Cloud Storage – What Does It Mean for Your IT Organization?

Working on cloud infrastructure solutions, I help traditional mid-market customers leverage our cloud solutions to deliver higher availability and lower cost than their existing in-house infrastructure. Invariably, storage is at the center of these discussions. Yet these discussions are rarely driven by raw capacity or cost. The storage industry has provided a multitude of affordable, on-premise options if sheer cost per GB and scalability are the relevant metrics. The real challenges that our customers face is after the growth has already happened – how do they continue to provide the traditional backup, availability and reliability features that are expected of enterprise storage while meeting the demands of end-users that have become used to ever lower consumer grade storage costs?

As you may have guessed from the title, we think cloud storage can be an instrumental part of many storage strategies. So what is it exactly? Without focusing too much on the technology, cloud storage leverages web technologies such as HTTP to move objects (generally unstructured data such as documents, MRI images, presentations etc) over IP networks to low-cost storage provided by a cloud infrastructure provider. Unlike traditional storage technologies like fibre channel SANs, cloud storage is designed to take advantage of low-cost commodity hardware. In contrast to SANs that create redundancy through extensive component duplication of already expensive components, cloud storage platforms use a distributed node architecture with data striped over a large number of nodes based on commodity hardware.

This architecture allows cloud storage solutions to deliver reliability and availability on par with enterprise storage arrays at a drastically lower cost with the added benefit that the storage also performs well over wide area networks due to the use of HTTP. This ability to practically leverage storage over distance coupled with the enormous economies of scale that large distributed node architectures offer are really what makes cloud storage different. Here are some of the really compelling use cases we are seeing with our customers:

Low-cost network storage tiering
Historically network file shares tend become the permanent archive for the business, resulting in ever expanding capacity requirements. Of course most of this high cost capacity is tied up housing files from several years ago that are rarely used. In fact, the files from 6 years ago and the files from today are generally treated exactly equal. Cloud storage tiering solutions can change this and move older, less frequently used files into the cloud for lower cost while keeping newer files on local storage for faster performance. Windstream’s cloud storage platform works with a number of partners that offer hardware or software solutions for dynamically tiering data into the cloud to preserve high cost local storage space.

Highly available network storage
Designing a cost effective business continuity solution for large network storage shares is a serious challenge for many of our mid-market customers. Storage replication to an offsite DR location is great for a few terabytes of ERP and database storage but many customers run into serious cost challenges when they look at the network and hardware costs associated with replicating 10TB or more of network storage. Rather than relying on traditional storage replication, we are seeing increased traction with server-based software agents that copy data to cloud storage. These solutions avoid the high costs of storage replication licensing, hardware and networking and they provide a much more rapid recovery time objective than restoration from a backup.

Backup tape replacement
Tape is still out there. The majority of our customers continue to rely on offsite tape storage for their primary backup solution but many are actively looking to move to offsite disk storage if the economics are right. Low cost cloud storage can be combined with de-duplication appliances (such as Riverbed’s Whitewater appliance) to offer a very attractive over-the-network backup solution for many customers in 8 to 40TB range. Best of all, with Windstream’s cloud storage solution, you can leverage your existing Windstream MPLS network to backup over secure, high performance connectivity and collocate DR assets. This creates a compelling solution to the traditional problem with network-based backups that the re-download process after a major site disaster is too slow.

On a less technical front, cloud storage can help IT managers invert the dynamic of many cloud discussions. CEOs and non-technical executives are increasingly looking at public cloud rate as a benchmark to compare internal. With the ability to leverage cloud storage where appropriate but supplement it with higher performance, on-premise storage where needed, IT managers can offer a compelling combination that also shows line of business executives they are embracing cloud solutions where they make sense but are knowledgeable about the limits.

We believe this ability to selectively leverage cloud solutions to supplement on premise architectures will be an important area for IT managers and an area where our cloud solutions team can continue to add value in customer discussions.