Remote Possibilities, Part 2

In his continuing analysis of remote storage providers, R. Paul Martin warns IT leaders against giving their business to the SAN operator who offers the best deal.
This story originally appeared in CrossNodes.

In part one of this story:
Until recently, the idea of remote storage struck many network managers as a big risk, what with essential data being given to outside vendors with too little ROI attached to it. However, things appear to have changed, perhaps as a result of the demise of weaker, less scrupulous remote storage providers. R. Paul Martin opines. Read Part One.
Who Are These Guys?
This brings us to the commercial SANs that will provide remote storage of your data enterprise-wide, if necessary, for a fee. This solution brings with it a number of considerations. Foremost among these considerations should be "Who are these guys?"

Anyone who contracts out the remote storage of their critical data to a SAN needs to do some investigating beforehand. Does the SAN operator look like they're going to be around for a while? We all know that shakeouts happen and some smaller companies offering remote storage have already gone under. This consideration may sound odd, but is the price the company is offering too low? If the price looks too good to be true that may mean that the remote storage provider's business model is flawed. The result could be a big price increase down the road or a sudden notice to get your data off their servers before the company goes down for the final count.

An issue that sparks the biggest concern among many potential users of SANs is actually one of the most easily addressed: What about the security of the remotely stored data in terms of unauthorized access? Reputable SANs offer software that will encrypt the data on your end before sending it to the remote storage facility. If you really want to make sure that you have control of your data's integrity you can always encrypt it on your end with encryption software you're familiar with and fully trust, and then send it on to the SAN.

How you get the data to the SAN is another question and is frequently a major sticking point. We all know that databases and ancillary documents can be huge these days. Obviously, if you wanted to make an enterprise-wide 100 GB upload to your SAN every day you could not use your 56 Kbps modem to do it. In a case like this you'd need to make arrangements with the SAN for uploading your data to them. They're usually experienced in this issue and can help to tailor your backups to fit your bandwidth. Larger companies might just rent fiver optic cables or T3 lines, while others may need to strategize on exactly what gets sent to the SAN on what days.

Eventually, we get down to the scale of a SOHO or individual user. At this level there is unlikely to be a lot of money to throw at the problem. As a result SOHOs are probably going to be dealing with resellers of SAN services. Most resellers have a rate card displayed on the Web which lists how much you can store with them for what price, and other terms.

Whereas large companies spend millions on remote storage services, the SOHO crowd can get 10 MB to 100 MB of remote storage for between $6.95 and 19.95 a month. There are quite a few variables among these smaller companies, and here is where I still have some qualms.

Whom Do You Trust?
Whom to trust with your valuable data can be a real question here. Some of the smaller stand-alone SAN companies are themselves vulnerable to economic conditions. If they go belly up one afternoon you could be left either scrambling to move your remotely stored data or out of luck entirely. The advantage is that you can probably get a hold of someone at the facility if you need to. Some of these companies claim to be protecting government secrets, one will also store your wine in their facility. It's good to remember that quirky need not mean unreliable. Some of these stand alone companies also offer additional computer related services, such as digitizing and storing your existing paper documents and the creation of disaster recovery programs.

The resellers are usually pushing a piece of the remote storage space they rent from one of the larger SANs. Besides being resellers, some of these companies also outsource their billing, accounting, support and seemingly everything else. This particular sort of operation tends to be one guy with a Web site selling what he sees as a commodity. While this may not sound great at first blush it may be good enough for the small user. It depends on who the SAN really is.

So the answer to the question of who needs remote storage may be just about everyone. For large businesses that can handle the capital outlay for hardware, maintenance and software it's a necessity and most already do it. For middling companies that can afford vendors to handle remote storage it's an equal no brainer. For the SOHO and the backup conscious individual there are some details that have yet to be figured out, but as DSL and other broadband technologies spread, the prospect of putting significant amounts of important data into remote storage within a reasonable amount of time becomes more attractive. The ROI of not losing days or weeks of work from some sort of disaster can be enormous, and then there's the peace of mind you get from knowing that your most critical data is safe.

R. Paul Martin has been a network administrator for a Fortune 100 company. He works as a freelance writer and as a technology consultant.

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