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What's inside internal storage clouds?

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Just about every vendor is touting some kind of cloud storage product or service. Here's the lowdown on what constitutes an internal storage cloud.

"There is no such thing as a private storage cloud today," declares Stephen Foskett, director of consulting at Nirvanix Inc., a public cloud storage vendor. Maybe so, but that didn't stop the General Services Administration (GSA) from issuing a request for quotes (RFQ) in early August for what appears at first to be a private storage cloud.

But what the GSA considers a private or internal storage cloud may differ considerably from what most enterprises would consider an internal cloud. As noted in the RFQ: "The initial acquisition of these services will be facilitated by GSA through the GSA Cloud Computing Storefront Site -- which will enable Government purchasers to buy (using a credit card or other acceptable payment option) Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) offerings as needed through a common Web Portal, called the Cloud Computing Storefront, which will be managed and maintained by GSA."

Even given that there's no commonly accepted definition for internal storage clouds, the GSA's RFQ seems to describe something completely different. The Feds are asking not for an internal storage cloud or a public storage cloud but for what they label an internal Cloud Computing Storefront, a portal or gateway through which Federal agencies can purchase and access public cloud storage services for their

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internal use. Even Foskett at Nirvanix, which is preparing a response to the RFQ, seemed puzzled.

The government seems to be on the right track in one regard. However you define internal storage clouds, they promise to reduce storage costs and simplify the storage process. According to the GSA, "Cloud computing has the capability to reduce the cost of IT infrastructure by utilizing commercially available technology that is based on virtualization of servers, databases and applications to allow for capital cost savings …". The GSA initiative encompasses both storage and compute clouds.

The problem with internal storage clouds isn't that they don't exist, but that there are too many versions of what an internal storage cloud could be. "The cloud refers to a layer of abstraction" said Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at Stillwater, Minn.-based StorageIO Group. "Almost any storage product can be configured as part of an internal storage cloud. It comes down to your definition. A vendor will define the storage cloud to fit whatever he is selling."

Although there's no widely accepted definition for an internal storage cloud, industry analysts have been identifying the elements needed to create one and explaining how those pieces might be connected. And despite the cloud mystique, "anybody can do this," said John Webster, principal IT advisor at Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc. Internal cloud storage isn't brain surgery.

Although internal storage clouds are a rarity today, it's clear what their appeal will be. "This is about performance vs. cost. The internal storage cloud is focused on cost," said Carter George, vice president of products at Ocarina Networks. Conventional storage consisting of sophisticated storage arrays, storage-area networks (SANs), high-performance disk drives, and elaborate backup and recovery, by contrast, focuses on performance and data protection.

But low cost need not be the primary focus, according to Abbott Schindler, an independent storage consultant in Bend, Ore. Cost is top of minds today, Schindler said, because "most start with clouds by thinking about archival storage or data protection so they design it for cheap and slow. There is nothing inherent in the cloud concept, however, that says it cannot be used for transactional data."

This was first published in October 2009

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