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Is cloud-based storage the right option for you?

Cloud-based storage has become a viable, cost-effective alternative to onsite data backup. But it's not right for every company.

The cloud has gained traction for companies that seek greater flexibility in managing their data backups. But the cost benefits of cloud-based backup may not accrue for every company.

According to the latest TechTarget Cloud Pulse Survey, conducted in the first quarter of 2013, 56% of cloud storage users are already cloud data backup subscribers, and backup ranks as the most popular cloud storage option. And according to an IDC report, data backup/archiving ranked as the function most suitable for private and hybrid cloud and the second most suitable for public cloud.

But industry observers say that companies currently benefitting from cloud-based backup may be those with smaller environments, with less data to back up. There are also other roadblocks to consider for companies of all sizes, including bandwidth limitations. Still, according to various experts, in terms of cost and management, cloud-based backup can solve more problems than it creates.

Regardless, companies should weigh the option of using cloud storage services.

Cloud-based storage and cost

Organizations use cloud-based storage because of the convenience and reduced cost; on-site storage with disk-to-disk or tape-to-disk is expensive compared with the cloud, said Mark A. Gilmore, president and co-founder of Wired Integrations, a strategic technology consulting firm in Silicon Valley. Gilmore highlighted a key pro for cloud storage: scalability.

Organizations use cloud-based storage because of the convenience and reduced cost; on-site storage with disk-to-disk or tape-to-disk is expensive compared with the cloud.

Mark A. Gilmore, 
president and co-founder,
Wired Integrations

"The companies we see benefiting most are ones with less than 2 TB to 3 TB of data. Other companies with larger implementations can benefit as well, just not as much due to the cost of increasing the Internet pipe to be able to handle the outbound transfer of data," he said.

In keeping with that large-small adoption split, Gilmore said so far most of the implementations he has seen have been single-provider installations.

"We recommend never putting anything in the cloud you cannot afford to be without. When backing up to the cloud, you should always have at least one local copy of the same data," he added. Even if that is not as up-to-date as the backup, it should be something close. Some vendors use a disk-to-disk-to-cloud model for that purpose, he noted. "It's great as long as you can get the vendor to provide the local storage as part of the overall cost of the solution," he added.

Even larger companies with runaway data growth have started a move to the cloud, said Mike Valuck, practice lead at GlassHouse Technologies.

"Some of them are running out of storage faster than they can buy and install it," he said. Also demand can be "bursty," which makes planning and procurement even more difficult. Then, when you throw in the cost of operating and managing storage, a cloud computing model starts to look more appealing," he said.

Valuck said cloud demands bandwidth, particularly if a restore is suddenly needed. Users might end up waiting hours, or longer. In fact, organizations considering cloud should plan to tier data, so that more critical information is also backed up on-site in a readily accessible form, he said.

From a business perspective, Valuck said some organizations are drawn to cloud computing because it's easier to get operational funding than capital funding. "If you can't afford to buy a new system from EMC, it is much easier to move to an Opex model and then just pay as you go," he noted.

For Syd Weinstein, executive vice president and chief technology officer for the customer experience and market research consultancy  PeopleMetrics, pay-as-you-go was an appealing model, especially for a small or medium-sized business. "I back up 100 gigabytes a day, and I pay only a few hundred dollars a year," he added. 

Cloud-based backup and flexibility

Traditionally, cloud backup has been focused on the how. But, explained Weinstein, the cloud has provided more flexibility in accessing data from anywhere and enabling the ability to quickly move the data off-site and automate backup in a way you couldn't easily do with traditional tools, like tape. "It used to be that you called Iron Mountain to pick up your tapes, and if you needed them back, it might take a day or two," he said.

"From a management standpoint, the best thing about cloud is you can back up files on any kind of schedule, slower-turning things can be backed up less frequently and things that change more often can be backed up more frequently, and you can just retrieve the files you need like with a tape robotic library," he said.

PeopleMetrics manages server by server, and puts an agent on each server to back up the appropriate things to the cloud. That also helps with throughput. "With TCP/IP, you can't push data as fast as with a local tape drive, so we use multiple servers, each connecting to the cloud," he explained.

Reliability has also been a nonissue for Weinstein, who said most of the cloud storage service providers he has encountered either resell Amazon Web Services, use Google's service or sell their own native service. Weinstein says his company chose a provider that didn't charge for transfers, just for total storage volume. Finally, added Weinstein, if you are doing cloud backup, "compression is your friend."

In terms of security, PeopleMetrics does its own encryption rather than relying on a provider. "The only people who have our key are our agents on the server and ourselves, so it is very secure," he added.

As far as service-level agreements (SLAs), Weinstein admitted most companies won't have a lot of negotiating clout to get to specific performance and response goals. "Most of the time, it is pretty much a shrink-wrapped contract that guarantees a certain percentage of access to data and a certain amount of bandwidth," he said. And, he noted, his experience has been largely positive. "Since most of the providers use Amazon or Google, which are hugely redundant and dispersed, they are very reliable," he added.

Gilmore said security and management should be deciding factors in moving to the cloud. "Do your homework, and ensure that you are using a trusted source that is not going to disappear tomorrow with a copy of your data. Get a copy of their data center audit reports. If they don't have one, don't use them," he said. And, he added, any cloud service backing up your data should have the most current SSAE 16 Type 2 audit certification.

"If they don't, just walk away and find someone else," he said.

Gilmore recommends familiarizing yourself with a provider's SLAs. "SLAs are far and away my favorite part of the cloud, and that is because at least 80% of the cloud service providers still don't use them," so diligence is key. "What happens if they go away; how is your backup data disposed of? You need answers to these types of questions, and only a valid SLA will get you that," he said.

Other than the bandwidth squeeze, which makes large restores problematic, cloud backup works for most kinds of organizations. However, large organizations, already staffed and equipped for backup challenges, may not find the economics so compelling. But smaller organizations will be drawn to the flexibility and ease of use of cloud backup services.

About the Author
Alan R. Earls is a Boston-area freelance writer focused on business and technology.

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