One of the hottest trends in networking is the installation of a storage area network (SAN). Once thought of as a big-business luxury, these networks have proven to be a reliable and beneficial necessity for all data centers, small or large.

Basically, a SAN is a special network that exists to connect and support storage devices and servers and that enables users to access files stored in a central location. With SANs, all users can move, manage and maneuver data.

Even companies without full-blown data centers are using SANs to solve their storage issues. Small- and mid-sized companies are accumulating vast amounts of data faster than ever, making these networks a must-have commodity for everyone.

A SAN is separate from a local and wireless area network. The beauty of a SAN, in terms of being a beneficial opportunity to contractors, is that it uses a crucial component called infrastructure cabling. The cabling required for a SAN is often the same network cable contractors install for other IT solutions. A SAN could comprise a number of things, including hubs, switches, bridges, routers, interface cards and, of course, cabling.

The IP angle

Adding an Internet protocol (IP) component is an increasing trend in storage networking. So far, three SAN solutions exist: network-attached storage (NAS), iSCSI and Fibre Channel.

NAS is the oldest.

“NAS uses traditional network cabling. It is simply storage that sits off a network and is a shared storage device,” said Ken Steinhardt, chief technology officer of global product sales at EMC Corp. Hopkinton, Mass. This benefits users because all resources are shared and accessible.

The newest entry, iSCSI, is touted as the emerging solution. Pronounced “eye scuzzy,” this technology allows secure data to be transmitted over an existing IP network. Because many organizations already have an IP network in place, this is a highly cost-effective solution.

Even though the Fibre Channel solution requires specialized infrastructure, it remains the SAN of choice for large data centers. In this solution, the infrastructure runs directly within the data center.

This option is best suited for those needing high-end consolidation. However, the fiber creates distance limitations. For the Fibre Channel to work properly, everything needs to be located in one area.

Diving in

Getting involved in the storage networking market is as simple as asking a few extra questions.

“When working on primary plans, contractors need to ask questions that go beyond the traditional infrastructure questions,” said Steinhardt. “[Contractors should] make the assumption that storage will be connected through the network.”

Steinhardt and others in the storage-networking marketplace believe that IT has become ubiquitous. In all companies, some form of data storage will be needed; it is just a matter of time.

Contractors can be influential in helping customers future proof their infrastructure. By installing the necessary cabling now, customers will be ready to move into a SAN environment when the time is right.

Breaking into the storage-networking niche begins with open communication between the contractor and the customer. Companies like EMC and Network Appliances are major players in the storage-networking field.

EMC, for instance, has what it calls a “Customer Services Organization” that handles all of the installations, maintenance and technologies associated with SAN projects.

“Contractors can even just open up a phone book and contact one of our local offices to get things started,” Steinhardt said.

According to Steinhardt, another potential set of clients for SAN installations can be found in the residential market. He believes this would be an enterprising area for contractors to look into, because home networking needs are continually increasing, causing data storage to become an issue.

Once again, a window of opportunity has opened for the electrical contractor who wants to take cabling experience a step further. Like most things IT, it all boils down to good cabling and infrastructure. Electrical contractors, this means you. EC

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com.