Making the case for cloud storage

Posted on March 13, 2009

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Use cases point the way to early adoption of "storage in the cloud."

By Jeff Boles, Taneja Group

-- The IT industry is bursting at the seams with vendors rushing out offerings of innovative, hosted solutions accessible across the internet cloud. Some vendors will acquire your attention through marketing hype, or spark an idea in your thinking with a new approach to an old problem. But some vendors will simply demand your attention as a responsible IT practitioner because they will simplify current processes, drastically lower your total cost of ownership (TCO), or deliver better IT than you can yourself, while leaving you in control, and making you the hero responsible for improved IT services.

Sound too good to be true?  The leading vendors in this space are already delivering cloud-based storage solutions that because of value and capabilities are rapidly overcoming even the hardiest objections.

As one example, Nirvanix last year came to the market with a caching NAS appliance that acts as a gateway to the cloud and serves up high performance from a local device that taps into the infinite capacity available in the company's cloud-based Storage Delivery Network.

And many other vendors will hit the market this year with local NAS appliances that act as caching gateways to the cloud. For many enterprises, these appliances could become a well-tested approach for the use of cloud-based storage.

A recent announcement from Iron Mountain  also hints at how innovative capabilities can be wrapped around storage in the cloud. As a complement to its recently announced Virtual File Store (VFS) services appliance, Iron Mountain's Storage-as-a-Service portfolio has a number of information management offerings that are integrated with storage in their cloud, such as data classification, eDiscovery, tape media ingest, format conversion, and other services.

One of the more interesting capabilities is a cloud version of Iron Mountain's long established experience handling physical data transfer in the form of tape. For the cloud, this new service is called a "data shuttle." Iron Mountain's data shuttle further bridges the gap between local and remote storage with a "mini-cloud" that is populated with data and shipped out at the customer's request. When on-site, the data shuttle sits behind the VFS local caching NAS gateway and acts just like Iron Mountain's remote cloud storage repository. Customers can use the data shuttle to either upload or request massive amounts of information, without worrying about over-the-wire transfers. Since Iron Mountain has years of experience in both receiving and shipping out more traditional physical media, customers will likely find that the data shuttle allows them to physically transfer massive amounts of information with the same efficiency they have when vaulting or recalling off-site tape.

The market is roiling with other vendors getting ready to bring additional innovative services to the market. We expect to see a number of solutions this year that continue to bring the economics of cloud storage to both SMBs and larger enterprises, while innovating in how they bridge the physical and technical gaps between local and remote storage. These solutions could conquer the disadvantages of remote storage, and wrap unique capabilities around data.

Our conversations with end users make it clear that there are a few select use cases behind the earliest adoption of cloud-based storage. We will look at these use cases in the remainder of this article.

Stop your data from running amok
Many vendors have come to market over the past 10 years with claims about "holistic" approaches to data management, but in companies inundated by the cycles of replacing aging hardware, upgrading software to never-ending newer versions, and constantly pursuing new technologies, any hope for a single, on-going holistic data management solution seems far-fetched. When a vendor claims holistic data or information management while knowing they have a software roadmap with yearly upgrades, the longevity and consistency of the solution may be suspect. But caching NAS gateways coupled to the cloud could deliver just such a single, consistent platform for data management.

At the most basic level, the cloud delivers an unlimited second tier of storage that reduces archiving to the simple movement of data from a primary tier to a secondary cloud tier, without the requirements for on-going maintenance and management. Companies archiving to the cloud will be able to dispense with or reduce complex multi-tiered, multiple-system data movement policies and tools, and set archival storage free from disruptive migrations or complex restructuring exercises. For the naysayer stuck to the idea of existing in-house storage: While low-end storage may seem cost effective up front, archiving on cheap SATA disk incurs significant and often unrealized costs in on-going management, power utilization, security, and data protection. The cloud is built to reap economies of scale that will exceed the best homegrown solutions, and can simultaneously provide much better availability, longevity, performance, security and data integrity.

End the acquisition of bad storage
Most businesses have a seemingly never-ending list of project implementations that depart from strategic storage plans, or even worse are implemented with poorly chosen storage as a complete afterthought. In the worst cases, these projects end up with isolated local storage, separate protection practices, and periodic complex archiving and/or capacity management requirements.

Such departures from strategically planned storage require enormous time and effort for management and are at heightened risk of data loss. Storage in the cloud can replace these practices while incurring few of the same consequences. Software clients or local NAS gateways can easily serve the needs of scattered applications, provide access to unlimited storage capacity, and store data with best-in-class protection – all while delivering lower TCO. If your enterprise is managing local or unplanned storage devices today, or looking at new projects that will force you to implement non-standard solutions, you might be better off considering storage in the cloud.

Better storage for important data
While the cloud is compelling for archiving general unstructured data, some businesses are faced with unique types of data that simply demand the cloud. While there are numerous examples, one of the more compelling is rich content. The world has rapidly become inundated with rich content, such as digital images and digital video. Businesses that create or manage rich media often face an ever-growing demand for storage that can archive and protect this important content. For the largest users and creators of rich content, the cloud may be the only way they can hope to access enough storage for this content.

