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Understand pay-as-you-go storage and its challenges

Consumption-based storage has benefits, but it also has challenges, including what it is, unknowns about its future, and control and cost issues. Here's what you need to know.

When cloud storage services first rose to fame, they brought promises of increased flexibility, simpler deployment, easier maintenance and lower costs. But enterprise customers soon realized that storage in the cloud, despite its benefits, didn't suit every workload or budget, causing them to reconsider their cloud strategies.

Yet, they still appreciated the simplicity of the cloud services model and sought ways to incorporate those benefits into their data centers. In response, vendors have offered consumption-based, or pay-as-you-go, storage and other IT infrastructure, delivered as services, but implemented on premises. These pay-per-use services enable customers to eliminate Capex altogether.

Since then, industry pundits have been touting the consumption-based model as the new messiah of IT infrastructure, combining cloud services' convenience with the advantages of on-premises deployments, without the disadvantages of either. But consumption-based storage brings with it several potential challenges, and IT must understand them before embarking down the consumption-based path.

Comparing pay-as-you-go storage services is difficult

The challenges begin when you shop for consumption-based services because they lack a widely accepted definition. The consumption-based movement is relatively new and still rapidly changing. It will take time to come up with an agreed-upon understanding of what this approach is. As a result, services with the consumption-based, or pay-as-you-go, storage label can vary among vendors, making it difficult to compare one offering to the other.

The unknown future

Even if you narrow your search to one provider, you still face the uncertainties of any new technology. For example, vendors might frequently change their service and pricing structures until they settle into one that works, with services being added, renamed, moved around and eliminated in a short span of time. In some cases, these changes might be nothing more than annoyances. In other cases, they might impact application delivery and disrupt workflows across the enterprise.

5 pay-as-you-go challenges

The future of the consumption-based model is uncertain at best. It may be a runaway success that takes over the data center, or it might die a slow death. Even if it does succeed, there's no way of knowing which provider is in it for the long haul.

If a vendor decides that the consumption-based model doesn't meet earnings expectations, it could walk away, leaving customers with nothing to show for their investments. IT would have to implement a new storage platform from scratch, which takes time and money.

The control factor in consumption-based storage

With the consumption-based model, customers operate at the provider's whim. Of course, providers have reputations to protect and aren't likely to leave customers without reasonable options -- at least, that would be the hope. Yet, even under ideal conditions -- in which the provider has committed to offering reliable and predictable services over the long run -- the customer must still cede a fair amount of control.

Vendors that offer pay-as-you-go storage services are essentially leasing their equipment to their customers. The vendor plans, installs and, for the most part, controls the equipment and its infrastructure. The vendor also determines when components will be updated and replaced and how to prioritize customer issues.

The consumption-based model may be a runaway success that takes over the data center, or it might die a slow death.

In some cases, vendors might resist adding services that could save customers money. They might also deploy older technologies to better control their own costs, rather than implementing pricier state-of-the-art technologies. The provider defines the terms and conditions under which the services will operate, and customers must accept what's offered or move to another vendor's offering.

The consumption-based model also limits the control customers have over safeguarding their storage environments. Although an organization might turn to consumption-based storage for security, privacy and compliance reasons, the provider typically requires physical access to the customer's data center, can connect to the installed systems remotely and, in most cases, will be monitoring the systems and measuring usage. Customers might be able to apply security policies at the application layer and above, but the vendor controls security for the underlying infrastructure.

Just what are the true costs?

Pay-as-you-go storage services can come with hidden costs. For instance, they might require customers to change the way they work, depending on the degree to which an organization has already embraced the as-a-service model. This isn't necessarily bad, but it does mean IT must be prepared for the changes, perhaps retraining staff or bringing in new personnel.

Customers will also need to address logistical issues that arise when integrating a new storage system with existing applications and processes. In fact, the new system could complicate data center operations, rather than simplify them, at least in the short term. None of these issues are insurmountable, but they can take time to address and add to the total cost of ownership (TCO).

When calculating the TCO, decision-makers must consider all logistical issues, along with the service fees themselves. Unfortunately, this isn't always straightforward. When you buy equipment outright, your expenses are generally fixed or, at least, more predictable. That's not usually the case with pay-as-you-go storage. Long-term fees can be tricky to forecast, making it difficult for organizations that adhere to annual budgets.

Unless you can arrive at an accurate long-term TCO for each storage option, you can't effectively compare those alternatives. This can be especially challenging for businesses new to storage as a service because they might not have a viable use history from which to project future costs. If their workloads are predictable and consistent, it shouldn't be much of a problem, but organizations with fluctuating use patterns could find it tough to assess the true costs.

Consumption-based storage requires a wary eye

Organizations interested in a pay-as-you-go storage must understand the commitments required and clarify any uncertainties about contractual obligations. They should also assess the vendor's service-level agreement to ensure it will meet their own requirements, again clarifying any ambiguities.

Of course, decision-makers must evaluate the storage system itself, taking into account performance, capacity and other capabilities. They should also look for features to help manage usage, such as capacity planning tools, cost calculators, real-time usage reports and anything else to avoid sticker shock. In addition, they should understand what it will take to deploy and integrate these systems into their existing infrastructures, and how they might disrupt applications and workflows.

Like any technology, consumption-based storage has its advantages and disadvantages, and it shouldn't be ruled out because of its challenges. But IT should go into consumption-based storage with eyes open, understanding its limitations and risks. For most organizations, starting small is likely the best strategy. The consumption-based industry is young and evolving. In such an environment, it doesn't hurt to take small steps until everyone has a better idea of what the future holds.

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