Object Storage vs. Block Storage vs. File Storage

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File, block, and object storage are the main three types of enterprise data storage. Block storage, in simpler form, came first, in the 1960s; file storage built on it decades later. Object storage came much later, pioneered by Seagate in the 1990s. All three have their use cases.

We briefly describe the best-case uses for each storage type and how they might be beneficial to a business—and why they might also not be the best choice.

File Storage

File storage is good for organized, structured data. It’s path-based, storing data hierarchically—files in folders, folders in directories. Locating data in a file storage system requires knowing where it falls in the hierarchy. This can take time when a file system is large—just imagine trying to find a document in six years’ worth of Microsoft Office pileup on your personal computer. Big data storage needs are much greater than that. Wading through a file system’s hierarchy can be a laborious task.

File storage is also not very scalable, since growth requires more and more folders and directories to be added. However, it’s useful for businesses that have a limited number of files and want all that data to be available to a local area network.

Block Storage

Block storage is best for data that needs to be accessed frequently. It stores information in blocks, pieces that have a unique address. This means that block storage can be stored anywhere, regardless of its relationship to other data, unlike file storage.

A user accesses a block through its address. Data can be split up in storage and then pulled back together when it’s accessed. For “hot” data, that requires frequent editing, block storage can be a good choice.

Object Storage

Object storage, the most recent arrival in the family of data storage options, has made a name for itself. It’s quite different from the other two.

Object storage stores data in a pool, not in a hierarchy. Data doesn’t have to be structured, like it does in file systems. It can be disparate and random pieces of unstructured data. Object-stored data receives metadata—if you know the meta information about the object, you can easily query it—and a unique identifier. This makes data in object storage easy to locate.

Object storage is so popular because it’s necessary for enterprises with heavy data storage and analytics requirements. Data storage needs have significantly increased during the last decade because of applications and the cloud. Companies have to store lots of customer data just to keep up.

That’s where object storage platforms come in. They’re scalable and flexible for large stores of unstructured enterprise data. Many providers claim their object storage is limitless just because they’ve never reached the end of it. That’s very attractive for businesses that have to store a lot of information.

Object storage for future applications

A potential downside to object storage is that it’s not as easy to quickly edit. If businesses need to quickly process large volumes of data, they may find it difficult (in contrast to blocks, which are easier to edit while in storage).

Overall, it’s simply not as fast as file storage or block storage (granted, it also stores a lot more data, so having extra metadata to sort through does take time). All hope isn’t lost, though: some engineers say that NVMe over Fabrics will help reduce latency significantly when paired with object storage.

Object storage is the best solution for IoT data at the edge of a network. Businesses that need to quickly analyze unstructured, unreliable IoT data will begin shifting toward an edge-focused storage system that utilizes small servers rather than huge ones in data centers.

Object vs. File vs. Block: Which Is Best for Your Needs?

If you or your business have a reasonable number of files that you’d like to keep organized in storage, or you’re planning to use NAS devices, file storage is probably your best option. Businesses that don’t have a lot of data, particularly unstructured data, may find file storage to be a helpful means of managing important files.

If you’re frequently accessing your data and making changes to it, block storage is a good choice. Block storage doesn’t have the limitations and potential slowdown of finding data, like file storage does.

If your business has a lot of applications that need large volumes of data analyzed—especially if that data’s coming from IoT devices—object storage will allow you to keep up with storage and analytics demands.

Even if you’re concerned about object storage’s lack of high performance or low latency, it’s still worth considering: even small storage startups are pioneering new storage technologies. What seems like a bottleneck today may have cleared up in a couple of years. Enterprise-level data storage and analytics is trending toward object storage, though file and block are by no means obsolete yet.

Jenna Phipps
Jenna Phipps
Jenna Phipps is a staff writer for Enterprise Storage Forum and eSecurity Planet, where she covers data storage, cybersecurity and the top software and hardware solutions in the storage industry. She’s also written about containerization and data management. Previously, she wrote for Webopedia. Jenna has a bachelor's degree in writing and lives in middle Tennessee.

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