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What Is Cloud Storage?

Cloud storage services are mature and varied, with offerings that will suit most business needs while realizing significant cost savings.

Cloud storage is a cloud computing model in which commercial digital storage facilities provide storage space for a fee. The prices for cloud storage vary widely depending on the service but are typically based on the amount of capacity used by the customer.

Determining actual costs for cloud storage can be complicated, as the provider may charge other fees besides those for capacity usage. Some services charge a monthly “base fee,” while others may tack on charges for accessing and downloading stored data. The type of storage will also affect the cost, as customers can often choose file, block or object storage, among other options.

Cloud storage services are frequently accessed via the internet, but if large volumes of data must be shipped to the service, it may be necessary to use high-speed lease lines.

Generally, public cloud storage services are distinguished by several characteristics, including:

  • Multitenancy. The storage service will host multiple customers on the same storage system, with controls to ensure that data is private and performance levels are maintained.
  • Pay per use. Cloud storage customers pay only for the storage capacity they use, although other fees, such as data transfer charges, may also be assessed.
  • Scalability. The amount of storage available to cloud customers is theoretically unlimited. Service providers can add more capacity as needed, allowing customers to scale their storage relatively painlessly.
  • Globally accessible. Stored data is accessible from virtually anywhere where internet access is available, assuming a company does not have to use special telecommunications facilities to connect with the cloud storage service.
  • User-oriented administration. A cloud storage service will provide tools that mask the complexity involved in allocating and maintaining storage.

Commercial cloud storage services are also referred to as public cloud storage, but there are also private cloud storage implementations. In a private cloud storage model, companies elect to create their own cloud storage environment with their data centers. Private clouds can offer many of the conveniences of public clouds, such easy access, user administration and pay per use based on internal billing. However, private clouds typically use purchased or leased storage equipment, so they lack the flexibility to expand and contract based on demand. Some storage vendors are addressing the flexibility issue by offering subscription-based capacity for on-premises storage systems.

Hybrid is a third cloud storage configuration. As its name indicates, a hybrid cloud environment integrates public cloud storage with on-premises storage systems and, in some cases, with other cloud storage services. In many cases, software is used to make all the storage resources appear as a single system despite the physical and geographical differences of the associated storage resources.

InformaCloud storage definition presented by ITPro Today

How Does Cloud Storage Work?

From a user’s perspective, the operation of cloud storage is fairly simple. Cloud storage services post their rates, which are usually based on the amount of storage capacity a customer anticipates needing.

Depending on the capacity and bandwidth requirements for the customer to transfer the data and later access it, an internet connection may suffice. However, customers may need a communications arrangement that can handle high capacities and speed. In the latter case, a service is likely to support specific transmission rates. High-speed communications is typically based on optical fiber connections, which range from OC-1 that provides a transmission rate of about 50 Mb/sec to ultra-fast lines such as OC-768 with a speed of nearly 40,000 Mb/sec.

The types of storage offered by cloud services mirror those used in corporate data centers: block, file and object storage. Block is usually associated with databases and other applications that need fast access to large amounts of structured data. File data is a familiar format for data created by productivity applications. Object storage, meanwhile, resembles file storage but can manage much larger volumes of data and attach more metadata to the data objects.

There are a variety of ways a company can move its data into a cloud storage service.

  • Copy existing data to cloud. In this scenario, the customer simply establishes a telecommunications connection with the service and transfers its data to the cloud.
  • Ship storage media to the service. If there’s a large amount of data that would be impractical to transmit over the wire, most services will allow a customer to ship storage media (or even full storage systems) with the data. The service can then transfer the data using a physical connection.
  • Use a backup application or replication. Data can also be sent to a cloud storage service as part of a data protection process. Most backup applications can now use cloud storage as the target destination for data backups without having to make any special arrangements or customizations. Storage systems can also replicate data -- usually snapshots -- to cloud services that are equipped to handle replication from specific storage system brands and models.

Companies often use cloud storage to maintain a copy of their production data. Therefore, they need to access it only occasionally. But cloud storage can also be used for production, accessed either by a company’s data center servers over the wire or directly using servers provided by the cloud storage service. The latter method is preferred for applications that would suffer from the latency caused by remote access.

