By James Mercer
When I talk to other IT directors about my decision to embrace cloud storage as part of Flexi-Van’s data storage strategy, I get a lot of questions about how I made my decision. “Why cloud?” they ask. “What are the benefits?” But the question I hear most often is, “Should I consider cloud storage, too?”
Cloud storage can be viewed similarly to near-line or tape storage, but without the drawbacks. For example, cloud storage is always on since there’s no delay while waiting for a robot or stopped disks to spin back up. Another difference is that data in cloud storage is more secure because it’s automatically encrypted, replicated and protected by most vendors that offer it.
Also, cloud storage is typically accessed via the Internet, rather than through a dedicated network connection. Provisioning more space in the cloud requires little more than a purchase order (if that), and usually takes mere hours to perform.
Cloud storage is usually presented as a local disk on a server, so there’s no major learning curve for your administrators. And financially, you pay only for what you actually use, compared with traditional storage in which space sits empty and idle until needed.
Given these characteristics, what are the best strategic uses for cloud storage?
Certainly, you won’t want to put your active databases and online transaction processing data into cloud storage. The performance profile simply isn’t appropriate for those kinds of needs. However, less active data (such as user documents, installation files, archived data and backups) work quite well in this context.
Further, if done properly, you’ll never even know you’re using cloud storage.
For example, cloud integrated storage provider TwinStrata delivers appliances that cache your cloud-destined data on local RAID-configured disks. Since most data retrieval comes from the cache, performance is the same as in any disk scenario.
In the rare cases where the data isn’t in the cache, the provider delivers it transparently from the cloud. (The speed of direct cloud retrieval depends on the performance of your Internet connection.) The system also encrypts and sends your data to the cloud in the background, where the cloud provider typically encrypts it again and replicates it for safety.
But let’s get specific and examine an actual use-case scenario: backups.
If a company uses disk spooling and tape backups for on-site/off-site protection, it must deal with a number of costs that are associated with this practice—costs that I have experienced at my company.
From an ROI perspective, this strategy means you’ll have ongoing hardware and consumable costs (tape drives, tape robots, tapes, etc.), as well as paying for maintenance on hardware every month. Then, of course, there’s the cost of labor associated with using the equipment and handling the tapes. It all adds up quickly.
Looking at the details, you’ll find that once backups are complete (usually overnight), the tapes must be removed from the library and prepared to be sent off-site, which typically requires manually filling out several forms. The courier arrives on time, we hope, and IT personnel must be waiting to handle the transaction, along with receiving tapes that have expired and must be put back into the library for re-use.
And this happens daily—even on weekends, if your staff operates on a seven-day basis. If not, then your backups are exposed to potential problems all weekend, another risk factor to consider.
Of course, you have to pay for courier costs when tapes are moved, as well as paying off-site storage fees. In addition, hardware ages and must be replaced over time. Best practices require that your IT staff tests tapes periodically to ensure that your backups can be restored.
Finally, you have to hope your courier can get the tapes to your disaster recovery site in the event of an emergency.
Now, let’s consider a cloud-based storage solution using a caching mechanism such as the one described above.
All those manual tasks disappear. There are no tapes to manage and buy, no deliveries to handle, and no hardware to fix or replace. Even better, you have direct access to your backups automatically from your disaster recovery site, since they exist in the cloud and not on a tape somewhere else.
And since there are no ongoing labor costs, your limited IT resources can be used for more important work.
Simplified processes, reduced and controlled costs, shortened capacity planning cycles, ensured disaster recovery access to backups, strong multilayered data encryption–this is truly a CIO’s dream. Simply put, cloud storage can be a major benefit to a company, providing you match the application to the resource, and understand what you’re getting from both.
James Mercer is the director of information technology at Flexi-Van Leasing. With more than 30 years’ experience in the technology industry, he is an authority on business and IT strategy development, disaster recovery, business continuity and IT architecture. Mercer has held previous positions at IBM, ING and McKinsey and Co.