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Confusion Reigns On Cloud Storage, Backup

Enterprises once relied on a variety of physical storage devices, both on-site and off, to manage backups--everything from tapes, disks and DVDs to USB drives. Now the cloud is replacing these storage options, providing additional functionality that enables users to not only back up data but also share and collaborate. However, while there are of plenty of cloud storage options available to businesses, there is a lot to consider before selecting a provider.

According to InformationWeek's new report, A Buyers Guide to Cloud Storage, Backup and Synchronization (free, registration required), both business users and IT are adopting cloud services because of their costs. One-quarter of respondents to the recent InformationWeek State of Storage Survey have online storage in their project plans for the next year, up from 20% a year earlier, while cloud storage ranks sixth on a list 15 common storage initiatives.

However, approximately 75% of respondents aren’t yet using cloud services, although 44% are considering it, and the early adopters are focusing on email and archiving. Report author Kurt Marko notes that online storage started out simply as USB device replacement in the form of simple online services such as SkyDrive and iDisk, but it has since "splintered into a multitude of product categories targeting a diverse set of IT needs." Such a dynamic marketplace, he says, has quickly created buyer confusion.

Marko says it is important to differentiate between bulk cloud storage used as a platform and storage as a central part of a cloud service. "The former might be used as an alternative to off-site tape when integrated into an existing archive process or as the online data repository for distributed applications," he writes, whereas a cloud backup service might replace one’s entire backup infrastructure, including software, tape library and operating staff.

There’s no doubt the cloud can be convenient and generally reliable, but it’s still relatively new and evolving. Benefits such as no capital expense, usage-based pricing, easily expanded capacity and the offloading of hardware and software management are all enticing to the enterprise, notes Marko. These benefits must be weighed in conjunction with cloud’s growing pains, especially given that business-critical data is on the line.

The Buyers Guide surveyed 14 cloud storage service providers from across three market segments: raw storage, backup/archiving and file sharing/synchronization. Some vendors overlap across these segments, but most vendors in the roundup fall under backup services, with the cloud acting as an alternative to local storage.

Even though it didn’t participate in the vendor survey, Amazon S3 is a notable vendor in the raw storage category because it actually serves as underlying platform for other vendors. Raw services are essentially the equivalent of having a hard disk in the cloud, acting as an alternative to a networked block (SAN) or file (NAS) device.

One thing enterprises must be aware of when considering how to use cloud storage is that its access methods and performance profile are quite different than LAN- or SAN-based systems. Response times from the cloud are slower, comparatively speaking, with less throughput.

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