High-profile defections from cloud storage -- long considered a drowsy but lucrative IT market minimally upended by cloud computing -- may mean a new look at online and remote storage options is necessary.
Cloud is a great target for data protection...but it's not for highly active data.
Terri McClure, Enterprise Strategy Group analyst
Longtime document and data storage vendor Iron Mountain recently announced the shuttering of its Iron Mountain Digital cloud storage service. In a letter to customers, CEO Richard Reese said the firm wants out of the software and services development business and will resell technology instead.
"Our strategy is to offer enterprise-class cloud storage services by hosting partners' technology -- instead of developing software ourselves," he wrote. Last year, EMC announced the end of its Atmos cloud storage service, despite several major partnerships and customers.
It's all due to the difficulty of competing with bulk commodity storage clouds such as Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3), Jungle Disk or Mozy, recently acquired by VMware. These services lack the enterprise-friendly sheen of a premium vendor like Iron Mountain but have proven reliable, accessible and affordable.
Simplifying backup with cloud storage
On top of that, a new breed of storage players have arrived that make using commodity online storage more palatable to the end user. Stirling Thomas, director of IT at Boston law firm Gesmer Updegrove, said he uses a virtual appliance from storage startup Nasuni to make the grunt work of backup easier.
"They're taking care of the encryption, the distribution and the redundancy," he said.
Nasuni works by replicating data between a local store and a cloud service like Amazon S3; ironically, Iron Mountain Digital was also a supported cloud provider. Nasuni says it has already begun migrating customers off that platform.
Thomas said that cost and convenience were the major considerations. The firm had long used a document management system and disaster recovery (DR) planning for critical files (paper and electronic), but matching a relatively inexpensive virtual appliance like Nasuni with cloud storage meant he could make his life appreciably easier in the case of a disaster.
"When you talk about DR, most people think of the server room," he said. "But if it's a real disaster, I always think of the sprinkler heads going off. When you have 30 or 40 desktops to get back, that can be a real chore."
Thomas doesn't make much use of the computing side of cloud. He doesn't need it, and onsite virtual machines are plenty for his needs; the firm does not have a technology-heavy business model. For him, cloud storage is something that offers easy utility without disturbing his standard operations and minus the stratospheric prices of full-site replication.
He also plans for the inevitable failure or collapse of cloud computing storage vendors; Thomas likes that Nasuni replicates data on his gear and the cloud, so he'll have a fighting chance if the storage provider disappears.
"I think that there's every chance they could go away," he said. "But one of the things we bank on is that they won't go away instantly."
Explaining the cloud storage shift
Tony Moon, CTO of Salvus Alerting, a security service provider for corporate users of content management systems, echoed Thomas' wish to do less grunt work. He uses Egnyte for online storage and backup and said the service wasn't exactly technological wizardry; it was inexpensive and robust, and most importantly, he didn't have to do it.
"We've got a pretty senior technology staff and we could do all that, but why reinvent the wheel?" he said. That attitude, combined with average storage prices of around $0.15 per GB per month, are why companies like Iron Mountain are backing out of cloud storage, said Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Terri McClure.
Ten years ago, she said, storage service providers were consolidating onto mammoth, expensive devices (like Symmetrix) meant to be put in state-of-the-art data centers. These days, however, cloud storage was driven by a new wave of dense, multitenant systems cobbled out of commodity hard drives and delivered over bandwidth that is vastly more available.
"Remember the last mile problem?" she said. "Now I'm watching Netflix on my iPad in my house."
The "last mile" means the issues around getting sophisticated technologies down very small external pipes to businesses and consumers. A T-1 connection at 1.5 MB per second used to be the province of big firms, but these days even residential customers in most urban areas can get 10 MB per second or better.
When you talk about DR, most people think of the server room. But I always think of the sprinkler heads going off.
Stirling Thomas, director of IT at Gesmer Updegrove
McClure said that that fundamental shift in access was what would continue to drive the trend of more and more commodity cloud storage and a pack of middlemen like Egnyte and Nasuni to jostle for end users. She said that trend hadn't just bitten big players; cloud storage startup Cirtas, which made a 2U appliance for enabling block storage over the Internet, had recently folded its hand because of a lack of traction.
"The challenge that Cirtas was trying to solve primary block storage, which is the hardest one to solve in the cloud," she said.
Besides, she added, it didn't work very well, and their target market of big enterprises and providers were wrangling on-premise storage first and looking at cloud storage second. She said the entire current crop of cloud storage vendors had kinks to work out, and the most important thing by far was for an enterprise to properly asses its own needs.
"It's really important that you understand your data characteristics," she said. "Cloud is a great target for data protection. If I'm a small business and I can't afford to mirror data offsite 100 miles away, but I can put a DR copy off in S3, that's great. But it's not for highly active data."
Can your organization handle cloud storage?
Getting organized enough for cloud may be the major hurdle organizations face when contemplating cloud and storage. Phil Jaenke, a storage and virtualization specialist based in Ohio, said he's often dismayed to find how few organizations have really sound hierarchical storage management (HSM) practices that would allow them to make the most cost effective use of cloud storage.
"The number of organizations implementing, much less using, HSM is disturbingly low," he said in an email.
Jaenke feels the potential is there, even though the cloud storage market is still finding its level. Current on-premise storage technologies are hidebound compared to what the online world has come to expect, and managers and users have less and less patience for traditional, long-term storage practices.
He noted customers can and do pack up and move to another online provider with extreme ease, and said that for all the caveats around bandwidth and properly executed data strategy, it's still faster than tape.
Carl Brooks is the Senior Technology Writer for SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.