Cloud Storage Isn’t All Blue Skies Just Yet

Cloud storage boasts a relatively low price point and advantages like scalability, flexibility, easy access and increasing vendor choices. But as the nascent technology continues to attract attention, its growing prominence means that its shortcomings are also being brought into the limelight

Even as the technology has grown over the past two years, experts warn that its success has been tempered with occasional problems like performance, reliability and support — highlighting issues that cloud storage vendors are working to address.

One shortcoming came to the forefront as a result of recent outages on Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3) cloud storage offering. The most recent outage in late July knocked S3 offline for three hours.

“One downside is you get what you pay for, as performance isn’t for Tier 1 applications,” Bob Laliberte, an Enterprise Storage Group analyst, told InternetNews.com. “Service should at least be predictable, though reliability isn’t on par with enterprise arrays,” he said.

Amazon did not respond to a request for an interview for this story by press time.

While Laliberte said the issue of network latency may always be an issue depending on a cloud’s connectivity strength, he still stressed that Web-based applications shouldn’t necessarily be expected to perform like applications running in the corporate datacenter.

Instead, advancements like cloud storage are meant to provide cheaper, easier-to-manage options for enterprises.

That difference is the heart of cloud storage’s current state: It isn’t a panacea for every need, but it continues to gain favor — and attracts new vendors, like Google — because it can help companies cope with increasingly expensive storage infrastructures and mounting capacity, protection and retrieval requirements.

Part of the appeal is that while storage hardware costs may be dropping, they’re often not enough to offset growing energy expenses and the cost of physical datacenter space. Those budget concerns are prompting more managers to consider cloud storage for non-mission-critical data, experts have said.

Another reason for increasing adoption is the flexibility aspect, Laliberte said.

“The ability to have access to my personal and potentially work information in any location and with the best possible connection can be a huge attraction,” he said. “I don’t have to wait to get home and fire up my PC to share files.”

Stormy beginnings

Yet many aren’t fully aware of the challenges, they added. One problem revolves around support and service-level agreement (SLA) expectations.

“Everyone wants affordable, accessible storage, but then they complain when there is an outage or they need support,” Greg Schulz, a senior analyst at StorageIO, told InternetNews.com.

Schulz points to Amazon’s S3 outages that peppered its initial growth as a characteristic problem. While both he and Enterprise Storage Group’s Laliberte acknowledge that Amazon’s foray into cloud storage has done great things in pushing the concept into the mainstream, its initial stumbles also hurt the cause.

In particular, they said that Amazon’s lack of SLAs at the time — nor dedicated user support beyond online forums — compounded the problems facing enterprises that found their data inaccessible for hours.

Amazon has since instituted both SLAs and support via e-mail.

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Still, the experience may have led to some lessons for enterprises considering cloud storage.

“I would strongly recommend reviewing the SLAs and support in cloud service and determine if it meets the requirements for the project,” Schulz said, adding that Amazon’s adoption of SLAs now follows the tactics of earlier players in the space, such as Nirvanix.

Currently, Amazon’s SLA now states the service will “store data durably, with 99.99 percent availability. There can be no single points of failure. All failures must be tolerated or repaired by the system without any downtime.”

The analysts said that limitations on reliability and support are the chief drivers for what enterprises should and shouldn’t store in the cloud.

“Right now, it is being used for a lot of Web 2.0 application backend needs, and for use with test and development,” Laliberte said, noting the technology is also finding favor with engineering departments and other internal “skunkworks” needing quick and easy storage.

“Engineering departments, for example, find it easier to put down a credit card and get storage than to have it provisioned internally,” he said.

Sunnier skies ahead?

According to Schulz, the good news is that cloud storage won’t always face the same limitations it does today.

“Certainly, the current generation of cloud, managed and storage-as-a-service offerings are more robust and resilient than a few years ago,” he said. “There is more flexibility and options in terms of interfaces and types of available services.”

For enterprises facing budget constraints and seeking greater storage options, that news could bode well — particularly as they explore additional ways of leveraging off-premises options.

“We are already seeing cloud computing evolving with cloud storage, and I expect that will continue, given the same caveat for SLAs and support,” Laliberte said.

Additionally, he said the concept would encourage more large companies to start building their own cloud storage environments internally to better service employees.

Likewise, the technology’s maturation process will further blur the line between old-school storage outsourcing and today’s storage clouds, Schulz said.

“In many ways, they are the same, but it’s how they are packaged and delivered as well as the interfaces for accessing the data that differentiate the two,” explained Schulz, adding he expects only greater cloud features down the road.

“The current services will continue to evolve and become more scalable, flexible and resilient for broader adoption across different price bands and company sizes,” Schulz said.

The technology’s maturation could have another effect, further blurring the line between old-school storage outsourcing and today’s storage clouds.

The older outsourced storage model provides for a specific location within a host’s datacenter, with direct access, and carries a tradition of offering SLAs. As storage cloud offerings build on those same aspects and works to improve reliability, users will begin to reap the same rewards — but at a much lower cost, Schulz said.

“The current [cloud storage] services will continue to evolve and become more scalable, flexible and resilient for broader adoption across different price bands and company sizes,” he added.

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