Data storage has many hidden costs, especially for smaller businesses. What seems to be obvious becomes fuzzy when you try to look more closely at it. Craig Hollins is one IT professional who knows this from hands-on experience with his clients. Craig has been working in IT for over 25 years and he is currently the business manager at PPS, a small managed services provider (MSP) that provides IT support for smaller businesses in and around the area of Perth, Australia. Craig previously shared some of his hard-earned experience with us in an interview titled Small business IT support: Ways to keep recurring revenue flowing in, which I conducted earlier this year here at TechGenix. Since then I’ve kept in touch with Craig to discuss other issues surrounding small business IT support, and below are some extracts from our conversations on the subject of the hidden costs of small businesses investing in storage hardware.
MITCH: Craig , we all know that the cost of hard drives is falling rapidly and their capacity is rising even faster. Moore’s law certainly applies in this situation, and this often leads us to the conclusion that storage is cheap. But is it really?
CRAIG: As an IT pro I don’t see information — I just see data. My job is to make the data available to the customer so they can interpret it as information. From my perspective, all the data is equally valuable and I cannot determine what is important information and what’s useless.
Like everything in IT, the true cost of a component is often disguised with lots of hidden costs. These costs are often ignored causing budgets to blow out and, worse, system reliability can be compromised. Any business owner knows -- or should know — the cheapest part of any computer system is actually buying it. The operation, power and support costs will far outweigh the hardware costs.
MITCH: What do you do then when you see one of the small business customers you support is running out of storage on their network server and is thinking of upgrading it with bigger hard drives?
CRAIG: We talk to our small-business customer who is looking to upgrade his server. One of the drivers for upgrading is he’s running out of storage space because, like just about every other small business, they never delete anything. Not a problem — the 160GB disks when you sold him the server are now 4TB each. Let’s load it up and make sure he never runs out of space again.
Except that’s what we did when he went from 40GB disks to 160GB! Customers have a habit of filling disk space with data that is no longer required, multiple copies of the same files, and so on. Unless we can find a way to re-educate the customer, in five years’ time we’ll be going through the same upgrade cycle with them again!
MITCH: So I guess there are various hidden costs associated with network storage beyond just buying a larger hard drive. Can you describe some of them for us?
Sure! The first hidden cost is that data that is stored also needs to be backed up. And if you ever have a customer say, “Oh, we don’t need to back up our archives,” just try offering to delete it straightaway and see how they react! Backup costs are a function of storage volumes and time it takes to run the backup, so the more you back up the more it costs — simple really.
The first hidden cost is that data that is stored also needs to be backed up
Large data stores also make it harder to find your data when you need it. Unless your client is super organized — this is a small business we’re talking about, remember? — then the files are going to be in folders all over the data volume and many an hour will be spent trying to find that one document that’s needed. Worse, because it can’t be found quickly they’ll often be re-creating the document from scratch thus wasting even more time!
MITCH: Wait a minute, don’t we now have search tools to enable us to find the data quickly and easily on a server?
CRAIG: Yep, and those tools require training to use as well as extra CPU grunt and memory to run. So a higher spec server is required or a slower response time is the result.
MITCH: What other hidden costs need to be factored into the storage cost?
CRAIG: Disaster recovery times blow out when small businesses keep data that’s no longer needed by them. This is the one metric you never want to be worried about, but if you have a guarantee that you’ll get the client up and running in X hours, time taken to copy the data onto replacement hardware eats into that time.
Larger file stores also require we have faster Internet and local network links to make them usable. Nearly all file types are getting bigger demanding more storage space for the same number of documents. New storage requirements for photos and videos make the problem exponentially worse.
MITCH: What’s the solution then?
CRAIG: Remember the old days? Those of us who can count our support experience in decades will remember the days of burning documents to CDs — or the even older ones, saving to floppy disks. We then had customers desperate to recover a file because the CD was scratched or the floppy got somewhere near a magnet. We never want to revisit those days!
Instead, we need to be having conversations with our clients about what data they actually require and what they can safely delete. If any of your readers who do IT support for small businesses have any ideas on how to speak to clients about this, please let me know!
MITCH: Thanks, Craig, for sharing some of your valuable time with us today!
CRAIG: You’re always welcome!
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