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Cloud data storage services for smaller businesses: The pros and cons

Although cloud data storage is gaining in popularity, many companies still haven't jumped on the cloud storage bandwagon.

While there are many cloud data

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storage pros and cons, a recent survey by Forrester Research, "Enterprise and SMB Hardware Survey," finds that the idea of storage in the cloud is at best nascent. The survey questioned companies about their plans for hosted storage. They found that 86% of the companies surveyed had no plans for hosted cloud data storage and only about 10% have either implemented it or plan to do so within the next year or more.

Part of the reason why cloud storage is having difficulty catching on in the data storage realm is because it is still a relatively new concept. Also, many users have questions about the cost and the technology itself. Right now, cloud data storage is available from a variety of vendors, including Amazon S3, Iron Mountain Inc. and Nirvanix Inc.. Some of the companies, such as Amazon S3 are aimed at small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Others, such as Nirvanix are geared toward medium and large users.

What are the advantages of using cloud data storage?

As a rule, the advantages of using cloud storage are more apparent in the SMB environment of low capital budgets and lack of trained IT staff. Still, the current pros for cloud data storage for SMBs looks are as follows:

  • Cloud storage is convenient. Data storage in the cloud can be extremely convenient. Most, but not all, of the jobs associated with storage maintenance become someone else's problem since the data is stored offsite.
  • It's low maintenance. Once the system is set up there is almost no maintenance on the user end. You still have to manage user accounts, but jobs like array maintenance and monitoring the health of your data storage simply go away.
  • It's easily expandable. Provisioning more storage is as simple as making a phone call -- if you need to do that. That means you need a lot less excess capacity in your data storage system because you can increase your storage so quickly.
  • Security. If cloud storage is set up properly, it is just as secure as storing data on your own servers. Storage at a remote site in the cloud avoids problems with a local disaster such as a fire, flood, or criminal wiping out all of your stored data. This assumes reasonable precautions all around. Cloud storage providers should use more secure communications links such as SSL and data should be encrypted when stored. You need to make sure things like passwords and access are secure on your end.

 At the same time, keep in mind that cloud storage does not eliminate the need for data backups or for disaster recovery (DR).

Cloud storage concerns

The cons for cloud data storage for SMBs are as follows:

  • Cloud storage may not be cost effective. The question of cost effectiveness is highly individual to each enterprise. For some companies, the cost of cloud storage is less than the cost of storage capacity, plus management, plus all the other costs that go with data storage.

    As a rough guide, the smaller the business and the less storage needed, the more likely cloud storage is to be cost-effective. Small businesses have fewer resources to devote to IT of any sort and generally smaller storage needs that require less bandwidth to meet. However, even for very small business, cost effectiveness isn't always a given.

    When considering costs, make sure you're making an apples to apples comparison. That is, be sure to include all the costs of maintaining your own storage and all the costs involved in using cloud storage. Costs of maintaining your own storage include the cost of the equipment, managing it and backing it up. The costs of cloud data storage includes the full cost of the storage, the extras that go along with it as well as the cost of bandwidth to support storage to the cloud.

  • Control. Sending some of your data storage to the cloud means giving up some control. Because cloud storage depends on an outside service for a critical business function, many people get nervous signing onto this.

    Although, one can argue that data storage might be better managed with higher availability than you might get from in-house storage. But whether or not that adds to a user's comfort level is another story.

    To mitigate control problems, you should have a contract with a solid service-level agreement (SLA). You also need to be sure you are dealing with a company that is capable of providing the service you need. Since this is such a new field there are few well-established firms, so it's important to check references.

  • Latency. Unlike cloud data backup, latency becomes a critical issue with cloud storage, especially for applications that are very storage active, such as OLTP.

    Simply put, it is going to take extra time to make the connection between the user and the stored object. Network latency pops up as well as additional time to negotiate the service provider's security system. How much of a problem this is depends strongly on individual circumstances and the needs of the user. Some users in some applications find it no problem at all. Others find it distracting and that it gets in the way of productivity.

  • Bandwidth. Like any other remote application, cloud storage takes wide-area network (WAN) bandwidth. To make it work, you need enough capacity to transmit files back and forth between your location and your storage service provider. If you don't have enough bandwidth, you will have to add telecommunications capacity and that cost works its way into the cost of cloud storage.

    How much bandwidth is enough to support your system depends strongly on the amount of storage traffic your system generates. Your storage service provider should be able to provide you with answers based on their specific setup and their analysis of your storage traffic.

So, is cloud data storage worth it?

When deciding whether or not cloud storage is right for your business, you have to examine your storage needs as well as test it before you can determine if it's right for you. Fortunately, cloud storage is easy to try out because of the nature of Storage-as-a-Service (SaaS) and the lack of capital investment.

But if you're looking to upgrade your storage capabilities, cloud storage is probably worth a look for SMBs.

About this author: Rick Cook specializes in writing about issues related to storage and storage management.


 

This was first published in April 2010

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