Storage centralization, centralized management, and consolidation are challenges that all companies must face - small, medium and large ones. It allows them to store data and share it among all (authorized) employees, provides safety, and gives them the ability to stream and download files provided by network users. The concept of centralized data management opens a variety of possibilities which are essential for any company in today's competitive and demanding market. What does this mean for the storage industry and for the evolution of storage software? Primarily, an expanded range of possibilities is changing the perception from the idea of an ordinary file server to a complex and multifunctional device.
Why storage centralization is a need
The ever-increasing amount of data is creating a need in the market for a suitable environment in which to store it. That is why business users are increasingly looking for easy and safe solutions that would help in simple data management. There are a few basic reasons for the growing interest in storage solutions.
"Some people backup files... some." We may treat this as only a funny maxim, but if we look at it in terms of the modern enterprise, we will understand its inescapable necessity. We all know that information is the pillar of a modern company. Be it raw data or industry savvy, it will be always the main core, the basic element of competitive advantage. That is why the most important thing is to keep data safe, by using both information security and the backup process.
The second thing is speed, convenience and efficiency of work. Centralized storage can support each of these dimensions. File sharing allows for easy and quick access to all important data - from almost anywhere in the world. Relative mobility and discretion of work can move a company workflow to a higher level of effectiveness. This advantage cannot be underestimated.
Also costs are an important consideration. It is possible to store and backup data on multiple machines, but it is much more logical to use central storage. Backup of decentralized data is definitely much more cumbersome, time consuming and generates higher costs.
The idea of cost-effectiveness can also be linked to power supply and peripheral equipment. It is much more reasonable to supply a central server. Moreover, it can bring a better accumulation of savings. The same thing applies to any peripheral equipment. It is much easier to equip a cluster than every individual machine.
Another thing is reliability - another commonly overlooked cost-cutting measure. The dependability of modern data centers, or even individual centralized storage solutions, is much higher than in the case of dispersed individual machines. It means that this single investment may ultimately prove to be more cost-effective and reliable than seemingly less expensive solutions based on multiple distributed machines.
Also worth mentioning is disaster recovery. It is an undeniable truth that hard drives are the most burdened and hard working parts in any computer or server - none will work forever. Storage solutions can give the possibility to avoid the consequences of faults caused by damaged hard discs: saving data on several HDDs (placed in a RAID), consolidating data on a server (which allows for backing up and creating an off-site copy of your data) - those are a few of the many available possibilities.
The only issue that may raise doubts is security. Yes, it may seem a little bit risky to put everything in one place... on the surface. On the other hand, scattering data on different machines increases costs (firewalls, anti-virus programs etc.) and increases the number of "gates" for "intruders". So, it is definitely easier and more effective to protect a central server which is using software developed for data security.
These basic advantages provide one conclusion - storage centralization is a must - even when we take into account the cost of implementation. Because risk almost never outweighs the rewards - data safety, its security and efficiency. So the main issue is not "to do it or not to do it?", but is all about how to find the best possible solution for your data management.
Solutions for storage centralization
The size of your company and your needs will tell you the best option. The choice is between iSCSI, NAS (Network Attached Storage), or Fibre Channel solutions.
The first one will be the best if there is a need to share a drive physically (and locally) for one person. Such a solution is fast and gives a guarantee of stability working within a network. It is possible to use it connected to a main company Ethernet network or create a dedicated Storage Area Network (SAN) connected only to a storage array and servers. The second solution may be better in view of safety (through separation from workstations and DMZ).
The benefits of iSCSI are - first of all - costs of creating and maintaining the infrastructure (compared to Fibre Channel). It is also less complicated than FC - knowledge of TCP/IP configuration, disk pools managing and security is enough. Recent development of the iSCSI standard is another advantage. New (iSCSI) storage arrays provide advanced data management features (including a copy of the point-in-time, synchronous mirroring). iSCSI standard is mostly chosen by small and medium enterprises (because of implementation costs).
NAS provides both storage and a file system. It is the main difference when we talk about Network Attached Storage and Storage Area Network (including i.a. iSCSI). SAN provides mostly block-based storage and leaves file system concerns on the "client" side.
The next difference between a NAS and a SAN is that a NAS appears to the client OS (operating system) as a file server, whereas an allocated space available through a SAN still appears to the client OS as a disk.
Despite their differences, SAN and NAS are not mutually exclusive, and may be combined as a SAN-NAS hybrid, offering both file-level protocols (NAS) and block-level protocols (SAN) from the same system. It gives a wide range of possibilities - from an ordinary file sharing platform to an expanded area created for work and archiving data.
Fibre Channel is a network technology used for storage networking (in Storage Area Network). FC is dedicated for large enterprises and advanced projects. It offers speed and the ability for implementation of complex solutions.
The biggest advantage of FC is its high performance and the ability to perform distant connections. Fibre Channel is also used with the most efficient HDDs. We may say that the difference between FC (2Gb/s or even 8 Gb/s) and iSCSI (1Gb/s - 10Gb/s in the most expensive option) is not big, but only in the case of point-to-point connections where we have a bottleneck - i.e. server or mass storage device. The main difference is when there is a need to create a network with a larger number of switches.
Unfortunately, solutions based on Fibre Channel are quite expensive and complex (compared to iSCSI). In the case of FC there is also a need for installation of a second HBA controller, drivers and managing software. It makes the solutions based on Fibre Channel unattainable for smaller companies.
What is the best choice for your company?
There is no best choice for everyone. The first thing is to be aware of the needs (and confront them with the company's possibilities). The second one - set a budget. Try to also remember that speed is not everything. Much more important is how you want to use it - i.e. you can use iSCSI for remote management of distant servers via WAN - If you are already using the FC solutions. Think also about your staff members - FC standard is much more demanding than iSCSI. It means that proper training is a must. On the other hand, solutions based on FC are getting cheaper. If a company already employs a qualified staff it may prove to be profitable.
Also technical issues are very important. Think about the efficiency of your Ethernet network. It may turn out to be insufficient for additional iSCSI packages.
Generally, it is easy to prove that storage centralization is a must. It is much harder to make a proper choice. However, this issue will always require custom solutions - even when we want to use a flexible storage software which can work on many platforms and with various standards.