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Upstart Cloud Providers Challenge Status Quo

Early storage service success stories include Microsoft's Windows Live SkyDrive, Hewlett-Packard's Upline, and Amazon's Simple Storage Service. While each illustrates the potential of cloud storage, all share one thing in common: None is appropriate for enterprise-class storage. Another manifestation of cloud storage is online backup, with players from the grandpappy of records managers, Iron Mountain, to startups looking to grab a piece of this market. But while these backup vendors meet some niche needs for IT, such as outsourced FTP services or client backup repositories, again, none is appropriate for comprehensive enterprise archiving and backup.

There's a clear void to be filled here, and where there's an underserved business need lately, there's been an agile startup or two to fill it. We recently profiled one such company, ParaScale, that's moving in to serve the expanding Tier 2 storage market. ParaScale sells the type of software that's the magic behind many of the consumer and enterprise file storage offerings on the market today. Also previewed was an innovative cloud storage startup, Nirvanix. What's unique about ParaScale and Nirvanix? They're among the first viable threats to everyone selling name-brand bare-metal archiving and network-attached storage systems. Value shoppers now have real options.

The ParaScale Cloud Storage, or PCS, software enables companies to put the direct-attached storage sitting inside their commodity servers to work as a clustered NAS system that can be deployed as a public or private storage cloud. The PCS software is in open trial now, and the company is well capitalized as it nears full commercial launch.

The PCS software installs on top of Linux and turns all direct-attached storage into a large storage pool. A ParaScale cloud requires at least one controller node working in tandem with several storage nodes. As additional storage nodes are brought online, their capacity is automatically pooled and added to the collective. Management of the storage cloud is done via a Web-based tool. If an individual drive or storage node fails, access to data is redirected by the controller node to the remaining storage nodes that contain the data. IT can define the level of redundancy, just as with RAID setups, and be alerted to failed drives via SNMP. ParaScale says the PCS software will be priced in the $1-per-gigabyte range with 24/7 support offered.

Nirvanix opened its doors in September 2007, and since then has raised $18 million in funding from several tech investors, including Intel Capital. The Nirvanix Storage Delivery Network is distributed among a handful of data centers located globally. The most promising offering from an enterprise perspective is Cloud NAS, with which Nirvanix offers a guaranteed 99.9% uptime level when storage is replicated across two of its storage nodes, and 100% uptime when replicated across three nodes. Nirvanix announced a 50-GB unlimited use evaluation to new customers for 15 days as part of the Oct. 13 general release announcement.

The Cloud NAS software provides a "virtual" CIFS volume for Windows servers, or NFS for Linux and Unix environments. Virtual volumes appear as though they're network-attached storage on the LAN, when in fact users are being redirected to the cloud by the Nirvanix Web services API. The API automatically manages policies, such as locating the closest Nirvanix storage node to use for the virtual volume, and the Nirvanix Management Portal supports creation of individual user folders using your internal Active Directory infrastructure for authentication.

Easy On The Wallet
Where's the value proposition? A four-node EMC Centera with approximately 7 TB of disk space lists for between $70,000 and $80,000. Yes, that's list, but a ParaScale storage cloud of similar scalability, at $1 per gigabyte, can be licensed for around $7,000 plus support. That assumes you have seven commodity servers kicking around with about 1 TB of storage available per box, and the data center capacity to add more servers if you want greater fault tolerance. Even if you have to purchase a few 1-TB boxes, you'll still save on up-front hardware costs. Some IT pros will be tepid about building a private ParaScale storage cloud on legacy hardware, seeing older servers as a risk in any production capacity. But the level of fault tolerance that a ParaScale cloud provides should ease that concern, and plenty of shops will find the economics too tempting to pass up.

In the same way that ParaScale will shake things up in Tier 2 storage, Nirvanix is well positioned to make waves in the NAS market. If customers take to cloud-based NAS in large numbers, you can bet EMC and NetApp will be ready to execute a reaction strategy. As it stands today, however, it makes no sense for these companies to cannibalize their NAS hardware sales by offering a service-provider model. And given that Nirvanix is using the same commodity hardware in its Storage Delivery Network that IT shops can use in their ParaScale clouds, it's difficult to see how EMC and NetApp can compete on price in a managed services model using their own gear. Nirvanix's service retails for $256 per month per terabyte plus support.

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Cloud Storage: 5 Good Deals And 3 Risky Propositions