Tapping PC Resources for Storage Needs

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Take a good look at any desktop fleet and consider how many, if any, PCs are using or even require all the available capacity. Then imagine corralling all that unused space and tying it together like a grid to create a needed storage pool. That’s exactly the road many small to midsize businesses (SMBs) are traveling in building out data storage.

“This emerging approach is a dispersed strategy dependent on the LAN,” said Andrew Reichman, an analyst with Forrester Research. “The goal is to use existing resources and keep storage costs down. Most enterprises aren’t even aware of the capacity they have with desktops.”

Tapping unused PC capacity can prove efficient and be as reliable as traditional storage attached networks (SANs) minus the associated costs and management headaches that come with most SANs.

“It’s just as good as long as you know how to allocate those resources and define workloads that don’t drag down performance and user bandwidth needs,” Reichman said.

Lisa Nussbaum, who oversees technology needs at Missouri-based Urology Associates, a six-physician medical practice, admits she never even considered utilizing unused PC capacity within the firm’s 23-desktop Windows XP environment. All the office manager was concerned with was getting a more reliable data backup system that could scale as needed once electronic health records started flowing into the network.

“I was constantly worried that the existing tape-disk setup we had would fail or crash and that data loss would be even worse once electronic and digital health files came into use,” said Nussbaum. In researching alternatives online she came across SANware, a data-protection software tool from startup RevStor.

The tool ties together desktop capacity to create a fault-tolerant storage array via software agents installed on each desktop in the pool. It’s a strategy similar to P2P and grid computing that’s being used in various industries and public computing projects, such as the science community’s use of SETI to pool computing power and the approach taken with BitCurrent and file sharing.

Security, Dedupe Featured

Users assign fault-tolerance levels for different data types depending on mission-critical requirements. The data files are broken into chunks and distributed throughout the storage network to prevent hacks and file theft. The tool also allows tiered access limitations and 256-bit AES encryption. According to CEO Russ Felker, the system also provides an audit trail of users and file activities as part of its security features.

“Our solution allows users to be proactive when it comes to storage and data security. It’s also an efficient way to keep file duplication down to a minimum, as every file is duplicated at least three times these days and so we built in a de-duplication feature to boost efficient storage use,” said Felker.

SANware, which requires at least 10 PCs for deployment, runs on Windows as well as open-source platforms, including Mandriva, Debian, Red Hat, Ubuntu and Suse. It requires 64MB of RAM and a 10GB hard drive running on 500MHz. Pricing is per terabyte, with “raw” cost about $2,500, according to Felker.

System deployment is fast, attests Nussbaum, as her system was up and running in half a day. Management has proven easy as well.

“It’s almost like magic. I don’t have to replace tapes every day, and the console lets me know how the network is doing,” she said, adding she didn’t alert users to the new system during the first few days of use. “Most users didn’t even notice there was no sluggish PC result. It really behaved well. It made me feel very comfortable that our files were stored and protected properly.”

That level of comfort is what Michael Smith wanted when he went looking for a new storage approach for Atlanta-based firm Momentum Data Services. As he explains, many storage options aren’t a good fit for small firms with just a few employees, and the standard tape disk approach can be a “notorious pain in the neck” for SMBs.

“I wanted something scalable, something that could run without an IT specialist and something that protected our data,” said Smith. He deployed the system in early 2007, and it’s done the job “with flying colors.”

“The larger solutions are too much money and require overhead in terms of tech expertise,” he said, noting that he tested SANware before deployment by installing and uninstalling three times to test stability. “Each time it cleaned itself up and left my laptops and desktops healthy and stable,” he said, adding he would like RevStor to enhance management tools and offer a Macintosh version in future revisions. He’s completely satisfied with the product’s security features. “As it shreds the stored data out to a number of machines, I’ve got storage and data backup all in one piece. It’s a winner.”

That level of satisfaction, said Reichman, is what will keep driving dispersed storage solutions out to the market, and not just the small and midsize enterprise.

“Bigger enterprises can tap these tools as well, as they have larger network resources, and the more nodes the better when it comes to better performance and reliability,” said Reichman. “It can help reduce storage costs as it can take demand and pressure off those more expensive SANs, as long as you use these products for non−mission critical storage.”

He said the technology approach is also akin to desktop virtualization approaches.

“If that truly ever comes into play, this storage approach is a perfect complement technology, as it gives users what they need and efficiently uses leftover resources for storage needs as well.”

Article courtesy of InternetNews.com

Judy Mottl
Judy Mottl
Judy Mottl is an experienced technology journalist who has served as a senior editor, reporter, writer, and blogger for InformationWeek, Investors Business Daily, CNET, and Information Security Magazine, as well as other media outlets.

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