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Hybrid clouds on the horizon

A few notable glitches have soured some users on cloud storage services, but a hybrid approach that integrates public and private storage may ultimately convince cloud skeptics.

A few notable glitches have soured some users on cloud storage services, but a hybrid approach that integrates public and private storage may convince cloud skeptics.

The first half of 2011 won’t be remembered as the best of times for the cloud. Despite optimistic predictions, it’s been a stormy few months for cloud storage services. An Amazon Web Services (AWS) networking glitch in April caused a multi-day interruption in service for some news-sharing and social networking sites. Earlier that month, Iron Mountain Digital announced it would be exiting the commodity-oriented, public cloud storage business over the next couple of years (although the company will continue to provide enterprise-class cloud storage services to business customers through an agreement with Autonomy). Finally, Cirtas Systems withdrew its cloud storage offering in April and laid off much of its engineering staff.

That was the big news, but we’ve also noted that some small vendors are struggling to gain traction for their cloud storage and compute offerings.

These developments may not be surprising in what’s still a fledgling market, but they’ve shaken data storage managers’ confidence in the public cloud. To hedge their bets, some users are now considering alternative strategies, including hybrid clouds, which enable storage and associated apps to be deployed across both public and private cloud infrastructures. In fact, true hybrid cloud storage will span public and private clouds and be optimized for a user’s specific applications and service-level requirements.

Granted, not many companies are running hybrid clouds today. But while the technology that will power hybrid clouds is still developing, the potential benefits are already coming into focus. Hybrid clouds provide the advantages users already expect from public cloud storage deployments, like pay-as-you-go flexibility and self-service. They also promise to provide the enterprise-level capabilities typically found only in a private cloud, such as secure multi-tenancy and the ability to deliver quality-of-service levels for availability and performance.

Major storage, systems and virtualization vendors are all working on hybrid cloud strategies and roadmaps they hope will give them a leg up in what’s expected to be a fast-growing market. Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM have hybrid cloud plans that encompass servers and storage. EMC, Hitachi Data Systems and NetApp have hybrid storage stories and even some concrete offerings.

Before hybrid clouds can enter the mainstream, some fundamental technical issues must be resolved. Security of data in transit and at rest is a paramount concern of users, particularly in light of recent data breaches. Storage vendors and cloud security startups are developing new encryption, firewall, identity management and associated technologies. Performance of critical applications is another key issue, and several vendors now offer innovative on-premises caching products that reduce data access latency and speed up data recovery.

Business issues are another concern for storage managers considering cloud deployments. Some industry regulations dictate how and where critical data can be stored, which might, for example, prevent users from using public clouds that have data centers spanning multiple geographies. The prospect of getting locked into a particular provider’s public cloud is another worry. It’s easy to upload data into most public clouds, but moving that data months or years later to a different provider can be difficult and costly.

While 2011 may not be the “knee-of-the-curve” year when hybrid cloud storage takes off, a number of interesting applications are catching on. Hybrid clouds may not yet have the capabilities to support primary storage for critical applications, but several vendors offer cloud-based disaster recovery, backup and gateway solutions. TwinStrata is building a strong cloud storage gateway business that enables on-demand expansion of storage capacity as well as data protection capabilities, linking into several different cloud providers. Another startup, StorSimple, helps users control large sets of distributed, unstructured data by surrounding it with a full complement of data lifecycle services. Many of these solutions aren’t just ready for prime time, they’re already satisfying growing numbers of early adopters.

At least one provider -- Nirvanix -- is delivering on the vision of hybrid cloud storage for the enterprise. Nirvanix hNode provides private cloud storage services that front-end the company’s Storage Delivery Network (SDN) public cloud storage offering. The company’s Cloud Sideloader technology lets users migrate files directly from providers such as AWS and Iron Mountain into Nirvanix data centers.

Beyond storage, hybrid clouds require a networking infrastructure that enables high availability and performance for a diverse set of workloads moving between public and private clouds, along with the monitoring and management tools to ensure it all works. As most IT managers are well aware, bigger pipes alone aren’t enough to solve this problem. Rather, it takes optimizing data services across the scattered locations where apps may move, regardless of where the data is coming from, while providing visibility into the data passing through the network at an application, user and server level. Riverbed Technology, as one example, provides these enabling capabilities for a hybrid cloud today through its Steelhead and Cascade product families, and with its Akamai partnership looks likely to deliver new ways to optimize all manner of data and content no matter where the endpoints may reside.

While offerings such as these suggest that mainstream adoption of hybrid clouds may be fast approaching, we’re not there yet. Clouds are still in their “wild west” growth phase, and the hybrid model is still evolving. But we see hybrids as a stabilizing force in the cloud market, bringing together the best of private and public clouds to address the demands of midsized and enterprise users. As we assess some of the early hybrid cloud storage solutions and look forward to the innovations that lie ahead, we’re optimistic that the dark storms of this past spring are behind us.

BIO: Jeff Byrne is a senior analyst and consultant at Taneja Group. He can be reached at

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