Small business is big business for data storage appliance makers these days.

In the past few years, companies that previously catered only to the large corporate market, such as NetApp, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and EMC have rolled out products geared toward small businesses -- an audience estimated at about two million. There are two reasons why such businesses are all of the sudden a potential audience for storage appliances: Price erosion and increased data needs.

First, as with other segments of the tech business, prices for memory have dropped exponentially in recent years. Nowadays, an entry-level data storage appliance costs around $3,000. That’s a far cry from a few years ago. “Five to seven years ago you’d be looking at paying $30,000 even before you get going,” says Sajai Krishnan, general manager for StoreVault, NetApp’s small business-focused product line.

Storage needs are only growing

At the same time, such companies have an ever-expanding need for data storage. “There’s a general trend towards digitizing everything,” said Krishnan. “It’s almost like there’s an iPod and a pre-iPod generation. There’s way more data now than before.”

Phil Treide, marketing manager for small and mid-size business storage for EMC, of Boston, says that small businesses are under pressure to keep more data on hand, partially because of new legal demands to keep copies of e-mails on file. “We think the business conditions today are such that small and mid-size businesses are dealing with the same issues of large businesses, including the impact of regulation,” Treide says. “People are afraid to throw anything away.”

Luckily, you can get a lot for your money these days. The entry-level appliances have about 750 gigabytes of storage and there’s usually not much need for additional services. Even the installation is fairly straightforward, especially if your staff is relatively small. Krishnan compares setting up one of his StoreVault machines to hooking up a TiVo digital video recorder, though the task becomes more complex if there are a large number of employees (like 100) in the network.

Easy to install, automatic backup

Desmond Fuller IT director for iBiquity, a Columbia, Md., developer of HD Radio technology, says it took him about 20 minutes to hook up each of his company’s eight StoreVault machines. As each machine holds about six terabytes of data, Fuller has 48 terabytes of StoreVault data at his disposal. Fuller says that until a few years ago, there were very few data storage appliance companies catering to the small business market. “The high-end stuff is too expensive and has too many bells and whistles for me,” Fuller says.

One popular feature of most data storage appliances is the ability to automatically backup data. Some even suggest buying two machines if you can so one can clone the other’s data if, for some reason, one of the machines were to lose some memory.

Though hard drives are the medium of choice for such tasks and most machines are basically automated hard drives, tape is still a surprisingly popular option. Tape? “There’s a ton of it out there,” says Charles King, principal analyst of Pund-IT Research, Hayward, Calif. “It’s like that Monty Python movie with the old man: ‘I’m not dead yet.’”