What Is Cloud Storage & How Does It Work?

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Businesses are increasingly adopting cloud storage options because they need more and more elastic capacity and a better way to manage storage costs over time. The growing amount of enterprise data and cloud data are proving too difficult for IT departments to manage using only their own data centers.

Cloud storage pricing offers great budget flexibility, and enterprises are supplementing current storage environments with cloud data storage in the form of private cloud, public cloud or both. This guide covers the different types of cloud storage, how it works, and the pros and cons of using it.

What is cloud storage and how does it work?

What is cloud storage?

Cloud storage is a remote platform that uses a highly virtualized, multi-tenant infrastructure to provide scalable storage resources. Enterprise resources can be provisioned dynamically as needed. A wide array of cloud storage providers offer these services to organizations.

Traditionally, IT departments managing capacity-strained data centers would “throw boxes at the problem,” a euphemism that referred to the continuous addition of physical storage devices. But that proved to be both expensive and difficult to manage as data needs continued to grow exponentially. 

Unlike dedicated physical devices, clouds provide elasticity and scalability. They’re able to grow capacity and processing power as needed, but can decrease storage resources when unnecessary as well. Cloud storage vendors provide metered services, requiring customers to pay only for the cloud resources they use. Cloud storage providers also offer multi-tenancy, which means they host multiple organizations’ data on their servers, making it more cost-effective to run. 

Is your business considering a cloud storage solution? Learn about choosing a cloud storage provider.

How does cloud storage work?

Cloud storage requires at least one data server that users connect and send files to manually or automatically over the Internet. The stored data is then accessible through a web-based interface.

Cloud storage systems involve vast numbers of data servers to ensure both redundancy and availability. If one server requires maintenance or fails, the replicated data is available from another one. For example, the Amazon AWS Cloud spans 55 availability zones in 18 geographic regions at the present time.

While the data in a public cloud is replicated in different physical locations for fault tolerance and disaster recovery purposes, the primary or local location tends to be physically closer to the  facility of the customer. This allows the vendor to process data faster and at lower costs than it would if the primary location was halfway around the globe.

Cloud storage pricing varies and depends on a number of factors, including the service provider, capacity and length of time required. Cloud data storage resources can be provisioned in three main ways.

  • End users using a web interface pay for capacity on a per-transaction basis.
  • Users specify a predetermined capacity and pay a monthly rate or flat fee.
  • Users pay on a per-usage basis and the service provider allocates resources dynamically as needed.

Because cloud storage resources can be provisioned through a web-based interface, cloud management is possible for any admin with an internet connection.

Types of cloud storage

There are four general types of cloud storage: personal cloud storage, private cloud storage, public cloud storage and hybrid cloud storage.

Personal cloud storage

Personal cloud storage is enabled by a network-attached device that allows users to store personal data such as text, graphics, photos, video and music. The user owns and controls the device, which is essentially a personal cloud drive, and can access it from anywhere via the internet.

Private cloud storage

Private cloud storage uses on-premises storage servers that are under the control of the company that owns them. Like public cloud storage and data centers, private cloud storage takes advantage of virtual machines. Private clouds tend to be used by organizations that want the flexibility and scalability of cloud storage, albeit under the direct control and management of the company which owns it. Organizations concerned about security may prefer managing their own cloud storage systems architecture as opposed to using a public cloud.

Public cloud storage

Public cloud storage is available from a third-party as a service. Amazon AWS Cloud Storage, Microsoft Azure Cloud Storage and Google Cloud Storage tend to be popular among enterprises. These public cloud storage options are available as a service, and the infrastructure is built, owned, managed and maintained by the providers. Many cloud storage websites can also be found online.

Hybrid cloud storage

Hybrid cloud storage is some combination of public cloud, private cloud and data center as an organization prefers. It typically combines resources that are owned and managed by the enterprise with public cloud storage services managed by a third party. Enterprises combine the two approaches to balance the need for securing mission-critical assets with the elasticity, scalability and cost advantages public cloud storage provides.

Pros of cloud storage

Cloud storage introduced significant improvements in the storage industry because it’s easy to access, permits large volumes of data, decreases the financial burdens of storage and helps with recovery processes.  

Internet availability 

Because cloud storage namespaces, which are containers for cloud buckets and objects, are available online, storage management professionals are able to easily view and provision storage resources. They don’t have to go to a data center or have physical access to servers. This makes storage management more accessible for remote teams.

Large volumes of storage

Cloud storage permits storage of volumes of big data that power businesses’ most critical applications. It also makes managing large volumes of data easier because everything is available in buckets on the internet. 

Hardware and maintenance cost savings 

Because businesses don’t have to manage all the servers and other underlying hardware on their own, they save money in the long run. Cloud storage is also easier to spin up because the organization just has to purchase from a cloud provider and get started rather than implementing hardware and management software. The time difference could be months.

Disaster recovery 

Cloud storage plays an important role in recovering data after an outage, natural disaster or theft. Enterprises can store backups in the cloud and use them to recover data if the onsite copy is lost. Having remote storage sites is an important storage safety procedure, and the cloud makes recovery and continuity processes easier.

Read about best practices for cloud disaster recovery.   

Cons of cloud storage

Although cloud storage is beneficial for most organizations, it comes with its own set of risks and concerns. These include decreased control from storage teams, security considerations and insufficient backup procedures.

Less control

While this doesn’t apply to private clouds or on-premises infrastructure, public clouds often limit how much control storage admins have over their data. Remote cloud environments are harder to manage, and typically the service provider is in charge of the technical part of storage management. While this is beneficial to many smaller teams, it could be challenging for the skilled storage administrator who knows how to customize a cloud store.

Security concerns

The cloud storage industry has undergone significant scrutiny for public cloud environment security concerns. Generally speaking, cloud storage providers invest time and effort into security measures, and ultimately their business depends upon keeping customer data safe. That said, because service providers can host multiple cloud environments in a single data center—and perhaps even on the same server—there’s a chance of data leakage. Service providers also implement different levels of access controls for their employees, and some may not be as stringent as their customers need. 

Read more about cloud storage security best practices. 

Backup limitations

Less a limitation of cloud storage itself than of improper configuration, backup solutions must be implemented correctly to be successful. Choose cloud storage that can store backups and quickly provide the stored data for restoration. Otherwise, the business may struggle to recover data in its needed time frame. 

Bottom line: What is cloud storage and how does it work?

Cloud technology made storage much more accessible for IT and storage teams. It also allowed organizations to increase the volume of data they could store within a quicker provisioning timeline. Because cloud storage decreases organizations’ maintenance and hardware requirements, it’s a good choice for storage teams stretched thin and for limited budgets. 

Learn more about the best cloud storage providers.   

This post was updated May 2023 by Jenna Phipps.

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