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IBM to remove complexity around cloud storage service tiers

Public cloud customers have a range of storage options but still battle with complexity. IBM's Flex service is intended to ease that issue and get a leg up on the market.

IBM has a new storage pricing model intended to simplify the service and stand out from the public cloud pack.

IBM plans to roll out Cloud Object Storage Flex next month for customers who are either new to the cloud or have spikey or unpredictable workload demands. Storage tiers have become standard practice for cloud providers as they try to offer a diversity of options, but IBM thinks enough customers will pay more upfront to avoid putting data in the wrong storage class.

In the public cloud market, there are more expensive options for data that must be immediately accessed, and cheaper options for storage that is infrequently or never accessed. This approach works for customers who know how their applications will perform and what their storage needs are, but adds complexity for customers unsure of which tier is best suited for their workloads. Flex doesn't necessarily eliminate the tiered model, but it does remove some of the guesswork for users with a flat storage rate and a ceiling on retrieval costs.

Beyond the headline price with a cloud storage service, what really affects a customer's bill is moving or accessing archived data. Flex adds a bit more cost upfront, but it could lower the cost for those additional services and provide eventual savings, said Steven Hill, an analyst at 451 Research.

"It's more of a pricing angle than anything else, and it takes a lot of variability out of the price of cloud storage," Hill said.

What we would like to see from cloud providers is an automatic way of determining where data should reside among these different tiers of service.
Angelina Troyprincipal research analyst, Gartner

Draft cost estimates for Flex charge $0.009 per gigabytes per month for regional storage, with a maximum retrieval and storage charge of $0.029 per month. There's also a $0.01 charge per 1,000 requests for PUT, COPY, POST AND LIST requests, and $0.01 charge per 10,000 for GET requests. For basic comparison, IBM's cheapest object storage option is Cold Vault at $0.011 per GB per month for the first 500 terabytes, with $0.05 per GB for retrievals, without factoring in higher tier costs. (Final price figures won't be released until the product is available sometime in the second quarter of 2017.)

Compared to Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) Infrequent Access, IBM claims customers who store 0.5 petabytes via Flex could save 23.8% and 53% in hot access months and cold access months, respectively. AWS did not return request for comment on IBM's internal analyses of the services.

The Flex cloud storage service fits a need because more customers want lower operational overhead, especially where it's not a strategic advantage, said Patrick Harr, CEO of Panzura, a Campbell, Calif., hybrid storage vendor that works with IBM, as well as AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google.

"From my perspective, it's a significant advancement and, from a customer perspective, it offers a lot of simplification," Harr said.

Cloud vendors play follow the leader with storage

Other vendors will likely follow IBM's lead with Flex, Harr said. Services like this will be increasingly important because the volume of unstructured data grows 30% to 40% each year, and that will only increase as internet of things and machine learning workloads become more popular, he added.

Everyone copies everyone else in the public cloud storage market, so while IBM has something unique with Flex, it must continue to improve to retain a competitive advantage, said Jeff Kato, senior analyst at Taneja Group, a consulting firm in Hopkinton, Mass.

"If this becomes popular, there's no reason Microsoft, Google and Amazon couldn't offer the same thing," he said.

Kato compared the ongoing cloud storage competition to ducks on a pond: placid above water with their feet rapidly paddling underwater. Cloud providers don't disclose how they manage storage under the covers, but the various tiers often sit on the same infrastructure and are just priced differently based on customer usage, Kato said. That's one way competitors can quickly match new prices or pricing schemes, or simply match the lower and swap out the infrastructure later.

Other vendors already have started to move in the direction IBM wants to go with Flex by simplifying storage across tiers. Last year, Google added a lifecycle management tool to automate moving data across the various tiers.

Cloud vendors have started to transition to "usage" models for cloud storage, in which a customer pays for a combination of storage and the amount of data retrieved, but there's still room for improvement, said Angelina Troy, principal research analyst at Gartner.

"What we would like to see from cloud providers is an automatic way of determining where data should reside among these different tiers of service, but that has not happened yet," she said.

Trevor Jones is a news writer with SearchCloudComputing and SearchAWS. Contact him at [email protected].

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