Cloud Computing Data Storage: Buying Guide

Monday Sep 26th 2011 by Jeff Vance
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Using cloud computing for data storage offers a number of advantages -- if you ask potential vendors the right questions.

Although many enterprises are moving applications and other processes to the cloud, data backups and storage are still often local. On-site storage seem easier to control and secure, yet it’s costly to administer and leaves organizations vulnerable should a natural disaster hit.

Moreover, bottlenecks often form at the local level, especially when integrating remote applications and assets with those managed on-site.

Most organizations with a cloud presence have an eye toward using the cloud for data storage. But with a variety of cloud storage vendors to choose from, it’s important to ask the following questions to assure valuable digital assets are managed efficiently and effectively:

1. Are files and backups persistently (and quickly) available?

If your business is looking to the cloud as a primary location for file storage and backups, availability is key. For Nhan Nguyen, Chief Scientist and CTO at CIC, being able to access files quickly and at any time is the cornerstone of providing customers with the quality of service they expect.

CIC provides electronic signature solutions for the time-sensitive financial services industry. So its technologists needed to know that their cloud storage solution would maintain the same level of availability and speed as an on-site option.

Nguyen explained, “We support a very high number of concurrent users. Maintaining very high uptime and guaranteed document load performance of less than three seconds are our main goals.”

CIC needed a solution that would meet these goals and satisfy customer SLAs. After some research, they decided to deploy Gluster’s File System (GlusterFS), which complemented their existing cloud technology infrastructure.

Using GlusterFS, CIC was able to pool, aggregate, and virtualize their existing Amazon Web Services Elastic Block Storage (EBS). By utilizing both synchronous and asynchronous replication, files are retrieved quickly–even surpassing customer expectations.

2. Can the solution scale to keep up with future growth?

For Stanley Kania, CEO of Software Link, a hosted ERP provider, looking to the cloud was a way to meet expanding storage needs.

“Using local disc storage on servers became unmanageable and unsustainable, especially as we began to virtualize our infrastructure. At the same time, we need to store more and more data,” Kania said. With over 2,000 customers and growing, Kania and his team found a solution in Coraid.

Coraid’s EtherDrive platform enabled faster performance and allowed for adding new storage as-needed, scaling to meet Software Link’s growing storage needs.

“We chose Coraid because we got the most bang for our buck. Coraid provides the kind of advanced storage virtualization and data availability we required to successfully continue expanding our business,” Kania said.

Software Link is now able to host far more applications and has seen an increase in spindle speed and high demand IL. When they need additional storage, additional EtherDrive shelves can be configured and deployed in a matter of minutes.

3. Will the solution fit with existing applications and infrastructures?

For both Software Link and CIC, integrating a storage solution with existing applications and infrastructures was a key requirement. Both companies were looking for complementary solutions that would accommodate existing workflows.

“The solution we were looking for had to fit with current applications,” says Kania, whose business primarily provides hosted ERP solutions from Sage and SMB solutions from QuickBooks.

For Nyguen and his staff at CIC, a streamlined transition from their preexisting storage to the cloud was a main requirement. The staff at CIC had already selected the RightScale Cloud Management Platform as the foundation for their operations, and had decided on Amazon’s EBS.

As Nyguen says, “It was crucial to select a cloud storage solution that required no change to our existing infrastructure.”

 

4. Is the solution secure?

The year 2011 was a record year for natural disasters and catastrophic weather in terms of number of events and their devastating costs. Earthquakes, fires, floods, tornadoes and other events have made an indelible impact on many communities and businesses both in the US and around the world.

This trend made Veronica Barnes, Directory of Technology for the Town of Dedham, Massachusetts, nervous about the future and what would happen in the event of a disaster. The town was performing local backups and was not fully protected from the potential risks.

“The number of recent disasters in other parts of the country really raised my level of urgency,” Barnes stated.

The town looked to Zetta for a solution that would backup a majority of their critical data off-site. ZettaMirror automatically replicates and syncs local data for on-demand access. The data is transferred and stored in encrypted format, and a current copy is persistently available through either a web browser or directly through the remote file system.

Although the Town of Dedham has not had a disaster from which they had to recover data through Zetta, the solution has given the town and their IT staff peace of mind. “Zetta took a lot of pressure off us. Before, we were going home at night and worrying a lot.”

Kania of Software Link echoes concerns over the increasing need to protect against catastrophic events. “You want to look for a data center in a location that’s not prone to a lot of disasters. You want a place where you know your data will be okay, and where security is solid.”

5. Does it deliver ROI?

Usually when organizations think about moving to the cloud, cost savings is one of the big drivers. With storage, solid ROI is certainly a consideration, but it’s not necessarily the most important consideration.

Yes, your CEO will probably demand ROI, but CIOs and IT managers would be well served to educate the business side of the organization on the fact that not every benefit can be accurately captured by ROI calculations – which for services like cloud storage are often fictions anyway.

A recent blog post by JP Morgenthal sums it up nicely:

Cloud computing is about an effective use of compute resources that provides agility and flexibility to my business in a cost-effective manner. I’m not investing in cloud computing, I’m consuming a service. Do you discuss the ROI of eating at McDonalds or having your car washed? Of course not, because there’s no ROI in using a service since using a service is not an investment. Using services is about effective use of cash flow relative as an alternative to using your own resources and assets.

Cloud storage is about keeping up with the changing computing landscape. Disaster recovery is a must, and in many industries is mandated. Workers are spending more time working from home and in remote locations. More organizations are outsourcing key tasks that used to be completed within the corporate walls, and they must provide access to digital assets to partners and contractors.

Cloud storage rolls all of these features together into a single service. Even though all of those benefits may be tough to quantify, it still delivers solid value to the organization. And isn’t that what ROI is supposed to be about in the first place?

To use an analogy, I’m enough of a backyard mechanic to fix my vehicle’s transmission, but is it worth it? Today’s mechanics have specialized diagnostic tools, expensive lifts and benefit from a number of other efficiencies. The same is true of specialized services like cloud storage.

Why would you want the headache of owning your own storage when it’s so easy to consume?

(Lindsay Armstrong contributed to this story.)

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