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Let’s get real about the cloud

Cloud storage is really a pretty simple concept, so how the heck did it get so complicated?

Cloud storage is really a pretty simple concept, so how the heck did it get so complicated?

This week, a few of my fellow editors and I spent more time than reasonable people would expect trying to work out a definition for the term “cloud washing.” Trying to steer clear of using obvious (and probably accurate) words like “bunk” and “nonsense,” we eventually cobbled together a definition that seemed to do the trick without insulting anybody all that much. But I learned a valuable lesson along the way: This cloud thing is a squirmy, squishy-squashy thing, and getting our arms around it ain’t gonna be easy.

If it’s so hard to define a term about how vendors are twisting the meaning of “cloud” to obfuscate and ultimately (they hope) convince you their old products are new now that they have “cloud” in their names, it’s bound to be just as hard to define what cloud truly is. Right now, it’s pretty confusing. Another thing I’ve learned is that the vendors doing most of the cloud washing are really cloud wishing, as in wishing they had a real cloud product to promote.

Also not helping very much is the hyperbole on both sides of the issue: the “Hallelujah, cloud storage is the answer to all our prayers” gang vs. the “Harrumph, if cloud storage doesn’t solve all my data center problems, then what good is it anyway?” folks.

I recently read a blog post on another publication’s website that declared backup was dead because it could be replaced by the cloud. Really? Interestingly, the blogger didn’t get into any details about recovering data from the cloud, but I guess that’s something that could be worked out, ya know, later. His final advice was to virtualize everything -- servers and storage -- if you want to use cloud storage. I don’t know why people insist on taking away the cloud’s silver lining with scary stuff like storage virtualization. I haven’t found the page in the cloud storage rule book that says virtualizing in-house storage is required to use the cloud.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve gotten some press releases from an outfit called MeriTalk that describes itself as a “community network” of government workers. The group sent me the results of a few surveys it’s done, including one titled “Consolidation Conundrum Report.” The paper seems to spell doom for the Obama administration’s efforts to cut spending by consolidating federal data centers, with cheery data points such as only 10% of federal IT professionals surveyed believe consolidation goals can be met and 25% predict we’ll have more data centers in a few years than we do now. And they’re not exactly optimistic when it comes to the cloud, with 62% saying they don’t believe their agencies can use managed services. But my favorite part is this line: “Adding capacity is infinitely more difficult than just flipping a switch.”

Of course, the cloud-is-good side would just replace the phrase “infinitely more difficult than” with “as easy as.”

The truth is somewhere in between, but both ends of the cloud storage discussion aren’t doing much more these days than muddling the issues. There’s a lot to think about and a few choices to make when considering a cloud storage option, but it’s not that complex. And if vendors would quit their cloud washing nonsense, it’d be even easier.

In its simplest terms, a cloud storage service offers an off-site alternative to building on-site storage. And evaluating a service or product requires pretty much the same routine of weighing cost, performance, features, maintenance and so on. If you do all the homework and decide that buying more infrastructure and supporting it is the best choice, fine. If the cloud service comes out on top and shifts the Capex to Opex, that’s fine, too. It can be that straightforward.

The cloud just sounds riskier, right? Maybe you think that you could end up updating your resume if you send your firm’s data into the cloud and the unthinkable happens. But buying the stuff instead won’t give you much job insurance either if the new gear goes belly up.

If you need more to think about, consider this tidbit from a survey called the Sogeti World Quality Report: “Emerging economies, such as China, are the fastest adopters of cloud infrastructure.” So, China and its fellow up-and-comers are manufacturing a lot of the storage that ends up in your data center, but rather than buying that stuff themselves, they’re going to the cloud. Maybe there’s something to be learned from that as well.

BIO: Rich Castagna is editorial director of the Storage Media Group.

* Click here for a sneak peek at what’s coming up in the October 2011 issue.

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