How to make the cloud a data cupboard

If you looked only at the string of cloud storage companies that have exited the business in the past year — from big names such as EMC and Iron Mountain to a bunch of relatively unknown start-ups — you might conclude that data and file storage is one IT task that you won’t outsource to a public cloud provider anytime soon.

But it would be a mistake to watch the Darwinian shakeout that typically happens in developing markets and permanently write off what might be some useful and cost-effective options for keeping up with the government’s constantly growing storage needs.

“Is there a role for cloud storage? Certainly,” said Stanley Zaffos, a research director at Gartner who specializes in enterprise storage. But customers must consider many factors when choosing the storage application and service provider, he added. And they must make contingency plans in case the provider goes out of business, a likely prospect for many of the providers out there.

Small and midsize organizations that lack deep in-house IT resources are the biggest cloud storage users right now, Zaffos and others say. But larger enterprises will catch on as the market matures.

Count the General Services Administration among the latter group. Officials are very interested in using cloud storage, said Casey Coleman, the agency’s CIO. One of the first applications they are considering is what Coleman calls mobile access, which means letting GSA employees store their computer files in the cloud so they can share them with co-workers via the Internet.

Beyond the convenience factor for employees, the approach also spares the agency’s IT staff from needing to plan, buy and manage storage resources and then manually configure them to allow the same kind of document-sharing capabilities.

“We don’t always want to be in the business of fulfilling IT requests that end users could perform themselves if we gave them more modern capabilities,” Coleman said. Along those lines, the Veterans Affairs Department is preparing a secure Web portal that will allow doctors and other clinicians to share documents via a public cloud service.

Interestingly, when Coleman cited the benefits of cloud storage, she mentioned cost savings last. Zaffos said she is correct in not expecting that the bargain rates advertised for cloud storage will translate into real savings.

Some companies offer cloud storage at 15 cents per gigabyte per month or less, which seems like a steal compared to the several dollars per gigabyte per month some organizations pay for dedicated, managed storage from traditional outsourcers or managed hosting companies, Zaffos said.

But other costs can quickly siphon away expected savings, such as the fees many public providers charge whenever data is moved in or out of storage (the price is often higher to move it out than in, naturally). Also, don’t forget the tougher-to-calculate but still tangible costs associated with managing the contract and service-level agreements with cloud providers, Zaffos said.

In addition, security and performance issues will determine whether public cloud storage is a feasible option. Sensitive data that requires bulletproof security or files that are subject to rigorous records retention policies might not be good candidates for the commercial cloud services currently available — or at least not at the generally advertised prices.

And because organizations typically use the Internet to access cloud-stored data, transaction-oriented applications that require super-quick response times won’t work well with the latency of the Web. On the other hand, infrequently accessed data, such as backups and archives, are often a good fit for the cloud and are among the most successful cloud apps today.

Finally, there is the issue of getting all your data back out of the cloud if necessary. “Given a user’s inability to predict the success or failure of a cloud provider, it’s incumbent upon the user to develop an exit strategy,” Zaffos said. Customers need to make sure those contingency plans are an unassailable part of their contracts with cloud providers.

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