Every so often, most recently on LinkedIn, I'll see a question asking what storage system is the best for small to midsize businesses (SMBs). The question is often answered by each vendor claiming that theirs is the best. The answer is: It really depends. The variables that go into a storage decision are probably as great in the SMB market as they are with any other size data center.
The first problem with the SMB storage market is the name itself. The size of companies in the market can range from the one- to five-person micro-business category that my company is proud to be a part of, to the 100 or so-person business. That is a huge range of differences. A five-person business can certainly benefit from network-attached storage (NAS), but they probably don't need a virtual infrastructure. The 100-person business needs a bigger NAS and more than likely can benefit from a virtual infrastructure. Some vendors and analysts have tried to help by creating the small-to-medium enterprise (SME) moniker. This name implies a larger SMB that has an investment in servers, storage, and more than likely dedicated IT staff. The fact remains though that the SMB/SME market is very diverse in both size and need.
The second problem that the SMB/SME IT administrator has to deal with is the amount of available options. I have never done a scientific count, but it feels like there are three to four times as many storage systems for these businesses as there are for the enterprise, maybe more. Also, this group seems to be the most likely to leverage cloud-based storage of some sort, adding even more options.
These problems often leads to the safe answer to the "what SMB storage is best?" question, which is to first understand what your needs are. I always cringe a bit when I see that one. I think it is safe to assume that the person asking has already assessed what their needs are to the best of their ability. The challenge with needs assessment in a small business is that the state of the business can change rapidly and the assessment can quickly be rendered useless.
I think the right answer is to look for the most flexible solution possible, be it a storage-area network (SAN) or NAS. Start with products that can expand capacity easily, since that is usually the first upgrade that a SMB/SME will face. This can be done with systems that can cost-effectively add more storage by simply adding more drives. These systems ship with open drive bays and often can use off the shelf hard drives. Flexibility can also come in the form of scale-out systems, which scale by adding additional nodes when a capacity or performance threshold is reached. Once limited to the enterprise, there is an increasing number of scale-out systems for the SMB/SME market as we discussed in a recent webinar.
The other answer is be prepared to deal with the reality that a decision that seemed wise today may end up looking like a mistake in the future. It is very difficult to select the perfect product every time and at some point you will make a mistake. I find that in almost every case the "mistake" can be used for something else, even if it is just for backups or for testing of new servers. The key is to prepare your boss for that fact. Let them know up front that you are trying to select the best solution possible, but the nature of the business and technology means that there may be a better solution in the future.
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George Crump is lead analyst of Storage Switzerland, an IT analyst firm focused on the storage and virtualization segments. Storage Switzerland's disclosure statement.