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Cloud gateway appliances ease SMBs into cloud storage systems

Early users of cloud gateway appliances are finding they are an easy, cost-effective way to get their data into the cloud.

With more organizations—especially small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs)—interested in cloud storage, a number of vendors have come to market with what’s been dubbed cloud storage gateways to simplify the transition to a cloud storage system. Cloud gateway appliances offer not only an interface to the cloud that is largely automated, but they also provide a layer of management that can even help determine what storage should be sent to the cloud and what storage should be held locally.

For instance, notes Andrew Reichman, principal analyst at Forrester Research, SMBs can face a daunting array of work in figuring out how to integrate their data operations directly with the cloud. “They would need to have the staff available to write to all the cloud APIs,” he noted, since most of the major providers have unique object-based approaches to storage. “That’s not rocket science, but it does have some complexity and most smaller companies won’t want to tackle that,” he added.

“Most service providers offer REST interfaces into their cloud, but applications don't talk to REST interfaces; they use standard interfaces like FC [Fibre Channel], iSCSI, CIFS or NFS. The gateways provide a translation layer between these standard interfaces and cloud provider's REST API,” added Terri McClure, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group.

But there are other important services that cloud gateway appliances provide—like deduplication and compression, to help keep bandwidth and capacity charges in check, said McClure. They also offer encryption, leaving the encryption keys in the hands of the subscriber for maximum security. And they offer the end user the maximum amount of control over their data. “They allow the user to move, snap and replicate data,” she said. Last but not least, they provide a local cache to reduce latency associated with having the storage capacity far away from the data center. “The gateway makes it easy, cost effective and safer to get into cloud services—making them a good fit for SMB use,” she added.

Cloud storage gateway saves construction firm time and money

In fact, SMBs are finding that cloud storage gateways provide exactly what they need to leverage the power of a cloud storage system without adding cost and complexity. At Rockford Construction, Grand Rapids, Mich., vice president of IT Shawn Partridge found the cloud gateway concept invaluable. The company had built a lot of functionality around SharePoint as means of providing field representatives with access to information, but he was looking for more efficiencies.

“At first we were reluctant to start using the cloud because we weren’t comfortable putting our data out there,” said Partridge. Then, there was the question of exactly how to use the cloud. By purchasing a StorSimple cloud gateway appliance, Partridge has been able to leverage the cloud and improve the firm's storage management strategy. He said once he understood the tiering provided by StorSimple Inc., it made even more sense. Now the StorSimple appliance is responsible for making sure the company’s SharePoint data is archived and that frequently used files are immediately available. The cloud gateway appliance also now handles much of the storage associated with the company’s VMware virtualized servers, and provides backup and archiving.

I think the biggest challenge was getting people outside of the IT department to understand what was happening—when you mention cloud, for many people that has negative connotations.

Rockford Construction vice president of IT Shawn Partridge

Partridge said the decision to go to a cloud gateway evolved slowly. Initially, Rockford was considering a new storage area network (SAN). Putting storage into the cloud using the cloud gateway appliance started as an experiment on one project and gradually grew in scope. “The tiering is completely transparent so we just go ahead and create volumes and the system automatically moves them to an appropriate level, whether that is on our fast solid state storage or out in the cloud—we don’t have to do anything,” he explained. The StorSimple product uses a system called Weighted Storage Layout (WSL) to tier data based on frequency of use, age and relationships among data. Using WSL, the appliance continually optimizes its distribution of data based on monitoring usage.

And, he said, the system has been glitch-free. “I think the biggest challenge was getting people outside of the IT department to understand what was happening—when you mention cloud, for many people that has negative connotations,” he added. 

He said the automatic data tiering and data deduplication features in the StorSimple product have boosted ROI beyond his original expectations. “We expected to save money by moving storage to the cloud but with tiering—and especially with deduplication and compression—it reduces costs tremendously. We came in way below budget,” he added. And, of course, the use of the cloud for backup eliminated the entire process of backing up to tape. “It is wonderful peace of mind to have off-site backup without having to purchase anything additional,” he said.

Nasuni Cloud File Server helps biotech firm with archiving

Kevin Dushney of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, a biotech firm based in Cambridge, Mass., is also enthusiastic about the results of deploying a cloud storage gateway. Dushney said his company is awash in scientific data—80% of its employees are scientists. Having fast and reliable storage is critical to the company’s goals. However, Dushney heads a small three-person department, with two additional on-site contractors to oversee 110 servers (most of which are virtual) and approximately 9 TB of data. “I am interested in approaches that allow my people to focus on issues like workflow management rather than on plumbing,” he said.

In an effort to secure more capacity without more complexity, Dushney adopted a Nasuni Corp. Cloud File Server (a virtual form of cloud gateway). This met his goal of being able to rapidly expand available capacity when necessary with minimal supervision. “I didn’t want to have to dedicate an FTE to managing some complicated EMC box,” he said.

“This was a chance to leverage our VMware environment and get local LAN performance with the advantage of a bottomless pit of storage,” he added. 

The biggest role for cloud storage is archiving, Dushney explained. But the fact that Nasuni provides such a simple interface makes the cloud not only less expensive but also easy to use. “This is a way for us to preserve the lifespan of our existing SAN because we can just put all the older instrument data and old home folders from former employees on the cloud and get nearline performance when we need to access it,” he said.

Although Dushney is enthusiastic about Nasuni, he said he did learn that the system can bog down when it is handling large numbers of large uploads or downloads at the same time. “We have asked Nasuni to try to improve the performance,” he added.

Cloud gateways can simplify virtual machine backup

Another early adopter of the cloud gateway concept is Gil Mara, technology coordinator for the Hawthorne School District, near Los Angeles. However, Mara admitted that he made the decision to move to the cloud first and then learned about how a cloud gateway could help. “We had a relationship with AT&T for phone service and some network support. They interested me in their cloud storage service and when we decided to move ahead, they recommended TwinStrata [Inc.],” said Mara.

It only took about an hour to set up and as far as management, it looks just like any other resource.

Gil Mara, technology coordinator for the Hawthorne School District

He said there were low upfront cost for the cloud—$0.25/GB per month for the total storage, and $0.10/GB each month to upload and download data transfer. In addition, the modest startup costs for TwinStrata, some $4,700, also made it an easy choice. But above all, Mara said the TwinStrata interface has made the cloud transparent. “It only took about an hour to set up and as far as management, it looks just like any other resource—now I can use my Symantec backups and literally back up all my virtual machines to the cloud,” he said.

“For the most part, Twin Strata makes the cloud invisible—on a day-to-day basis I don’t touch anything unless I want more storage,” he added.

Reichman at Forrester offers one cautionary note, however. “With the cloud, if you lose access to your data center, you are protected, which is positive. On the other hand, although they are getting more mature, most of the cloud gateway vendors are still small companies, which may present some risk,” he said.

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