What Are The Benefits Of Cloud Storage?

Cloud storage is the oldest and most mature of the available IT cloud services. As such, it is time-tested, dependable and available in enough varieties to suit the needs of most businesses, large and small.

The chief benefit of using cloud storage is cost avoidance. That is, cloud storage users can avoid having to buy or lease storage hardware and software, which can be expensive. In addition to saving on acquisition costs, cloud storage users don’t have to pay annual support and licensing fees. Users also don’t have to maintain an in-house staff to oversee the storage system. Basically, opting for cloud storage versus on-premises storage arrays taps into IT’s operating expenses budget while saving on capital expenditures.

The second major savings factor with cloud storage is that users only pay for the storage capacity they actually consume. Users’ costs could actually decrease if less storage capacity is needed in the future. On the flip side of that equation is the scalability that cloud storage provides to accommodate growth and increased data storage requirements.

Cloud storage also automatically provides off-site storage for critical data. An off-site copy is one of the basics of data protection. Without cloud storage services, offsite copies might require a second data center or colocation site.

What Are The Drawbacks Of Cloud Storage?

There are a few shortcomings related to cloud storage.

Perhaps the single factor that prevents some companies from using cloud storage is that it requires them to relinquish some control over their data. Generally, this isn’t too much of a deterrent if users are comfortable with the physical and digital security the cloud service has in place. But, if a company’s data is regulated by laws such as HIPAA, the company would need to determine if the cloud storage service complies with those regulations.

If a company purchases a storage system, it’s a one-time cost (exclusive of support and maintenance charges). With cloud storage, a company must pay capacity fees as long as its data is stored in the cloud. Over a long period of time, those fees could add to more than the purchase price of a comparable storage system.

Some applications may have difficulty accessing and using data stored in a cloud service. Issues may relate to latency, but it can also be a matter of the format of the stored data. In some cases, the cloud storage service will also provide protocol conversion tools which can, for example, give file access to data stored in an object storage system.

Examples Of Cloud Storage Scenarios

Given the variety of cloud storage offerings available, there are many different ways companies can integrate one of these services into their IT and business operations. Here are some examples.

  • Global cloud storage services. AWS, Google and Microsoft are the “big three” of the cloud storage industry, each with vast resources and millions of customers. By working with a global provider, a company will have numerous options to complement their stored data, including a choice of different types of storage, the ability to use the cloud for application development, and virtual servers to run applications in the cloud or for disaster recovery.
  • Regional or specialty cloud storage services. Regional cloud storage providers are smaller -- often much smaller -- than the global services vendors and typically serve a specific geographic region. The larger regional companies often provide many of the services offered by global players. Indeed, many regional services use a global cloud service as their backend storage. Some regionals offer specialty services, such as data storage that that complies with certain industry regulations, such as HIPAA.
  • Data backup storage services. Some of the oldest cloud services are those that provide cloud storage for backup. Because data protection is the principal role for these services, they may not encourage frequent access to data or offer options such as virtual servers or development platforms.
  • Disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS). DRaaS cloud services are intended to help companies ensure business continuity in the event that primary data resources are unavailable. In addition to hosting a company’s backup data, a DRaaS provider will host the company’s critical applications and offer virtual servers to spin up those applications in the event of a disaster.
  • Software as a service (SaaS). Cloud-based applications account for much of the data that is currently stored in cloud services. Common SaaS applications include Office 365, Salesforce, BambooHR, Google Workspace among many others. Prudent companies that use SaaS will back up the data retained by the applications to another cloud storage service for safekeeping.

Forecast: Cloudy

Cloud storage has grown at a rapid pace in recent years, and there are few companies that don’t use at least one cloud-based storage service to augment their internal capabilities. In fact, some companies have increased their adoption to the point that they operate solely off cloud services, while maintaining a “skeleton” internal IT organization.

Most industry watchers predict only growth in the cloud storage industry, with cloud services eventually replacing most, if not all, on-premises storage resources.

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