The Cloud Offers Promise for Storage Users

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Cloud computing” has been ill-defined and over-hyped, yet storage vendors have been quick to trot out their own “cloud storage” offerings and end users are wondering whether there’s significant cost savings in these services for them, particularly in tough economic times.

“Cloud-speak” can be downright confusing. A recent Storage Networking World conference track proclaimed that clouds “are an evolving approach to providing users transparent IT services through a shared infrastructure of pools of systems and services.” Clouds “provide a vision of a frictionless economy enabled by lowering the barrier for entry and reducing the penalty for failure.” And clouds “are a vehicle to deliver infinite resources, a commitment proportional to need, and cost-effective economies of scale,” albeit with a few caveats on existing infrastructure, manageability, and security.

Surprisingly, Gartner considers the amorphous nature of the term to be good news: “The very confusion and contradiction that surrounds the term ‘cloud computing’ signifies its potential to change the status quo in the IT market,” the IT research firm said earlier this year. Gartner perhaps didn’t help matters any by defining cloud computing as a “style of computing where massively scalable IT-related capabilities are provided ‘as a service’ using Internet technologies to multiple external customers.”

John Webster, principal IT advisor at Illuminata, simplifies matters by advising users to “think of the cloud as the Internet,” delivering services and computing resources.

Oddly enough, storage vendors developed some of the earliest cloud services (see Storage Service Providers Make a Comeback), although it took another decade for the economics of Internet-based storage to make sense.

“The application’s storage is whatever sits up there on that ‘ethereal thing,'” said Webster. There are different ways to access that storage, whether as an external service or setting up your own “cloud” inside your enterprise firewall.

‘Private’ Clouds

Sajai Krishnan of Parascale likens such services to renting a car: “Your company needs more storage, and cloud storage is the vehicle,” he said. “You can either ‘rent’ cloud storage in an external services public cloud, or ‘buy’ cloud storage as a private cloud inside your firewall.”

External clouds, provided by services from companies like Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) or EMC’s (NASDAQ: EMC) Mozy, let companies bring up applications and access internet storage fairly quickly without investing any capital. These kinds of cloud services offer advantages to companies looking to balance the services needed to move the company forward with the need to conserve expenditures.

Security can be an issue for companies sending internal data to these outside clouds, so many companies are investigating the concept of “internal” or “private” clouds based in the Internet or on an internal intranet. These internal clouds can offer the advantages of specific design and controls, yet often require more capital expenditure for servers and storage. A number of companies, however, are emerging with solutions that capitalize on the benefits of cloud storage while mitigating costs.

Parascale, for example, produces software that enterprises can use to mix and match their existing server hardware already in the data center to build clouds that cluster tens to hundreds of servers. These servers act as one giant file repository to meet capacity and parallel throughput demands for a variety of applications.

Parascale’s approach, according to Krishnan, is to use commodity servers that companies can purchase or that they already have in their data center. “We provide a way to rack them up together and stretch them using software to provide a feeling of a big storage appliance — essentially cloud storage,” said Krishnan. “This easy to self-manage appliance is ultimately a single resource accessible over some kind of network, whether it be the corporate intranet or Internet services like Amazon.”

The ability to repurpose and reuse assets in times like these is seen as a prime benefit of private clouds. A good time to look at building your own cloud is when you have 20 to 30 terabytes of data growing at 25 percent to 50 percent a year, suggests Krishnan. Companies can develop internal clouds that take advantage of servers unused in a closet from a multi-year refurbishment program, or servers still under warranty that are yet to be designated within a Virtualizationinitiative.

Security and Compliance Issues

While cloud storage is not applicable for tier-one, mission-critical data due to the nature of the information (e-mail, databases, transactional data), private clouds can serve as community storage pools for enterprise backup and archival data. Cloud storage can also be a viable option for static data resulting from applications such as digital content and distribution, video surveillance, or streaming media.

Internal clouds can also offer advantages to users concerned with security issues who are more comfortable with their staff managing data within a corporate intranet than over the Internet.

Especially with new regulations such as the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) on depositions and discovery, using cloud storage in a highly redundant way helps make sure enough copies are lying around based on a policy set. It can also free up expensive human resources now targeted to sorting and cataloging data.

Security experts note, however, that for regulated data moving into any kind of a cloud, security best practices in the areas of encryption, key management and general storage security apply. As outlined in the SNIA Storage Security Best Current Practices Technical Proposal, organizations should “ensure appropriate service-level objectives for virtual storage: 1) match the availability objective for the ‘storage cloud’ to the application requirements; and 2) match the confidentiality and privacy requirements for the ‘storage cloud’ to the types of information stored.”

Companies might also be wise to examine their storage and retention procedures in light of tracking down data relevant to an e-discovery request. If organizations are already having trouble finding data, cloud computing could potentially create more places one has to look. And storage on external clouds or third-party facilities could also be included in any FRCP requests for backups and disaster recovery copies.

Clouds are an economically attractive service model, said Webster, who recommends that organizations find someone who understands their storage and security needs and who can develop solutions to address them. Companies may choose external cloud services if they can get computing services cheaply, and then evolve to include internal clouds once they figure out how to lower infrastructure costs. Remember that cloud storage is not a replacement for current storage implementations, but a storage option that can offer additional cost and other benefits.

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