While past attempts at hosted storage often fell short of serving up the necessary levels of performance and availability, the new generation of caching local NAS gateways serves up an ideal home for rich content or any mission- critical data. Moreover, Storage-as-a-Service vendors delivering these appliances have the infrastructure to secure and protect critical data such as rich content better than most enterprises.

Meet governance needs
Finally, businesses of all sizes are on a quest for better information governance, ranging from simply fulfilling compliance requirements to executing eDiscovery searches instigated by today's increasingly litigious business environment. For many businesses, the cloud can be a gateway to services that would otherwise be unobtainable.

Over the past couple of years, potential cloud storage providers have been on a steady march to acquire best-in-class classification, search, eDiscovery, workflow, and similar technologies. Today, these vendors are combining such technologies with storage in the cloud. The total product is a suite of data services that pairs storage in the cloud with search and information process tools that are just as, or more, capable than those in the largest enterprises. For the mid-sized business, this levels the playing field by steam rolling over what used to be a distinct competitive advantage of larger businesses with more technology and legal team resources at their disposal. This new playing field may create new winners in all types of litigation, ranging from intellectual property to class action lawsuits.

Sticky issues
Even in the face of compelling use cases, many IT practitioners still have some lingering doubts when considering cloud-based storage services. But most of these doubts rest on a lack of realization of just how far storage in the cloud has come in capabilities. Briefly, these concerns, and what vendors are doing to address them, include:

--  Security. Security is often the first business and technology area that enterprises try to assess in the context of storing data in the cloud. But many users approach the cloud with higher security requirements than even their own infrastructure can support. Even so, many of the larger and more trusted vendors have stepped up to the plate around these heightened and often unrealistic standards by building or collocating in data centers that are far more secure than most enterprise data centers, and wrapping storage in NSA-like layers of encryption and protection. Today, users more often than not will find that the cloud comes with fewer attack vectors, and far better data security and encryption, than their own data centers can deliver. For the determined objector who thinks that taking data off-site is not a good practice, it is worth noting that enterprise-level hosted data storage solutions are coming to the market from trusted off-site and disaster recovery vendors such as Iron Mountain, and these companies likely already store your most critical off-site tape data.

--  Portability. Some users bring portability concerns to the table when they are considering hosted storage. In some cases, this is warranted, but there are a number of trusted large providers with solutions that promise portability equivalent to the best traditional local storage. Specifically, when storage over the cloud is combined with the capability to also deliver your entire data set to your doorstep on your choice of media, or even a dedicated storage appliance, then data is open for easy, high-speed portability anywhere.

--  Performance and availability. Previous attempts at remote storage clearly suffered from latency issues. Similarly, the nature of the Internet could easily wreak havoc on the availability of a service. The breakthrough in the latest generation of cloud storage revolves around caching at the client or within a local appliance that effectively masks Internet latencies, while keeping copies of the most heavily-used data local. By caching locally, these appliances can mitigate the impact of even extended network outages, but just as importantly, can also make remote storage for frequently-used data seem just as responsive as local storage. With a local NAS gateway, storage in the cloud can even mimic the availability, performance, and appearance of mid-range NAS appliances, while being protected at the remote end with a level of assurance that few businesses can hope to achieve on their own. The remaining caveat around performance is that these solutions may consume too much Internet bandwidth when data change rates are too great, and this may cause your cloud storage solution to incur hidden costs. Yet even here, vendors will continue to innovate on capacity optimization and WAN optimization to reduce data transmission.

--  Access. Another common objection is concern about sufficient access when unusually large recall or restore demands occur. As we've discussed, some vendors are are able to deliver massive sets of data on media of any type, direct to the enterprise as rapidly as a copy-and-ship operation can take place. Moreover, some vendors are able to ship out a set of components that emulate the original cloud destination with a completely local system, and allow the original local NAS gateway appliance to march on without reconfiguration. If and when the biggest vendors build out more regional facilities, data shipment times will improve. More importantly, vendors can likely get the data to you even in the face of a catastrophic loss of your local data.

The list of cloud storage services is long and getting longer every day. Some of the biggest vendors in the IT industry have offerings, including IBM, EMC and others. Meanwhile, innovative startups are everywhere, ranging from Nirvanix to Egnyte. Finally, the trusted providers that already service your data needs in some way are rushing into this market, including vendors such as Iron Mountain.

As these vendors with established reputations and the business strength to back up the launch of new services enter the market, they will innovate and set new expectations for how the cloud can integrate with your data management needs today.

The next few years will likely be focused on archival or long term storage needs, but future solutions will be innovative new takes on storage in the cloud that may provide you with a chance to significantly change and improve your current long-term storage practices. In our view, the impact of those changes and improvements upon core business capabilities, IT service delivery, and cost of ownership will be significant.

Jeff Boles is a senior analyst and director of validation services with the Taneja Group research and consulting firm.

Related articles:
What is cloud-based storage?, part 1
The benefits of cloud-based storage, part 2
Cloud-based storage, part 3


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