The economy's in the toilet, and things might get worse before they return to normal. That means tighter belts for the next 12 months at least. About the only thing that's accumulating faster than the national debt is the amount of data small businesses need to store and protect.
The downturn in the U.S. economy is having a significant impact on small and medium business priorities and plans for technology acquisition, said Justin Jaffe, an analyst at International Data Corp. (IDC). Thirty-eight percent of small firms are more likely to delay IT spending, and 42 percent of medium-sized businesses are more likely to reduce IT spending.
However, according to various IDC surveys of IT users, storage is one of a few categories where buyers are reluctant to cut spending.
Even though storage budgets aren't on the chopping block just yet, it is still important to find ways to cut costs. One of the big ways is storage-as-a-service (SaaS), which is really starting to gain ground. In very broad terms, SaaS encompasses online storage services, cloud computing and various other labels.
While there are differences between these concepts, the general idea is that firms can experience the benefits of backup, disaster recovery and long-term record retention technologies without having to concern themselves with purchasing, installing and maintaining the hardware or software involved. They just access what they need over the Web.
SaaS is expanding rapidly as small businesses need to store the ever-growing volumes of data and digital files. According to IDC, storage-as-a-service capacity will grow from 174 petabytes in 2007 to more than 2.1 exabytes in 2012. The bulk of this is being consumed by online backup and archiving services.
Use of SaaS has been evolving during the past decade, and the SaaS model has become increasingly popular over the past three or four years, said Sharon Mertz, an analyst at Gartner Inc.
One such service is Mozy by EMC Corp. EMC acquired this company as part of its SMB and consumer strategy. You can obtain up to 2 GB of online backup free at Mozy. Beyond that, you pay a few dollars a month per person.
Mozy has a customers ranging from General Electric to the home office, but the fastest growing segment is small business, said Vance Checketts, chief operating officer of Mozy.
Other online backup providers include Backup.com by Symantec Corp, iBackup.com from Pro Softnet Corp., and i365.com by Seagate. The big boys of storage have gobbled up many of the small SaaS outfits a sure sign of a hot commodity.
Another area where small businesses potentially can reap high return on investment (ROI) is storage virtualization.
IT administrators will be challenged to add capacity with static or shrinking budgets, yet add capacity they must, said John Webster, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. Storage virtualization can drive more users on existing hardware platforms.
The essential idea behind storage virtualization is to unite multiple storage devices into what appears to be a single storage pool, which you can centrally manage. Thus it becomes easier to manage these devices and back them up.
Vendors offering storage virtualization solutions to small businesses include LeftHand Networks (recently acquired by HP) and EqualLogic (acquired by Dell). Both offer storage area networks (SANs) that operate over existing Ethernet connections as opposed to requiring expensive Fibre Channel (FC) networks.
HP has smartly integrated its LeftHand products with its ProLiant servers. Thus any small business already utilizing HP ProLiant servers in a virtual server environment can now add a virtual SAN into the mix.
LeftHand Networks SAN software currently runs on HP ProLiant Servers within virtual machines, said Lee Johns, director of entry-level storage at HP. The virtualization capabilities of the LeftHand products coupled with HP ProLiant servers provide customers with an easier-to-manage, integrated virtual server and storage solution.
This last item is perhaps not one that small businesses will be rushing to buy early in the year. Nor is it something that will be cheap at least for now. But its an item that many small businesses will be rushing to buy before the year is out -- Solid State Drives (SSD).
SSDs also known as flash drives remove the delays caused by standard hard disks. Todays superfast processors and memory are severely hampered by the relatively sluggish rate at which disk access occurs. As SSDs have no moving parts, they are far more reliable; they also consumer far less power.
SSDs hold the promise of eliminating the performance gap that has existed and grown ever since the industry first started using hard drives for storage, said Phil Mills, chair of the Solid State Storage Initiative (SSSI) of the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA).
He added, This performance gap exists today because servers have gotten faster and faster while storage systems, which use a spinning disk and mechanical movement of the read/write heads, have not kept up.
As a result, servers and disk arrays have to spend a significant portion of their time waiting on reading and writing operations to complete, thus negatively impacting system performance.
IDC reports that the SSD market was worth $400 million in 2007. With anticipated growth of more than 70 percent per year, the analyst firm predicts a $5.7 billion market by 2012.
For the moment, price is a downside. Intel, for example, sells SSDs at a bulk discount (for orders of a 1,000 or more) for $595 each. For an 80 GB model, thats an awful lot more than ordinary hard drives. That price, however, came down 45 percent in six months.
Very soon, we all will be using flash drives, said Dave Nicolson, a technology consultant at EMC. There are a lot more flash manufacturers now so the price decrease in the next 12 months will be even greater.
SSDs are currently available from a range of vendors including Seagate, HP, Intel, Western Digital, Sun, STEC and others. Expect more and more companies to jump on the flash drive bandwagon and thereby drive down prices over the course of 2009.
There have been a few times in the history of computing when a new technology becomes completely pivotal to changing the PC platform and the user experience, said Gordon Moore, founder of Intel. Solid state drives have this capability. This is unmatched by any other technology I can identify.
Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.
This article was first published on SmallBusinessComputing.com.