Object storage system success examined at Storage Networking World

Storage vendors and insiders extol the virtues of using an object storage system, but the technology has yet to catch on big in the enterprise.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Some of the greatest minds in storage met onstage at a Storage Networking World panel this week, and pondered the biggest issue facing object storage.

"If this stuff is so freaking great, why isn't everybody using it?" asked panel moderator Robin Harris, chief analyst for StorageMojo.

The Object Storage for Big Data panel included representatives of object storage vendor Amplidata, Aspera Developer Network, cloud network-attached storage (NAS) vendor Panzura, Intel and backup/archive vendor Quantum. Panelists agreed that while object storage solves scalability and data protection issues facing file storage, it is still far from widely adopted in the enterprise.

They blamed the lack of adoption mostly on business issues rather than technical shortcomings.

"One of the big issues I see is the way most storage acquisitions are attached to individual projects," Harris said. "Because object storage is such a highly scalable system, it only makes sense if you're starting at a few hundred terabytes. So you're limiting yourself to media/entertainment companies, geophysical applications, 3-D seismic data and medical imaging, and those are essentially single applications."

Instead of storing files or blocks, object storage systems place data into containers with custom metadata that includes attributes describing each object. The technology is not new, but has been recast in recent years, mainly for large archives and cloud storage.

Harris said EMC's object storage system pioneer Centera product "muddied the waters," because it is slow and hard to manage. Others on the panel, including Quantum Chief Technology Evangelist Dave Chapa, pointed out that newer object storage systems are more advanced. Quantum has an OEM deal to sell Amplidata's AmpliStor object storage with Quantum's StorNext file system, which is used for archiving.

"One of the reasons it's not being adopted as quickly is, we talk about object storage to customers and the lights go out," Chapa said. "The reaction on the other end was, 'I know about object storage.' But we have to re-educate them about what this new object storage is. CIOs say, 'I know object storage is not what we need.' CFOs say, 'I want to save money.' So there's a conflict."

However, Ranajit Nevatia, vice president of marketing at Panzura, said vendors must recognize object storage's limits. Panzura sells cloud file storage with a NAS interface that stores data inside of cloud providers' object storage systems.

"We're focusing on the benefits of object storage, but it comes at a cost," Nevatia said. "Object storage is not blocks; it's not files; it's objects. It's talking a new language that none of you or your applications understand, so you don't know how to use it. I can't use it in the enterprise, and that's the biggest problem."

Nevatia said object storage solves a capacity problem, but not a performance problem. That makes it the opposite of solid-state drives (SSDs) that handle speed at the sake of capacity. "If you want petabyte capacity, you will not get it from SSDs, and that's where object storage comes in," he said. "If you want capacity, it should be stored inside object storage."

However, he pointed out, object storage suffers from latency with IOPS. That makes it a good fit for archiving, but not the type of data that traditional NAS handles.

Tom Leyden, Amplidata's marketing director, said there are good business cases for object storage archives. He used the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) as an example. He said the soccer organization makes videos of old games available on demand by streaming them on the Internet. The video is stored on object storage.

"Instead of having to pay money for archiving and being a cost center, that data is now a profit center," Leyden said. "And it's the same data. We are not positioning this for databases, virtual machines or anything that is IOPS-sensitive. Object storage is all about unstructured data, and it's not the IOPS that count."

Quantum's Chapa pointed out that some of the most innovative technology companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook use forms of object storage.

"Facebook pictures are all stored on object storage," he said. "All these modern data centers are using object storage because it's so cheap and scalable, so how come it hasn't come into the enterprise?"

Another benefit of object storage over traditional NAS and SAN is the way it uses erasure codes and other technologies to go beyond RAID for data protection. That capability becomes more important as hard drive capacities increase. Object storage enables rapid rebuilds, while allowing organizations to survive the loss of multiple drives.

However, Panzura's Nevatia cautioned about some of object storage's terminology. "You have to get rid of that erasure word," he said. "Storage guys don't use that word."

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