The storage landscape is changing. The storage products and skills needed for a small firm have so far been very different from those needed in large enterprises. Yet we now have some storage vendors delivering enterprise-class products aimed at workgroups, while some enterprise buyers choose mid-range products to save money.
And all the while we see the rise of cloud services that promise enterprise-grade capability and scalability to everyone, including small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs).
The SMB market is perhaps changing the most rapidly. What does the SMB storage landscape look like now and what can do-it-all sysadmins learn from their specialist enterprise colleagues? And should a small firm buy enterprise storage or SMB storage?
First, let's define SMB. For our purposes, SMB means any business not large, rich or sophisticated enough to have separate teams of server, storage and networking specialists.
In some ways this lack of specialisation is a strength. Increasingly, the industry needs agility and multi-disciplinary skills – people who can understand the needs and speak the language of IT, networking and the business, and work quickly to solve business problems.
So there is potentially an advantage in being a generalist, although it might take some time to convince the specialists of that.
Sean Horne, chief technologist UK and Ireland at EMC, reckons that SMBs score when it comes to agility and openness.
“Sometimes I think the enterprise can learn a lot from SMBs because they tend to be early adopters, whereas enterprises tend to lag,” he says.
“Technology moves so fast that some of the skills you might have learned just two years ago are no longer relevant.”
He adds that the tools available to administrators have also advanced considerably, both in capability and usability.
“You have to be able to monitor, report and analyse, and those suites have become much more consumable,” he says.
“In this industry we all get excited about the hardware, but it's actually the software – the GUI and how you can drill through it – that provides the 'Wow!' moment when you first see it.
“One of the development drivers at the moment is provisioning. In the past storage admins would have taken 40 or 50 clicks to set up a volume. Now they want to go to a window and choose menu options for availability and so on via interactive questions."
He adds that reporting and monitoring software has improved beyond recognition in the past few years. "IT needs these tools so it can communicate with the business," he says.
"For example, if the business is complaining about slowness, IT needs to know if there are twice as many people actually using the system as the business thinks. Or perhaps it is using twice as much storage, or there are twice as many people using it on Monday mornings.”
These tools are also essential when you are considering moving to new systems or new architectures, Horne adds. After all, without knowing what your current system is using, you cannot properly cost or plan a new one.
Likewise, if you can't audit a system's usage profile, you can't change it from what the users told you they wanted, and which you therefore gave them, to what they really need.
Peas in a pod
Another factor to consider is that the choice between enterprise and SMB storage is an increasingly nebulous one – and in some cases there may be no difference at all.
An example is Varonis's software, which can take your existing storage and turn it into a Dropbox-like private cloud store.
Varonis marketing director Rob Sobers explains that the company recognised the opportunity in the growing SMB market, and rather than develop a new product line decided to offer SMBs its enterprise-class file synchronisation and sharing software priced per seat and with a free trial.
“Large enterprises and SMBs are becoming more alike,” he says, adding that as the underlying technology becomes more efficient and hardware needs diminish, helped in part by server virtualisation, so it becomes practical to run what would once have been a major software implementation on a far smaller scale.
He admits, though, that for developers it is something of a balancing act.
“Enterprises do have different problems to solve,” he says. “They often need deep integration with existing systems and they may have very complex workflows which require custom development and integration.
"Conversely, the SMB wants simplicity, something that is easy to install, easy to update and so on.”
So when a developer wants to cover both bases with a single product, it must get both the pricing and the technology right.
“You do have to be careful not to bloat your software with all sorts of extra features, and you don't want to make it too difficult for an SMB to implement,” he says. On the other hand, he adds, it can't be too simplistic either.
Vendors are also trying to find pricing strategies that fit SMB budgets yet avoid tempting enterprises into saving cash by buying the SMB version.
Varonis, for instance, chose to price per seat, with the smallest five-seat edition being free to lure in both SMBs and enterprise evaluators.
However, budget pressures exist in almost every organisation, so just as SMBs are adopting enterprise-grade technologies, enterprises will continue to consider mid-range or even consumer-grade technology if that can save big bucks without adding risk or compromising on functionality.
