Making Cloud Storage More Than Just A Drive In The Sky

Making cloud storage more than just a drive in the sky
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Are you getting the features you imagined from your enterprise-grade cloud storage? Years into the cloud storage movement, your cloud services still might not be living up to the promise of this revolutionary concept.

That said, the definition of cloud storage has become quite muddy. If data is stored offsite, it’s now vogue to call it a “cloud,” whereas in previous years it might have just been an internet service, an application service provider, or software-as-a-service.

Let’s clear up what we mean when we talk about cloud storage — and what it could mean for the future of global collaboration in your business.

What Defines a “True” Cloud Storage Service?

In our book, Apple’s iCloud, Salesforce, and the seemingly dozens of “backup to the cloud” services are not really clouds at all. To qualify as a cloud storage service, you have to meet three criteria:

  1. Flexibility: Your service has to be open to anybody, for any purpose. If “the cloud” is only there to support other offerings from the “cloud” provider, then it isn’t a cloud.
  2. Dynamic cost structure: Your service has to be reservationless and pay-as-you-go. Buying a managed logical unit number (LUN) from your hosting company doesn’t count.
  3. Redundancy: Your service has to support at least two replicas of data in two different data centers. If you’re not capable of surviving a data center disaster without losing customer data, you don’t count.

There are several players in this space by this definition, including, but not limited to:

  • Amazon S3
  • Azure Blob
  • Google Cloud Storage
  • Wasabi
  • IBM Cloud

In addition, the cloud storage services market holds several other contenders — especially in the managed service provider (MSP) space.

These companies provide what is analogous to a never full disk drive in the sky, that won’t lose your data.

Early Successes with the Cloud

End-users are starting to realize the benefits of the cloud as compared to managing their capacity on-site.

 Furthermore, a number of companies have emerged to help make connecting to the cloud easy and secure, while providing a familiar and high-performing user experience.

In effect, these companies transform the disk drive in the sky created by the cloud service providers into a storage array — complete with familiar provisioning and data protection features.

By including tools like recoverable data snapshots and making their service accessible over standard storage interfaces such as iSCSI or CIFS, the cloud becomes a more flexible resource.

This is good and it is an important step forward, beyond the days of having to program to the cloud providers’ native HTTP/REST APIs.

What Cloud Storage Should Become

The modern cloud has come far with its early advances. However, these early successes aren’t the end game.

We’ve had the privilege to speak to literally hundreds of IT end-users at large corporations about the cloud. An interesting question often pops up that we think speaks to people’s latent, as yet unfulfilled desires for the cloud. The question goes something like this:

 “Once I put my data in the cloud, can I access it from anywhere?”

This makes perfect sense. If the data is in the cloud, then it should be reachable from any place with an Internet connection.

However, relying on cloud data as the master copy for global collaboration amplifies a couple of caveats.

Condition 1: Cloud Data Access

First, if the data got into the cloud through an on-premise gateway as we described earlier, then it must be read back through such a gateway as well.

Gateways encrypt data stored in the cloud and typically deduplicate it as well. As a result, what’s stored in the cloud doesn’t resemble the original data anymore.

Any accessed data must be reconstituted through a gateway to be utilized. This is perfectly fine and within the realm of customer expectations.

Condition 2: Cloud Data Ownership

The second caveat is the killer: data ownership must reside with a single gateway at a time. In other words, while a second gateway can access the active data set in the cloud in a read-only mode, it cannot write to it.

This squashes the dreams of IT managers who envision having users at their geographically dispersed offices all over the world collaborating on data sets that are centrally stored, managed, and protected in the cloud.

IT managers hate having to replicate and synchronize data. They hate it even more when end-users go “off the grid” using shadow IT solutions, or ship CDs and drives around to leverage the sneakernet.

But since standard cloud gateway solutions don’t know how to manage file or record locking to prevent multiple-writer data corruption, they simply don’t allow multi-point read/write access to the cloud data.

However, today’s available technology that proves it doesn’t need to be this way.

Setting the Bar Higher with Hybrid Cloud

The technology exists to build global file services at the network edge which leverages a common, centralized core — the cloud.

Consider how much easier it would be for IT to manage all their capacity in one place. Imagine what end-users could do if everybody at every site saw the same view of the file system, and could read and write to any data (given appropriate access controls, of course) no matter where it was created.

This isn’t a disk in the sky…. and it isn’t a storage array in the sky, either. It’s a brand-new capability that didn’t exist in the past and can only happen by leveraging the power of cloud storage in new and unique ways, forgetting the old paradigms.

Fundamentals of an Intelligent Hybrid Cloud File System

An intelligent hybrid cloud file system is one that leverages globally accessible storage in the cloud — while utilizing local filers to handle browsing of file metadata. As a result, organizations get the cost-saving advantages of endless cloud scaling while maximizing local performance.

As a software-defined solution, the performance, authentication, and visibility into that data could be brought to the edge. As a result, this enterprise solution can support the users in a performant way.

At the core of its structure, this sort of hybrid cloud serves as an immutable repository for a company. To rephrase, central cloud storage represents all the permanently unchangeable master data copies — and a breadcrumb trail of unique blocks containing any edits. All of this is neatly self-managed for the convenience of IT.

However, the intelligence comes from all the features baked-in that make hybrid cloud file systems ideal for:

  • Global collaboration
  • Cost efficiency
  • Data protection

Collaboration

By layering the mechanics to allow file locking to be distributed site-to-site, and designing authority/consistency to be dictated from the edge inward, your storage mirrors the path in which changes are made. As a result, your team’s collaborative efforts can realize the value of that globally available core.

Cost Efficiency and Scalability

While immutable data can seem like tons of extra data to store, the lightweight globally-synced metadata acts as a paper trail for all related blocks. Deduplication uses this record to eliminate duplicate data and maintain a single, authoritative thread. Compression mashes your blocks down to a feathery data scape primed for compact, affordable storage.

Data Redundancy

As an immutable repository, a hybrid cloud can also transform your data redundancy into a single, logical workflow — instead of one requiring several duplicated copies of the same data. By using the blocks as recoverable data snapshots, your workflow includes:

  • Disaster recovery
  • Business continuity
  • Ransomware protection
  • Backup and recovery
  • Data lifecycling

Ultimately, a hybrid cloud file system allows your organization to grow beyond the limits of traditional cloud services.

Getting What You Deserve from Cloud Storage

So to the end-users out there, keep asking your questions. Your ideas about cloud storage are right on the money and vendors to need to hear what you want.

Finally, as a note to the storage vendor community: it’s time to think about cloud storage as an enabler for new and unique services, not just as disk drives in the sky.