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Choosing the Best Data Storage Solution

Small businesses have a growing need for more data storage space. Here's how to decide which option is right for you.
December 20, 2006
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/172226

Sooner or later, your small business will need more space for data storage. Information in the form of e-mails, documents, presentations, databases, graphics, audio files and spreadsheets is the lifeblood of most companies, and the applications that run and protect your business require a lot of disk space. In addition, a number of trends are fueling our growing hunger for storage:

Storing information and managing its storage is critical to a company's behind-the-scenes success. Fortunately, there are many options available to small businesses for both the actual storage and the location of that storage. Often, the best solution is a combination of different storage options.

So how do you decide what's best for you? First, you'll want to consider your storage needs in terms of both capacity and physical location. Then you should look at the storage options that best fit those needs. Lastly, you need to develop a plan for implementing your chosen storage solutions.

What are Your Storage Needs?
Small businesses should first assess the storage needs associated with their applications, their data, and how and where they need to access that data. These questions will help you get started:

Once you're able to get a handle on how much data you're dealing with and the how, when and where of accessing that data, then you'll have a better idea about your storage needs.

Consider Your Storage Options
From flash memory to network-area storage, small businesses have more storage choices than ever before. They range from portable flash memory thumb drives to network-attached storage systems that can be located physically anywhere on a network. Here's a more detailed look at some of your options:

Flash memory thumb drives. These type of drives are particularly appealing to mobile professionals because they consume little power, are small enough to fit on a keychain and have no moving parts. You can connect a flash memory thumb drive to your laptop's USB port to back up files on the road. Some USB thumb drives even provide encryption to protect your files should the drive get lost or stolen. Some let you store your Outlook data (such as recent e-mails and calendar items), Internet Explorer bookmarks, files and even some desktop applications. That way, you can leave your laptop at home and just plug the USB drive into a borrowed computer.

External hard drives. A simple and relatively inexpensive way to add more storage is to connect an external hard disk drive to your computer. External hard drives directly connected to PCs have several disadvantages, however. Any files stored on the drive but not elsewhere need to be backed up. Also, if you travel for work and need access to files on an external drive, you'll have to take the drive with you or remember to copy the required files to a USB thumb drive, your laptop's internal drive, a CD or some other storage media. Finally, in the event of a fire or other catastrophe at your place of business, your data will not be protected.

Online storage. Services that provide remote storage and backup over the internet offer businesses a number of compelling benefits. By backing up your most important files to a secure, remote server, you're protecting the data stored at your place of business. You can easily share large files with clients, partners and others by providing them with password-protected access to your online storage service, thereby eliminating the need to e-mail those large files. And in most cases, you can log into your account from any computer using a web browser--a great way to retrieve files when you're away from your PC. Remote storage--especially during an initial backup session--can be slow, however: It's only as quick as the speed of your network access to that storage. For extremely large files, you may have to invest in higher speed network access.

Network-attached storage. Network-attached storage (NAS) provides fast, simple, reliable access to data in an IP networking environment. NAS solutions are suitable for small and mid-sized businesses needing large amounts of economical storage that multiple users can share over a network. And given that many small businesses lack IT departments, NAS solutions are easy to deploy, centrally manage and consolidate.

NAS solutions can be as basic as a single hard drive with an Ethernet port or built-in Wi-Fi connectivity costing around $200 for 300GB or more. Moving up in sophistication, NAS solutions can also provide additional USB and FireWire ports, enabling you to connect external hard drives to scale your business's overall storage capacity. An NAS solution may also offer print-server capabilities, which lets multiple users easily share a single printer.

An NAS solution may include multiple hard drives in a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) level 1 array. In plain English, a RAID level 1 storage system includes two or more equivalent hard drives (such as two 250 GB drives) in one network-connected device. Files written to the main drive are automatically written to the second drive as well. This automated redundancy means that if the first hard drive dies, you'll still have access to all your applications and files on the second drive.

NAS solutions can also offload file serving from other servers on your network, thereby increasing performance. A NAS system allows you to consolidate storage, thereby increasing efficiency and reducing costs; simplify storage administration and data backup and recovery; and allow for easy scaling to meet growing storage requirements.

Develop a Plan
Before investing in a data storage solution, consult with a trusted IT advisor on which option--or options--will best meet your business's current and future needs. Then create a plan for deploying the storage your business is likely to need when and where it will be needed.

You may want to consider a managed storage service, which provides on-demand storage capacity and essential storage management. A managed service--for which you pay a regular monthly fee--may be the most affordable option for cash-strapped small businesses. Another possibility is to ask your network vendor about financing options for NAS solutions.

The bottom line: Don't wait until you need more storage before deciding what to do. Start planning now for your future storage needs, so you won't waste time and money later.