing you [using test results from organizations like SPEC, Microsoft ESRP, FPC or TPC] and by comparing their performance to others.... And make sure it's an apples-to-apples comparison, not apples to oranges."

Another safeguard is to test out all the systems you are considering — or at least see one in action at a customer site — and to speak with customers who've been using that solution for at least a few months.

"Don't settle for a WebEx demo," said Schulz. "Get your hands on a system if you can. Ask questions. Ask for references... but ask to hear about a story that didn't quite go well, though the customer still ended up buying."

The truth is, he said, that "every vendor out there will have problems at some point or another. And any vendor that tells you they've never had a problem, they've never had an interruption, that's an alarm bell. All vendors have issues. All technologies have issues at some point in time. What separates the vendors is how they respond to those issues. How do they prevent them from recurring? How do they manage them? And then also have they improved their technology?"

Speaking of which, because technologies get updated or replaced all the time, before you buy anything, "grill the vendors on what their product road map is," said Nadkarni. "For example, if they just released a product a year ago, then there's a very good chance that in the next year they're not going to have anything very drastic coming out that will replace that product. [But] if the product has been in the market for a few years, the vendor may be [coming out] with a brand new, completely redesigned product that's going to replace any and all products," which could pose a problem, he said. That's why it pays to see a product road map, to help you determine if the system you are considering is going to need to be upgraded or replaced sooner rather than later.

As an example, Nadkarni points to modular storage arrays. Vendors, he said, have been moving "away from the old loop-based backend drives to a point-to-point system. [But] there are a lot of arrays out there in the market that have loop-based drives — and they're all being replaced, slowly, by point-to-point-based drives. So if you're buying a modular storage array, definitely check if that storage array is due for a refresh, because once that point-to-point drive come out, [your] loop-based one is going to be obsolete, and you're going to have a disruptive upgrade to go from one to another."

That's why establishing a good rapport with a vendor is important — and why you should talk to customers, to see if that vendor will be there for you when you need help, not just during installation.

"We tend to get so embroiled in needs and feeds and speeds that the down-to-earth relationships can get missed," said Peters. "Reputation, references and (where relevant) experience are crucial... to storage system choice."

And if you do not feel comfortable making an important storage decision on your own, get help, in the form of an independent consultant.

Take Your Time

Above all, be patient when choosing a critical storage system. "Patience is a virtue," said Nadkarni, who said he thinks that phrase should be an operational guideline. "Never hurry into a large decision. If you are proactive about how you manage your [storage] environment, you will know ahead of time what you need to do — and to purchase — to keep it running.

"If you are under the gun to make a decision quickly, chances are you're going to make a mistake," he said. "But when you have time on your side, you can make sure all your i's are dotted and your t's are crossed — and be more assured that you're making the right decision."

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