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Azure storage pulls closer to competitors' archival options

Azure storage options now include Cool Blob Storage. The service answers demand for cheap data repositories with the closest answer yet to cold storage from Google and Amazon.

Microsoft filled a void in its storage portfolio and provided an answer to existing options from Amazon and Google...

to house infrequently accessed data.

Microsoft last week added Cool Blob Storage to its Azure storage options for public cloud, providing a means for users to cheaply store data that isn't in high demand, but still requires relatively low latency. The service is Microsoft's first foray into a category where its primary competitors already have popular archival services: Amazon Web Services (AWS) Glacier and Google Cloud Storage Nearline.

"It is definitely something people want to have, and it definitely places [Microsoft] in a better position to compete against Amazon and Google with Glacier and Nearline, respectively," said Angelina Troy, principal research analyst at Gartner.

Cool Blob Storage could be positioned to directly compete with those services, but since it's cool storage -- not cold storage -- its feature set and availability characteristics are closer to those of Amazon S3 Infrequent Access, Troy pointed out. But because Microsoft still doesn't have a parallel service, Azure users will likely treat it like those other cloud archival services until the company adds something more comparable.

Microsoft recommends the Azure storage service for anything that's accessed less than once a month, including backups, media content, scientific data, compliance and archival data.

Customers will choose between hot and cool for object storage. The tiers provide similar latency and throughput, though the more expensive hot tier offers higher availability (99.9%) and read service-level agreement (99.99%) than the cool version (99% and 99.9%, respectively).

For cool storage, which has millisecond latency, costs differ depending on the region, ranging from $0.01 to $0.016 per gigabyte, per month. Retrieval of data costs $0.01 per gigabyte, while access operations cost $0.10 per 10,000.

The service is available currently in just over half the Azure global regions, but unavailable in the following regions: East US 2, US Gov Iowa, US Gov Virginia, South Central US, West US, East Asia, Brazil South, Australia East and Australia Southeast.

Local storage gets expensive, and there is a lot of demand for archiving data, said Guy Baroan, founder and president of Baroan Technologies, an IT consulting firm in Elmwood Park, N.J. Different companies will have different thresholds for how they want to store and access data, so this is a nice addition to what's already available in Azure storage.

Baroan works with clients who use Microsoft on image backups and desire a more efficient way to store the data.

"When you're doing the initial seed image and have all the modified images and all the backups of what changed, that tends to build up and take a lot of space," Baroan said. "When the storage is at $0.12 per gigabyte, that's pretty expensive and that builds up pretty quick."

Baroan uses Azure and AWS with customers. Amazon has a clear market lead, but Microsoft has come far to catch up with its feature set and in making it easier for partners to help clients move to the platform, he said. "They're little by little making it more client-friendly with Office 365 and [cloud service provider licensing] around storage and servers."

Glacier and Nearline are pretty popular, offering the cheapest storage options possible for those that want to offload those responsibilities, according to Troy. The major difference is Nearline is more reactive and easier to use from an application perspective, because it provides faster access to data and the same API at rest as the other Google cloud storage options.

Another major difference is retrieval time. Nearline provides access to the data in roughly three seconds, while Glacier takes between three and five hours. "This type of differentiation [around latency and availability] is going to continue in the future, as we see added services from all three providers to fill in the gaps over time," Troy said.

Google charges $0.01 per gigabyte, per month to store the data, as well as $0.01 per gigabyte for retrieval. Amazon charges $0.007 per gigabyte, per month for storage, while retrieval of up to 5% of average monthly usage is free as long as users don't transfer more than their prorated allotment each day. Anything beyond the 5% is charged at $0.011 per gigabyte, and any data retrieved beyond the prorated allotment in a given day incurs a multiplier fee based on how much that limit was exceeded.

Amazon and Google likely will offer services directly comparable to the other's archival offering, Troy said. Microsoft has cold storage on its roadmap, so it wouldn't be surprising to see it put out services competing against both of these options, she added.

Microsoft always has tried to differentiate its cloud by focusing sharply on traditional enterprises familiar with Microsoft products. The vendor has offered a fair amount of storage discounts to those existing on-premises customers, but there are still missing pieces beyond just cold storage, according to Troy. Azure still needs to improve integration with Active Directory, as well as lifecycle management for moving objects from hot storage and cool storage to cold storage in a dynamic fashion.

Trevor Jones is a news writer with TechTarget's data center and virtualization media group. Contact him at tjones@techtarget.com.

Next Steps

A look back at the biggest Azure updates of 2015

Nearline, Glacier both target cold storage in the cloud

Azure makes another round of cloud price cuts

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How would you like to see public cloud providers fill in storage gaps for infrequently accessed data?
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The recently announced EMC/Virtustream storage cloud also has this capability. Storage people seem to love the idea of lots of tiers of storage at various price points, so the cloud providers are listening to their requests.
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Amazon's retrieval is free? That's not what I'd heard. http://itknowledgeexchange.techtarget.com/storage-disaster-recovery/user-finds-amazon-glacier-expensive-roach-motel-data/
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Nice catch, Sharon. The story has been updated to reflect the fact that there are significant caps on the free retrievals from Glacier. And as you noted in your post, billing can get complicated and potentially expensive, but only if data is moved out in excess on those relatively narrow caps on the amount and pace of retrieval in a given day and month.

Just to provide some more context to the customer billing issue you cited, it’s worth noting that he was refunded the retrieval cost, not because he was billed incorrectly but because of a lack of clarity around the how users are charged:

https://medium.com/@karppinen/hello-everyone-here-s-an-update-i-posted-to-the-hacker-news-thread-on-this-earlier-today-845d82873ffb#.63gv35h10

Since his original post about the sticker shock, AWS has published additional information to clarify the fees and how they’re calculated -- albeit in a 1,000-word explainer on the FAQ page and not on the Glacier pricing page.
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It sounds like it's still real damn complicated and potentially real damn expensive. :)
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