A cloudy forecast for storage?
Agencies weigh the cost savings and risks of emerging “cloud” storage services?
As more organizations explore software as a service (SaaS) and other third-party information technology services as alternatives to the traditional build-your-own approach, there is another spin on the model for IT executives to consider: cloud storage, or storage as a service.
A surprising variety of providers, from online retailer Amazon.com and search-engine behemoth Google to more traditional IT companies such as EMC and Nirvanix, offers services designed to reduce the costs and management headaches that come with enterprise storage.
The strategy is starting to take hold in the public sector, though a cautious approach is advisable given concerns about data security, performance and availability.
The District of Columbia uses off-site storage as part of its fledgling cloud computing initiatives around Google Apps, a suite of business software, and Intuit’s QuickBase online development platform.
“I see a compelling economic reason why we would move some of our services to the cloud model, storage included,” said Vivek Kundra, the district’s chief technology officer. “We’re finding it extremely useful because of the velocity with which we can apply solutions to problems, rather than spending millions of dollars and years to craft some magic bullet that may end up failing.” Different flavors
Cloud storage comes in three primary varieties. In addition to bundling storage and applications in the same physical location, as the District of Columbia’s service providers do, some vendors offer discrete storage options.
Amazon, Google and Nirvanix are rolling out services that let government agencies upload data to the cloud, which means it’s available through a secure Web connection to any authorized staff member. The servers and applications that ultimately use the data can run in an agency’s IT infrastructure or at another vendor’s SaaS facility.
Virginia is using a third option. It contracted with systems integrator Northrop Grumman to create what Aneesh Chopra, Virginia’s secretary of technology, calls a proprietary cloud. Virginia taps into the computing and storage resources available from two data centers that for now are dedicated to the commonwealth. Virginia’s goal with cloud storage is to eliminate low-level IT concerns.
“Our individual government agencies shouldn’t spend any of their time stressing about the IT infrastructure,” Chopra said. “They need to focus on what they can do with an application to make their operations more efficient.”Data considerations
The storage services vary in their configuration, but they share one characteristic.
“Cloud storage isn’t a new technology per se — we’re not seeing ‘cloud storage’ products,” said Stanley Zaffos, research vice president with Gartner. “Rather, it’s a style of deploying and managing storage.”
To decide if such services are right for their agencies, IT managers first need to consider the relative importance and age of their data, Zaffos said. For example, some information might never be appropriate for the cloud, including data that’s highly sensitive or used frequently in core applications.
Likewise, scientific research or economic forecasts that could affect markets if they are released prematurely are classes of data that you don’t want to take a chance with storing at a third-party service provider, said Bruce Clark, program manager with systems integrator EDS.
Similarly, data that agencies need ready access to for everyday operations requires the access speeds that are possible when information and applications are physically close.
“When you have storage located close to the server in a computer room, you have very in expensive bandwidth available, and lots of it,” Zaffos said. “It doesn’t cost much to run a piece of fiber between a storage system and a server that is in the same computer room.”
After the resources are geographically separated, “bandwidth becomes much more precious,” he added.
However, less frequently accessed information, such as archival and backup files, isn’t as sensitive to slower performance and could be a prime candidate for third-party storage services.
“If I were storing an entire enterprise content management system with terabytes of data that needed to be accessed every day, it wouldn’t make economic sense,” Kundra said. “But for a lot of lightweight applications where we access the information infrequently, it makes economic sense to put it in a cloud.”Potential benefits
Cost considerations are one of off-site storage’s biggest attractions, industry sources say. “With rising storage capacity comes greater power and cooling demands,” Clark said. “And storage requires an infrastructure to support it.”
Storage service providers said their fees are far below what it costs organizations to manage their own storage resources. For example, Nirvanix and CDW’s managed services division quote list prices of about $4 per gigabyte per year. Jonathan Buckley, Nirvanix’s chief marketing officer, said industry research suggests organizations spend about $15 per gigabyte per year for storing information not used every day.
Agencies also have more predictable storage costs with online services because of pre-negotiated service contracts, the vendors said.
“If you are an entity whose data is predicted to grow at an unknown rate or you have seasonal data needs, how do you determine how much storage [hardware and software] to buy?” asked Clint Harder, product development manager for CDW’s hosting business. “There’s a lot of guessing about storage capacity planning.”
Another potential benefit is that staffing strains subside when organizations aren’t forced to hire new talent to manage increasingly sophisticated storage products.
“You can get yourself into a mess if you are not maintaining your storage system in terms of best practices, proper configuration, and proper firmware and patch levels,” Harder said.
Finally, the ease with which agencies can use online storage might enable them to become more diligent about backups, or even allow some to perform consistent backups for the first time.
“If I’m a small or medium-sized [agency], and I’ve got data that I’m not backing up, I can just send a copy into the cloud,” Zaffos said. “I’ve got a far higher level of safety than I might have otherwise have had.”