The question is, if you can deliver 90 per cent of what is needed for 10 or 20 percent of the cost, how much pain will it take to meet the remaining 10 per cent?
And given that services developed for consumers tend to be resilient, scalable and available, both large enterprises and SMBs should take a good look at whether they might be a good fit for them too.
“From the data-management point of view, small and medium businesses face similar challenges to large organisations,” says Bartek Mytnik, EMEA sales manager at network storage developer Qsan Technology.
“The amount of data they need to tackle grows rapidly, but the budgets do not.
“High performance, SSD caching, synchronous replication and the like – for the first time, functions and software considered 'enterprise' till not so long ago are within the budget of practically any organisation.
"There are plenty of vendors that offer feature-packed quality storage arrays with top-notch support services.”
He adds that it is not yet a server market, where virtualisation drove infrastructure costs down and made it possible for alternative cost-performance vendors such as Quanta Computer to threaten the biggest market players.
"In the case of the data storage industry, the natural trend of technology moving down market from enterprise to SMB and increasing budget cuts that affected large organisations makes all the vendors look with a kinder eye on this segment of the market,” he says.
Cloud on the horizon
The other big factor delivering enterprise-class technology to SMBs is, of course, the cloud. As well as removing the need for users to buy and manage their own enterprise-grade hardware and software, the cloud has also dramatically cut the cost of selling products and services.
That is because it provides an alternative route to market, so a sale to a small customer doesn't have to go through the expensive enterprise-grade sales department, and that in turn means suppliers of enterprise-class services can target SMBs as well.
"Cloud can give a technological boost that would normally be unaffordable for the small business”
“Even though many small and medium business owners are puzzled by cloud technology, it slowly becomes an integral part of a company's infrastructure. And that’s really good because cloud can give a technological boost that would normally be unaffordable for the small business,” says Mytnik.
“Another good thing about cloud computing for the small-business owner is that traditional NAS box providers have had to lower prices to compete with cloud offerings.”
Horne agrees. “Service providers who used to aim at the mid-size and large enterprise are realising there's quite a healthy SMB market too,” he says.
“They couldn't get down to the cost of sale there before, but now with the cloud and multi-tenancy it doesn't matter if the customer is five people or 5,000.
“When I had a small business, I went down to PC World Business Centre and bought stuff, and a pair of guys turned up and installed it and gave me a box of tapes labelled 'Monday to Saturday'.
"Now, architectures that were for enterprises 10 years ago are available to start-ups. For example, once upon a time only enterprises could afford co-location or hosted backup, but now we can all have shared architectures in the cloud.
“Today if I'm an SMB, I might buy Flash or tiered storage to sit in my data centre for my low-latency databases, but consume the rest – for example document management – as cloud services. That's an analogue of what large companies have done for a while.”
The rapidly advancing capability and usability of storage software also means that SMBs can set up private clouds with file synchronisation and sharing – another technology that not so long ago was regarded as very much an enterprise tool.
On the one hand, this can help if the business objects to putting valuable company data into public cloud services, while on the other it can help businesses pull back all that intellectual property currently going into consumer cloud storage such as Dropbox, iCloud or OneDrive because they are so much simpler and more accessible than the company network share.
“A good way to deal with cloud integration would be to start with a transparent strategy of what would be used as shared files,” says Mytnik.
“It sounds obvious, but even the largest corporations have security issues precisely because of badly designed procedures and rules of managing access and content in the cloud. As a result, they are very reluctant to move whole data flow to cloud providers.
"A combination of an on-site storage for sensitive or legally restrained data with cloud content seems to be the right way to go for many organisations.”
And of course with all of these changes – the cloud, more intuitive admin tools, consumerisation, commoditisation and so on – the focus is increasingly shifting away from the technology and towards services. Could that be yet another factor in favour of the SMB generalist?
Horne thinks so. “Storage admins are turning into service developers. It's much more interesting understanding the service than being an admin,” he says.
“You will always need sysadmins, but they will evolve into service admins and service developers.” ®