Cloud storage gateway presents primary storage options

Early adopters of a cloud storage gateway connected to a cloud service provider weigh their value as low-cost, easy-to-use storage against data control fears

Early adopters of a cloud storage gateway are proceeding cautiously, but say they see the hybrid systems as viable options for primary storage.

Startups such as Cirtas Systems Inc., Nasuni Corp., Panzura, StorSimple Inc. and TwinStrata Inc. have launched gateways over the past year, designed to move data off to cloud service providers.

The products are aimed at different types of use cases – Cirtas handles block storage, Nasuni is for files, and Panzura and StorSimple specialize in Microsoft Exchange and SharePoint, for example – but the concept is the same. They bundle protocols for communicating with the cloud as well as storage management features such as snapshots, data compression, deduplication and tiering. Some are sold as virtual appliances and others as hardware appliances with a small amount of local storage.

Early adopters for a cloud storage gateway appear to be mainly small companies using them for backup or archiving to start off while planning to extend them to primary storage -- perhaps even as NAS or SAN replacements. Customers of these gateways say they have concerns about bringing cloud storage into their environments, but are willing to do so for the low cost and ease of use it brings if they can maintain control of their data.

Cloud instead of on-site SAN?

Rockford Construction Co. Inc., a 250-employee commercial construction company based in Grand Rapids, Mich., has used StorSimple's Armada Storage Appliance in production for several months. Shawn Partridge, Rockford's vice president of information technology, said the construction firm uses the hardware-based Armada Storage Appliance for archive data as well as primary storage for its SharePoint database. Rockford's cloud storage provider is Microsoft Azure.

"It has been a very big change for us to move into this appliance," Partridge said. "Most people think 'Your storage is no longer local to you, it's out there in the cloud.' A lot of people don't want to give up control of that. We didn't either. With this box, we don't feel like we're giving up any control whatsoever."

Partridge said Rockford is planning to add another cloud storage appliance to replace its 4-year-old HiFN (now Exar Corp.) iSCSI SAN.

Partridge said he uses StorSimple's Weighted Storage Layout automated tiering feature to make sure the most active data remains local. "Once you exceed the local capacity of the device, it starts to spool that data up to your cloud account," he said. "It takes the older data first and pushes it out to the cloud so that the working-set data … is still contained directly on the appliance."

Extending from backup to primary storage

PAE Consulting Engineers Inc. of Portland, Ore., turned to the software-only Nasuni Filer as an alternative to Iron Mountain's LiveVault backup service. Members of the 70-employee company's IT team said they're also evaluating the Nasuni Filer as a primary NAS system.

PAE network administrator KC Cloyd said there are few hurdles to using the appliance for primary storage.

"We have not had to make changes to how our file storage is structured," he said. "However, our active project files are very frequently accessed and are mostly large word processing and CAD documents that are several megabytes apiece. We have a team of about 60 engineers and designers. My only concern is that it may not perform well for them when they access data categorized as inactive on the Nasuni Filer, but is still part of our primary project file storage. From our testing so far, when we access files off of it, it's very fast."

Dustin Rowe, PAE's information systems manager and technology planner, said he expects to begin using the Nasuni Filer for primary data stored locally within three months. For now, the Filer serves as a gateway for low-cost, scalable backup. PAE uses cloud providers Amazon S3 for active data backups and Rackspace for virtual machine backups.

"Our previous cloud storage provider's SMB model was a per-server pricing structure, and was based on the total number of servers that would be reporting to it," he said. "Paying for eight servers, at 250 gigabytes per server, gave us just enough space to back up our file server alone. The Nasuni [system cost] was based on a reasonable maintenance and support subscription for the Linux-based Nasuni Filer VM [virtual machine] plus enterprise-level pricing for the actual data with 'unlimited' bandwidth, so it was much more advantageous to us."

Rowe said Nasuni is also a good solution for disaster recovery. "In the case of a disaster, the Nasuni Filer VM can be rebuilt from scratch in under an hour and gives our users a view to the files on the cloud," he said. "Because the files that are most commonly used are fairly small in size, they can access those files very, very quickly compared to waiting for a storage array to arrive with our data on it."

Primary storage directed at user directories

Alexza Pharmaceuticals Inc. uses the hardware-based Cirtas Bluejet Cloud Storage Controller for archival data while sticking with tape for backup. Alexza, which has 125 employees, also plans to put primary data on the Bluejet appliance. "We're beginning to fold it into our primary storage. We're still working out some of the kinks with it, but our goal is to move some of our primary storage onto it," said David Jones, IT operations manager at the Mountain View, Calif., company.

The most likely data candidates for primary storage on the Bluejet gateway are Alexza's user directories -- data that doesn't have especially fast access time requirements. Alexza's cloud storage provider is Amazon Web Services.


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