As a midsize business grows, often the IT infrastructure grows along with it in a haphazard manner. Storage is a prime example: As data stores increase and servers are added, storage often proliferates as islands of direct-attached storage. Though arguably the cheapest option, this adds complexity that makes it more difficult to manage.

The best way to improve the storage infrastructure is to work toward simplifying, standardizing and automating it. A good first step is replacing direct-attached storage with network storage. Typical network storage solutions include network-attached storage (NAS) and storage area networks (SANs) as well as unified storage that combines the two in a single device.

Consider unified storage

"For the SMB/midsize market, there are excellent opportunities to leverage unified storage systems that combine the block storage of SANs with the file storage of NAS," says Greg Schulz, founder and senior advisor at the Server and StorageIO Group . "A key advantage is that the storage is sharable across different servers and applications." This makes it easy for users to locate and share documents without IT involvement.

For IT staff, network storage simplifies administration by eliminating silos of direct-attached storage that must be backed up and managed. And network storage works well in virtualized environments, where virtual machines can be moved between different physical servers.

Standardization starts with storage products that support industry standards. Key interfaces for SANs in midsize businesses include Fibre Channel and especially iSCSI. For NAS, support for the Common Internet File System (CIFS) and Network File System (NFS) is a must. These standards help ensure interoperability among different vendors' products and will likely result in plug-and-play implementations.

Standardizing on a single vendor's storage can also simplify the environment. Pluses include one source for technical support, integrated tools for storage management and reduced complexity of the infrastructure. Pricing could be lower if all purchases are made from a single vendor.

Storage automation saves time and effort

When evaluating network storage, it's important to consider features that can automate common tasks. "Many modern storage systems offer high levels of automation, being able to automatically detect and repair, isolate and contain faults if a drive fails," says Schulz. Storage devices may also feature redundant components such as storage controllers that automatically failover when needed. Storage systems can include support for hypervisors such as VMware® WebSphere or Microsoft® Hyper-V,® enabling faster and even automated provisioning of virtual servers and backup of the virtualized environment.

An additional level of automation can occur when storage devices are paired with network switches from the same vendor. As an example, if an iSCSI SAN is paired with a matching Ethernet switch that supports iSCSI optimization, the switch automatically optimizes itself for the storage. Such self-management maximizes performance while reducing manual intervention by IT staff.

Simplify, standardize and automate. Follow these guidelines and your storage infrastructure will be more efficient, boosting the productivity of your IT staff so they can focus more on improving the business.

--Silicon Valley-based freelancer Howard Baldwin has been writing about business and technology since 1987.