Cloud-based storage, replete with pros and cons, gaining traction

Cost savings, security assurances, ease of use and consumerization all have a hand in growing popularity of cloud-based storage.

Don Peterson, Director of IT, Merced College Don Peterson,
Director of IT,
Merced College

When Merced College Director of IT Don Peterson crunched the numbers, it was impossible not to lean toward cloud-based storage for server backup and data recovery. The purchase of new storage hardware alone to support the data demands of nearly 18,000 students, staff and faculty at the Merced, Calif.-based institution would cost more than $200,000.

A cloud storage solution from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Zetta Inc. that was researched and proposed by Arlis Brotner, Peterson's network manager, started at $225 a month.

"You can see how the model makes sense," Peterson said. "We would have had to do a large capital outlay for all the hardware, all the software, all the power to run it. A cloud storage provider has already invested in all that infrastructure, so they can share that with multiple customers and divide the cost out."

Consumerization of IT another driver of cloud storage

What to store in the cloud is a conversation Gene Ruth, an analyst specializing in cloud storage at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., often has with clients. Typically, as at California's Merced College, clients are interested in cloud-based storage for backup and archiving. But he's noticing an emerging phenomenon: Where a year ago he was never asked about file syncing and sharing capabilities, now those calls come daily. Thanks to apps like the Dropbox file hosting service, consumers are getting comfortable with online file syncing and sharing services, and they expect their IT organization to give them equal capabilities at work.

"A big IT organization will come to me and say, 'Our users are on Dropbox; they're completely outside of corporate policy, out of IT policy, and our hair is on fire, so we as an IT organization want to address that,'" Ruth said. "And good for them! They're not saying they're going to stop it, they're saying they're going to offer their own capability. That's an important, complex conversation, because it's driving a whole new mechanism for delivery of files to end user employees."

Ruth is glad to see IT organizations' eagerness to respond to consumer expectations, because, like driving down costs and dealing with the growing volume of data, it addresses the need for IT to be responsive to changing business needs. "When the CEO walks into the CIO's office and says, 'We need you to come up with this capability for us to run our business,' he doesn't want to hear it'll take six months and $6 million; he wants to hear 'We'll have that tomorrow,'" Ruth said. "And that's also a motivator to move to cloud storage, because once you have everything worked out, that's doable."

--K. G.

Peterson and Brotner are among the slowly growing number of enterprise IT leaders looking to cloud-based storage as a possible "safe house" for data. In their recent "Top 10 Storage Predictions for Infrastructure & Operations Professionals" report, analysts at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. pegged 2012 as the year cloud storage would become a "viable enterprise option," thanks to improved enterprise-class services, stronger service-level agreements and a better understanding of which workloads it makes sense to move to a public cloud.

The interest in cloud storage solutions among enterprise companies is definitely there, said Gene Ruth, an analyst specializing in cloud storage at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. Trepidation about moving data off-premises persists, but in the era of "big data," enterprises are dealing with tremendous data growth and want to know how cloud-based storage can help them run their IT infrastructures, he said. Vendors large and small are responding to enterprise concerns.

"I feel as if a wave is building where the larger IT organizations are getting more comfortable with the idea that the infrastructure industry is developing products that help connect internal to external capacity," Ruth said. "Over the next few years -- and some patience is required here -- we're going to see public cloud storage just become part and parcel with building out an IT infrastructure."

Embracing cloud-based storage means trusting cloud security

It's difficult not to be seduced by cloud pricing models, but cold feet still tend to develop when it comes to security, Ruth said. That was true for Peterson and Brotner until their own research assured them their information would be stored in more than one location and would be encrypted in transit and in storage.

"That helped, because you always worry about your data not physically being 'here,'" Peterson said. "It's probably safer in the cloud than it is here because we don't encrypt on disk here, but they do in the cloud … so it just seems to me it's safer. I wouldn't have said that before, but now, seeing this [solution], I can say that."

So, what are Peterson and Brotner now comfortable entrusting to the cloud? Brotner said that information includes individuals' files from home directories, spreadsheets, Word documents, Access databases, images used between departments or within departments, SQL database backups, virtual machine backups and email archives. IT also is looking to add direct-to-cache storage, which would allow users to access archived data on their own, an action which currently is carried out by IT on request.

Cloud gateways lead to brighter future for cloud-based storage

In an August 2012 report, Forrester Research analyst Andrew Reichman asserts that issues holding back cloud-based storage solutions from broader adoption in the enterprise could be addressed with cloud gateways.

Reichman identifies latency, uncertainty about accessing data across the WAN, difficulty coding to cloud providers' application programming interfaces (APIs) and the risk of data leaks as enterprise organizations' chief cloud storage concerns. In response, the market is seeing a growing number of cloud gateway vendors. Most gateways provide data caching for frequently accessed data; WAN optimization; API integration; protocol translation; and data encryption, protection, synchronization and deduplication.

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The inclusion of cloud gateways in cloud storage solutions is "absolutely crucial," Gartner's Ruth said. No IT shop wants to buy a solution, then have to figure out what happens next; they want a turnkey solution.

This proved to be the case at Merced College. Using an on-site tape backup solution for 65 virtual servers, 30 physical servers and 24 terabytes of storage-area-network storage was cumbersome to maintain, Peterson said, and it didn't have the capacity to offer an adequate backup history. A one-month-old file, for example, likely wouldn't be available if a user wanted it; and it could take days to find a file if the tapes were stored off-site.

It just seems to me [that cloud storage] is safer; I wouldn't have said that before, but now I can say that.

Don Peterson, director of IT, Merced College

With the gateway cloud storage solution, information retrieval now takes seconds instead of days, Brotner said. "There's a single agent that loads on to whatever PC or server you want to back up data from. All you need is a good Internet connection," he said. Once the agent is installed on the server locally, all restorations, setups, backups and so on are managed from a single Web page. "We didn't have enough capacity to be able to cycle through and save a month's worth of data," he added. "Now we're able to keep basically as much data we want. It's as simple as flipping the switch on the Web page."

Storage stalwarts like IBM, EMC Corp., Hitachi Data Systems Corp., NetApp Inc. and Dell Inc. offer little in the way of gateways. To offer them, these larger vendors first will have to find a new way to generate revenue when they stop selling storage hardware and start selling services. Most likely this will happen through acquisition of emerging vendors. But as it stands, those emerging vendors -- like StorSimple Inc., Panzura Inc. and Zetta -- dominate the cloud gateway domain. In general, Ruth said, big IT shops are wary of startups, but forward-thinking companies realize it could be worth weighing the risks and taking a chance on innovation.

"The moment someone like NetApp puts gateway capabilities inside their existing storage arrays -- that's going to be game on. That will lend the credibility that's necessary for big IT shops to really start using public cloud storage, because then it just becomes another provisioning point," Ruth said.

Bottom line? "There is still trepidation," Ruth said," but cloud storage is developing credibility day by day."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, Features Writer.

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