The Register recently posted an article about building your own storage device, or SAN/NAS. He is completely correct, of course: This technology has been easily available for the moderately technically inclined individual for at least a decade. FreeNAS is a good example of one that can be put together fairly easily by just following some directions. Technically this is a good solution, so why do storage vendors still exist?

Glad you asked. From a small to mid-sized business perspective this is a complete disaster waiting to happen. Put yourself in the shoes of an IT Manager: Your lead technical guy has an idea that will save you tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a storage solution. Sounds great, right? So you let him build it and lets say it works exactly as advertised, although even that is not the guaranteed outcome. Now your lead technical guy leaves the company for somewhere else. After all, he just saved you all that money and you are not increasing his salary fast enough to match his perceived value. After a few months you manage to hire someone to replace him, but the storage is a black box to this person. There is no one they can call for support who will not point the finger elsewhere, and there is little chance you will find someone who has built that exact same solution before and is able to support it as well as the guy who left. Where does that leave you?

It leaves you with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach that refuses to go away. One day you just know a hardware or software component of the solution will fail and your options are to run back to the technical guy who left and pay him a fortune to come fix it, or find someone even more competent (and expensive) to figure it out and fix it. Neither of those options are cheap, and neither of those options provide high availability for your data. How will you explain it to your management? “Instead of purchasing an enterprise class solution, we wanted to save some money and decided to build it ourselves. I know our systems are down now and we may never recover our data, but hey, we had a few great quarters having saved all that money, and my bonus for staying under budget was sweet.” Ha!

Where will this solution work? It works great if you are a start up needing to save money, and your technical people who are building the solution are committed to the company as co-owners, or maybe it is yourself. It also works if you are Google or Amazon sized and you can afford an army of people to run around and replace commodity components. Or if you build enough of them that the procedure is well documented and repeatable, and your redundancy is great enough that the sudden loss of an array or two has no impact to your business.

If you love to tinker and you are the lead technical guy trying to prove your worth to the company, it works in your mind. If your manager is not technically inclined and can not understand why he can buy a 5TB USB hard drive at Staples for $120 yet a 30TB array can cost 10 or 100 times as much depending on performance. Here is a chance to save the company some money, give your manager what he wants without wasting time educating him, maybe earn a better salary out of it, and have something fun to do at work. If this is you, I will give you this lifeline: Do you really want to be the only person on the line when your storage or a component of it fails? Do you really want to be technically on-call 24/7/365? Educate your manager and buy the right solution that you do not need to hang your employment on. Build your toys at home.

To the IT Manager/CIO or whoever is in charge of your company’s IT organization: This mindset comes from the same place that shadow IT does. You need to identify it and avoid it. If your staff is thinking down this path, get them back on track. Make them recommend the right solution that can be easily supported by your next IT employee, or even a contractor if necessary. A solution that has someone you can call that is willing to take complete ownership whether the failure is a controller card, hard disk, or software. If your current IT staff will not come around to your way of thinking, then it is likely there are already many other home-built hacks present in your environment. To some extent they can not be avoided, but they should be the well-documented exception, not standard practice. If you can not reign this in, it may be time to think about replacing your staff with people who are thinking more about the business than just what sounds fun to do.