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Storage standards still hazy in the cloud

Many people think the lack of standards is holding firms back from using cloud storage services. Standards are being worked on, but they could have an effect on in-house systems.

The standards being batted around that would make cloud storage more usable and attractive to enterprises could also have a profound effect on in-house storage systems.

Many people are pinning their hopes on the promise of cloud storage. And with all the hype it's getting, you would think cloud storage is the remedy for everything that's not quite right in the storage shop. Limitless capacity, on-demand service and ubiquity—all without having to tap into capital budgets for things like hardware or software.

But not so fast; cloud storage vendors first have to figure out how to actually make all those dreams come true. Plenty of them are working at it and have made a lot of progress, but few if any are "all there" yet.

Turning storage into a utility is pretty complicated stuff on a number of fronts, and reheating older technologies like grids and clusters won't completely cut it. We may also need to redefine what we mean by "utility." Our most familiar utilities—electric, water, natural gas—are all one-way streets where we take what we need, when we need it. There's no extended risk on the user's part, and the only concern is whether the service is available when needed.

With cloud storage you have the same concerns about service availability and also take from the service, but you have to put something of your own (like your data) out there. You don't have to worry about things like interfaces to use your electric utility's services; you just plug in and turn on. For cloud storage, the interface isn't so simple because you still have to deal with proprietary "plugs" and "switches." The software (and maybe hardware) you'll need to hook up with a particular cloud storage service isn't likely to work with another cloud service because there aren't adequate standards to define what that interface should look like and how it should act. So if you think you can skip from cloud to cloud and take your data with you, think again.

Of course, a standard set of interfaces is very doable, but I wonder if it will ever get done. I imagine most storage vendors think it's a good idea to get on the cloud storage standards bandwagon (it looks a lot better to be on it than off), but is standardization truly in their best interests?

But if the interface issue is solved for cloud storage there's no reason why those standard interfaces couldn't be applied to in-house storage systems. Interoperability could go from being a major roadblock to a problem solved. And just as with the cloud, the hardware behind it all (at least whose hardware it is) will be much less important. Data storage becomes more of a software practice, while the hardware behind the code becomes more of a commodity.

Solve the cloud, solve most other storage issues. That sounds great for users who wouldn't have to continue to pay premium prices for what's essentially off-the-shelf hardware in most cases. But it's not so great for vendors.

As with all standards-related matters, vendors have to walk a narrow line between promoting the technology and retaining some unique qualities that make their version more desirable than others. The Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) is doing its best to help draw that line and guide its members along.

SNIA's working on several fronts with what it calls its Cloud Storage Initiative. Some of it sounds like standards, but other parts sound more like marketing. On its site, SNIA says the mission of its Cloud Backup and Recovery Special Interest Group (Cloud BUR SIG) is "to further the Cloud BUR industry by educating the marketplace and driving demand for Cloud BUR solutions and services." Maybe they should call it the Cloud BUR Self Interest Group.

SNIA often seems to fall back on the "educate the market" thing for its initiatives, but there does seem to be some bona fide standards work going on. SNIA says its Cloud Data Management Interface project will define "the functional interface that applications will use to create, retrieve, update and delete data elements from the Cloud." It's a Web services-like arrangement, with a lingua franca that will let users discover services and manage the data they send to them.

Sounds promising, but don't hold your breath. SNIA's standards might be great, but how well and how completely its members hew to the standards is the iffy part. But storage vendors may feel pressure from shops reluctant to park their data in the cloud until they get the mobility, manageability and standardization the cloud promises. It could completely change storage as we know it now.

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

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

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