Tech buyer's guide: Data storage

Space saviors

by Andrew Tellijohn   Pete Semington is no techie.

But the owner of Dunn & Semington, a Minneapolis-based printing company, used to spend a weekend each month going back and forth from home to the office in order to back up data, graphics and other materials relating to his clients’ work.

“It was such a tedious process,” Semington says. “I hated it. I was just sick of it. You need to do it. If anything happens, you have to have a way to pull yourself out of it.”

So he kept his eyes on the Internet in hopes that a better data storage option would arise. And, after researching several different systems, he finally found what he wanted in a product called the RocketVault.

RocketVault, sold by Intradyn Inc., is a stand-alone, automated device that uses a Web browser interface for setup. It connects to an Ethernet network, can be accessed by Web browser, and requires little expertise.

The best part? It’s simple. Everything else he looked at involved tapes or other manual labor to complete the backup steps. With RocketVault, Semington receives an e-mail every morning informing him that his data backed up the night before. It happens nightly in his office, and once a week, his information is sent to his house for safekeeping.

This upgrade now allows Semington to spend his weekends hanging out with the family.

“I’m not Mr. Technical Guy. The beauty of this thing is I don’t have to be,” he says. “As simple as they make RocketVault out to be, it was. It’s a miracle machine as far as I am concerned.”

Wolf Etter and Co., with offices in Mankato, Madelia and Plymouth, has a slightly larger IT staff. It’s Carla Hedding, manager of network administration.

The accounting firm needs to store financial data, including years of old tax returns for its clients, and can’t afford a system meltdown.

But that’s just what happened at the end of a work day during the beginning of tax season two years ago. Shortly after upgrading its data storage system, her six servers seized up and knocked down the entire Wolf Etter network.

“It brought the whole system to a screeching halt,” Hedding says.

So she called Compellent Technologies, which had installed her data storage system. Their technicians found the problem and worked overnight to get the network back up and running. Then, because of a technology called Data Instant Replay, which allows technicians to turn back the clock to a time before the system went down, Hedding was able to restore the previous day’s work in a matter of minutes.

“By the time people were coming in at 8 o’ clock, it was back to normal,” she says. “They didn’t know what had happened.”

Before the upgrade, Hedding says reconstructing six servers and restoring all the data would have taken more than a week. Such is life in the data storage industry these days where new technologies are becoming less expensive and greater regulation is forcing more and more firms to upgrade and protect their data.

What to look for
There are plenty of options for small businesses whose storage needs are becoming more complex with increased regulation and the realization of potential security threats.

Increased regulations and growth forced Wolf Etter, a small but expanding accounting firm, to start upgrading its technology. The company was quickly sucking up server storage space, and began searching for a central storage system.

Hedding had worked with a consulting firm on technology issues, so she reached out again for advice. The company led her to a couple of storage firms, whom Hedding interviewed.

“I made a lot of phone calls, asked about down-time, stability, recovery. My big concern is, how stable is this?” she says, adding that when the company gets into November, “we’re coming into our tax season and we can’t afford to be down.”

When Hedding met with Compellent, she was impressed because CEO Phil Soran and several partners were willing to sit down with her to answer questions.

To determine if your system is sufficient, Soran says, run some drills. Test your system as though you have had a fire or a virus hit your data. Delete a key file, and then ask your IT department to recover it. “If they can’t get it in a short time, you probably should be employing a better strategy,” Soran says.

If you’ve decided an upgrade is necessary, there are several options to consider, ranging from an online, disk-based recovery strategy to blade-servers, to off-site options.

And it is becoming less and less expensive by the year. Medical firms, which used to store just patient data online, now store x-rays and even files of entire procedures such as colonoscopies. “The technology has changed where I think the smaller company has the opportunity to do a much more sophisticated storage option,” Soran says.

For those companies that don’t already have storage area networks (SANs), high-speed sub networks of shared storage, there are other smaller options such as Eagan-based Intradyn’s RocketVault, says Gary Doan, CEO.

Intradyn introduced RocketVault to cater to small businesses that have the barest of budgets and IT staffs — and he adds that if you don’t have an SAN, the odds are good that you don’t need one.

What small businesses look for is something that is easy to use and maintain, Doan says. “Ours is an appliance. You just drop it in.” And it starts at just under $1,500.

Offsite get popular
A third option has been becoming more and more popular since 9/11. Many companies have begun buying offsite storage space in preparation for another disaster, says Gene Randol, chief operating officer and chief technology officer for Edina-based VeriSpace.

Off-site storage allows companies to move certain amounts of their data, either as it is being processed or after, to data centers away from their main buildings. It is replacing “disaster sites,” which companies used to plan to move to in case of emergencies, using tapes to back up data.

“The problem with a disaster site is you have to be down for a day or two before you can set up,” Randol says. “That left you a big hole.”

Off-site storage allows companies to start up in a short period of time with little gap in the data that has been processed. And VeriSpace, which is part-owned by real estate firm Frauenshuh Cos., Bloomington, also can provide backup real estate for its clients if necessary.

Off-site storage is especially valuable to smaller companies, he says, because they don’t have the same resources to make their own backups as larger firms.

“I think across the board, Sarbanes-Oxley is starting to force corporate officers to give more than lip service to their disaster plans,” Randol says, referring to legislation that requires transparency and accountability at corporations. “We have the backup power, the backup water, everything you need to have a very serious site for your processing.”

[contact] Gary Doan, Intradyn Inc.: 651.203.4600; gdoan@intradyn.com; www.intradyn.com. Carla Hedding, Wolf Etter and Co.: 507.387.6031; chedding@wolfetter.com; www.wolfetter.com. Steve Randol, VeriSpace: 952.830.7405; info@verispace.com; www.verispace.com. Pete Semington, Dunn & Semington: 612.866.7225; peter@dunnsemington.com; www.dunnsemington.com. Phil Soran, Compellent Technologies: 952.294.3300; phil.soran@compellent.com; www.compellent.com

Andrew Tellijohn

Managing Editor