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Taking stock of the cloud storage market

Rich Castagna takes a closer look at the impact of cloud storage, what's preventing more widespread adoption, and the potential of the technology.

It seems that every time cloud storage is mentioned these days, the words get wrapped up with adjectives like "exploding," "fast growing" or "mushrooming." Images of exploding or mushrooming clouds sound scary, but their distortions of reality are disturbing enough. I'll resist the urge to rage against the cloud storage marketing machine for now. Instead, let's just push the market speak aside for a few minutes and try to do some practical analysis of where the cloud storage market stands.

What cloud storage surveys tell us

We do a fair amount of survey-based research, and have been asking storage users about cloud storage for about five years now. Way back in 2010, less than 14% of those surveyed fessed up to using cloud storage. But, in some of our most recent surveys, we've seen a rise in the number of companies using the cloud for storage. In 2012, for example, the number was 30%. In a couple of surveys conducted over the past few months, a range of 44% to 48% of companies said they're currently using some cloud storage, so there has been continuous growth in the number of companies stashing some data in the cloud.

A pickup of 14 percentage points over a two-plus-year period is actually a pretty impressive figure -- that is, until you look at how much those companies are using cloud storage. The numbers vary pretty widely from survey to survey, but the range of an average of 15 TB to 32 TB of data currently in the cloud is surprisingly low. Especially for a set of services whose biggest selling point is elasticity and unlimited capacity.

To put those average numbers in perspective, in our "Purchasing Intentions" survey last spring, we asked how much storage capacity companies maintain in total, including disk, flash, optical, cloud, tape, cookie jars and so on. The average was 1.4 PB -- that's petabytes.

If we drill down a bit, those same survey takers reported an average of 326 TB of "active" data in storage. So, even if we assume that all of the data those companies had stored in cloud was active (which would almost certainly be incorrect), that would mean that companies were only shooting an average of 5% to 10% of their data into the ether. That's a pretty weak endorsement of the cloud storage market, and a set of numbers that suggest that many companies are still just dipping their toes in the cloud storage water. So what is limiting cloud storage usage?

So many benefits, not so many users

There are a lot of reasons adoption of cloud storage services has been less than enthusiastic. Some of the well-documented apprehensions that we've heard over the years are still dogging these services. Security is usually the most-cited reason for eschewing these services, but data loss, the financial stability of cloud providers (remember Nirvanix?) and the impracticality of moving fat chunks of data over skinny pipes still linger.

But a number of these issues have been -- or are being -- addressed. Compression and dedupe can slim down data packets to better fit the available bandwidth. In just a few years, the number of companies that offer apps to back up cloud-based data to another cloud or back to the data center has risen dramatically.

So if you have the right tools, and you find a cloud storage provider with its own set of effective tools, cloud storage becomes a much more feasible alternative than it was a few years ago.

More cloud storage options than ever

Since we started tracking cloud storage usage, the number of deployment options has also grown considerably. You can treat the cloud as just another storage tier. You can connect in a hybrid fashion where smart storage arrays keep your data on-site and then ship it to the cloud after a specified time period. Or you can build an internal cloud using the same basic tools a commercial cloud storage provider would and link them together almost seamlessly.

If you ran for cover from the cloud a couple of years ago, it might be a good idea to look again: A lot has changed.

Other options include using a cloud storage service just when your storage volume peaks, like around the holidays for an e-tailer. This is often referred to cloud bursting and the concept fits perfectly with the elastic paradigm of cloud storage.

Yet another alternative is to virtually ship your servers into the cloud along with their apps and the app data. This skirts the bandwidth issue for the most part and provides resiliency outside the data center.

Cloud storage use cases you should consider

Backup is still an ideal use case for cloud storage and one that should be explored by any company struggling with data protection. Ditto DRaaS -- disaster recovery as a service. DRaaS goes a step or two farther than just backup, allowing you recover completely in the cloud without having to physically restore your data to another facility during a data center outage.

If you ran for cover from the cloud a couple of years ago, it might be a good idea to look again: A lot has changed. The cloud isn't exploding or mushrooming -- that's a relief -- but it's getting better and it's become a good option as you plan your storage infrastructure.

BIO: Rich Castagna is TechTarget's VP of Editorial.

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