SANs have long been the domain of larger companies. Whatever benefits SAN technology might have offered small-to-midsized businesses (SMBs), it was too expensive and too complicated--the thinking went--for companies that didn't have dedicated IT resources to devote to it. Consequently, SMBs continued to rely largely on direct-attached storage technology. "The smaller and midsized companies are aware of the technology, but they've been afraid that it's difficult to use and expensive to acquire. \[Also,\] a high total cost of ownership because of the need to hire specialists or pay service fees have made \[SMBs\] stay away from the whole deal," says Dr. Curtis Gittens, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group, a global provider of IT research to the midsized enterprise market.

But that calculation is quickly changing, reports a new study from Info-Tech. According to the results of an Info-Tech survey of more than 1400 IT decision makers in midsized companies, spending on SANs will climb 40 percent next year. Overall, spending on data storage will climb 35 percent, making it the number-one priority for midsized enterprises that plan to "invest heavily" in 2005, outstripping spending on servers, telephony, and security software. In fact, according to the survey, investment in storage should remain strong for the next 3 years.

Five key drivers are pushing SANs into the midsized enterprise space. First, enterprises want to consolidate their storage infrastructures and gain the efficiencies and control offered by a single point of management. Moreover, implementing a SAN not only helps companies consolidate and better use storage technology, it lets them consolidate their server infrastructure as well.

Second, to respond to midsized companies' demand for storage technology, storage vendors are aggressively marketing solutions to the midsize-enterprise market. In fact, price and new technology are probably the most important new factors in the mix. As IP SAN (aka Internet SCSI--iSCSI) technology becomes accepted as a more viable alternative to Fibre Channel, enterprises are embracing the offerings of IP SAN specialists. Moreover, companies such as EMC and other traditional Fibre Channel SAN solution providers are also offering IP SAN solutions.

"When we first started our research," Gittens says, "People would tell us that Fibre Channel was for tier-one storage. IP SANs were positioned for second- and third-tier storage." Today, however, many companies use IP SANs for mission-critical data. Indeed, some companies are migrating mission-critical applications from Fibre Channel SANs to IP SANs.

Third, in the wake of many highly publicized natural disasters this year and last, companies are finally focusing on developing disaster recovery and business continuity plans. People are very aware that they need to have a disaster recovery plan in place, Gittens says. SANs can play an important role in those plans.

Fourth, regulatory compliance issues have forced midsized companies to look more closely at their storage infrastructures and their need to store and access data over long periods of time. Finally, midsized companies aren't immune to the data explosion. Like their larger counterparts, midsized companies are actively embracing Web-based applications and e-commerce. Consequently, they need to develop strategies to cope with the growth of data. And as the price of SANs falls, SAN technology becomes an increasingly attractive alternative.

In many ways, the growing acceptance of SANs by midsized companies should be seen as a fairly traditional technology evolution story. The larger midsized firms began adopting SANs 4 years ago. Since then, the technology has begun to march down market. Indeed, according to Gittens, SAN technology is becoming more of a commodity item, with the differentiation among offerings coming through the software rather than the hardware. "This is a typical case of commoditization occurring in the storage market," he says.

Over time, SANs should emerge as the dominant storage infrastructure for midsized and even small enterprises, Gittens says. The benefits are just too compelling. SANs offer better scalability and manageability as well as centralized backup, better disaster recovery, and the ability to share storage resources across the organization. Couple those benefits with the technology's decreasing cost and the fact that it's easier to use than it used to be, and the cost/benefit ratio has changed dramatically. SAN has too many advantages for midsized businesses to ignore.