5 Small Business Storage & Virtualization Trends

by Drew Robb

Small business storage needs continue to grow unabated. We look at five storage and virtualization trends that can help SMBs reduce costs and do more with less.

The fact that small businesses can expect to store more data than ever before is nothing new -- they've been experiencing that reality for years. But this relentless trend continues. Similarly, server virtualization has been a major buzz word in small business circles for a couple of years now -- and it, too continues.

Small Business Computing decided to dig deeper into these two areas to see what variations on storage and virtualization trends small business owners can expect in 2012.

Trend 1: Virtualization Gets Ready for Broad Public Consumption

The core idea behind virtualization is to eliminate unnecessary hardware. Instead of using half a dozen servers 10 percent of the time, virtualization software makes it possible to consolidate the applications from those six servers onto just one or two boxes.

Pat Thiel, a virtualization specialist at CDW, admits that in the past, virtualization technologies were considered almost exclusively for larger outfits. They were the province of well-trained IT staffers who could spend their days setting up and running a virtualized infrastructure.

“Today, we are seeing even businesses with three servers adopt virtualization,” said Thiel. “A key trend among small businesses is virtualizing aggressively and shrinking their number of servers -- this strategy helps them compete.”

Why are they doing it?  To save money with hardware refreshes, to do more with less, to reduce/simplify management, to save energy, and to prepare to for the onslaught of cloud computing, he added.

Trend 2: Server Virtualization for Better Security

Understandably, many small businesses feel burdened by the security hassles that go along with computing. First it was anti-virus, then adware, spyware, firewalls and a steady procession of technologies that had to be adopted to keep intruders out. Virtualization offers a route out of the never-ending saga of adopting yet another security technology to combat yet another type of security threat.

“Virtualization allows you to protect data quickly and easily,” said Thiel.  He added that VMware, the virtualization pioneer, has branched out from its early beginning of purely server virtualization. These days, it also offers data protection solutions such as VMware Site Recovery Manager (SRM).

“SRM is used to back up and protect critical data and programs in case of disasters such as fires, floods or human error,” said Thiel. “These virtualized programs can protect a small business for a fraction of the cost when compared to the infrastructure required in a traditional server environment.”

Trend 3: Cloud-based Storage and Applications Become Commonplace

The hype surrounding cloud computing may be unbearable at times. Nevertheless, the technology is coming to a small business near you. There is just no stopping it.

Laurie McCabe, an analyst at SMB Group, said that demand for cloud-based solutions is accelerating, including in the small business sector.

“Most SMBs simply don’t have the staff, expertise or capital budgets needed for do-it-yourself IT -- and they can’t afford the time it takes to get business payback from a solution that they need to vet, buy, install and deploy in-house,” McCabe said. “This makes the arguments for cloud computing -- reduced capital costs, speed to deploy, and real-time collaboration and visibility -- compelling.”

That said, SMB Group doesn’t predict an all-cloud IT future. Instead, many SMBs will continue to harness on-premises apps and add cloud solutions where it makes most sense.

Meanwhile Greg Schulz, an analyst with StorageIO Group, adds that many SMBs are used to the cloud as an easy and inexpensive way to backup files and store archives. This year will see them experiment across a wider zone.

“The SMB space continues to be a market sweet spot for all forms of public cloud, expanding beyond backup and archive,” said Schulz. “For example, cloud-based data protection either enables enhanced business survivability or compliments what is currently being done.”

Trend 4: Virtual Desktops Are Coming

Virtual desktops have been threatening to be the next big thing for nearly a decade. Instead of dropping an expensive PC on every desk, desktop virtualization eliminates most of that hardware and makes it possible to place cheap, simple units on desks that don’t necessarily belong to one person.

Instead of the software and data files residing on one PC at that desk, everything sits on the server, which creates a virtual desktop for the user when he or she logs on.  This move towards the virtual desktop also lets employees bring their own laptops, or use other devices to view their files, and for them to travel while having instant access to their own files and applications.

“Virtualization enables the seamless security and flexibility needed to provide full, anytime access,” said Theil.  “An example is the adoption of Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), which allows employees to access secure, encrypted company information regardless of their location, thus significantly increasing productivity.” 

Trend 5: The Rise of Shared Storage

There are many different ways to store data. The smallest firms just keep files on a PC or on a laptop. That progresses up to keeping files on a central server. For many small companies though, the explosion in data has forced them towards more sophisticated storage setups, which include Network Attached Storage (NAS) and for larger or more IT centric businesses, a Storage Area Network (SAN).

NAS is a natural progression for SMBs that can no longer manage with a central file server. It offers more room and a way to unburden an overworked server from storage overload so that it can focus on running key applications. NAS technology is fairly user-friendly, and it can often be deployed without the need for trained IT support. 

On the other hand, SANs are a whole different beast. They require either in-house know-how or IT resources on call (typically through a service contract). But they allow a business to keep large amounts of data in-house, which can be accessed rapidly.  Larger SMBs can often be found with SANs.

Now factor in virtualization. For server virtualization to perform well, the files that formerly resided on a physical server are best offloaded to NAS or a SAN. Schulz therefore sees more SMBs having to deal with forms of shared storage such as NAS and SAN as they increasingly virtualize their servers.

“Shared storage is important for realizing the full benefits of server virtualization,” said Schulz.

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This article was originally published on Thursday Jan 5th 2012
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