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Cloud storage services FAQ

Solution providers who are interested in participating in the burgeoning cloud storage services market are faced with a number of questions, covering issues such as reliability, security and which business model makes sense. Executive Editor W. Curtis Preston addresses these issues in our Project FAQ on cloud storage services.

With a wide range of cloud storage options available to customers – including those from brand name companies and those from fly-by-night operations – solution providers whose customers are interested in storing data in the cloud have a few basic tasks. They need to show the value they can add to cloud storage services, and they also need to protect their customers from reliability and security threats posed by it. Executive Editor and backup expert W. Curtis Preston examines these issues in this Project FAQ. You can either read the FAQ below or download the podcast.

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 What options are there for solution providers who want to get in on the developing cloud storage market? 

 Do storage solution providers really need to have a stake in cloud storage services?

 Are there integration services that a solution provider can offer around cloud storage? 

 What does a typical prospective cloud storage customer look like, in terms of company size and business needs? 

 What are the key considerations for customers that are planning to use public cloud services? 

 Along those lines, do you think cloud storage has been proven reliable enough for customers to use it for storage of critical data? 

  What options are there for solution providers who want to get in on the developing cloud storage market?

Well, generally speaking, they have two choices, and I really want to advise against the first. The first choice is to build it themselves, and there are a lot of companies that have considered doing that and have done that. [They've said, "How hard can it be] to back up remote data or store remote data; all the protocols are out there." The reason why I want to advise against that is that it is a lot harder than you think. There are a lot of things that you won't necessarily think through and you take a chance of being the next vendor to show up on a website being reported for having lost customers' data and then, frankly, at that point, you're out of business. So, that's the first option.

The second option is that there are myriad companies … that will provide this [service]; many of them are companies that you haven't heard of so if you search for "cloud storage," you'll find a lot of different companies. Some of them are companies that are known brand names, such as Amazon, [which] is probably one of the biggest providers. Microsoft is also in the business. EMC is in the business with their purchase of Mozy. Symantec and some of the other big software companies have also purchased cloud storage-type companies. So, there are a number of options. If you're going to get into it, I would highly recommend going with a reputable company that has a much bigger company behind them so that you don't stand the chance of ending up losing customer data.

When we say cloud storage, by the way, there are … two main types. There is storing data, actually storing production data, and then the second is backup. I tend to be more a fan of the backup, where the customer still stores their data online but then you're storing the backup of that.

  Do storage solution providers really need to have a stake in cloud storage services?

Well, they don't need to do anything, but at this point there is plenty of money to be had in that space. The space is finally taken off; there are a lot of companies that are doing it; there are a lot of companies that are paying for these services. It's also a service that can provide options to customers that were simply not there before. For example, backing up a remote office could be handled with cloud storage now, instead of selling them a small computer … and Backup Exec. Now you have the chance of selling them a service, which is good in a couple of ways. One is that provides a much better value to them in that the data is being stored off-site, and the second is you stay much stickier to the customer because it's … ongoing revenue for you.

  Are there integration services that a solution provider can offer around cloud storage?

Absolutely. And the main thing is just helping the customer understand what is and isn't cloud storage and how they should or shouldn't use it. I was just reading, this morning, … an article [about how cloud storage provider Carbonite is] suing their hardware and software providers. They lost data, and they're going to sue their hardware and software providers. I don't have any details on the story, but [in] the comments on that story, people starting talking about the end users. Even though these products have been dumbed down in such a way that these products can be sold to the end consumer, the problem is [that] the end consumer doesn't necessarily understand the technology. For example, [if something has] been backed up, [a person] might [think] that means that stuff can be deleted now. If they use a lot of these online backup services, they have a 30-day retention, so they back it up to this backup service, and then they delete the data thinking, "Well, it's been backed up now, so I can delete it." Well, in 30 days, their data is gone forever. So, you've got to help the customer. The customer who is the primary target for cloud storage is going to be the types of customer who would have those misunderstandings. So, I would say that is where the solution provider can provide extra services, to make sure that they use cloud storage for what it's meant for and not use it in such a way that actually causes data loss.

  What does a typical prospective cloud storage customer look like, in terms of company size and business needs?

Generally, we're talking either one of two customers. We're either talking a small business that has a relatively small [amount of data, generally less than a terabyte]. (These types of services don't work when we start talking terabytes and terabytes.) So, either we're talking a small company or we're also talking remote offices for larger companies. And we are talking about data in hundred of gigabytes, and potentially beyond a terabyte. But the [more data that needs to be backed up,] two things [become more likely to] happen: one, [you'll have more technical challenges]; and [two], the per-gigabyte pricing start to look expensive and the customer will start to consider other alternatives, [such as] "Gee, can't I just do this myself?" So, generally speaking, it's the smaller customer that's going to be interested in cloud storage.

  What are the key considerations for customers that are planning to use public cloud services?

The considerations for the customers are the same as they should [be] for anything that they consider. You need to be thinking about security, and you need to be thinking, "How is this vendor protecting my data from data loss?" So, by putting your data up on some cloud storage services, it actually makes your data 100% accessible from Google. Some of the cloud storage, generally, the free ones have this problem (not the for-pay ones); [they] actually [make] your data available via Google. Which is really not what people are thinking about, that's my idea. So the first thing you want to address is security. Make sure that the data is being encrypted when it's in transit, since your data is being sent out there all over the Internet. Make sure you can specify a key and you keep track of that key and all of that stuff.

And then, the second thing is, Mr. Vendor, How are you making sure my data [doesn't get lost]? This is a real concern for people beginning to use cloud storage; … the plethora of options that are available to them have also come with a plethora of stories of vendors that have lost customer data. There have been three or four stories, just in the last six months, of vendors that have just flat out lost customer data. And I think, frankly, the customer should be wary of those services. That's why in the beginning of the podcast, I said I recommend people wanting to get into this business go with strong, reputable companies that are hiring strong, reputable people to make sure that the data is being protected. You're always going to have data loss, you're always going to have bad disk drives, you're always going to have disasters that take out a site or fires or whatever that takes out an entire site. The question is, How have you prepared for that? And have you prepared for that? And have you provided auditing so that your customers can look at a third party that has audited your setup to make sure that you're using all the best practices that are out there? If a customer hasn't done that and verified that all of those things are the case, then the possibility remains that they will end up losing their data, which is the No. 1 thing they should be scared about with cloud storage.

  Along those lines, do you think cloud storage has been proven reliable enough for customers to use it for storage of critical data?

It's reliable in that they generally can get their data back. It's reliable in that if you need your data at 3 p.m., you'll be able to get it. … The problem with cloud storage is that it's kind of like -- if we set laws aside -- anybody with a car can be a taxi. I can throw a little light on the top of my car and, boom, I'm a taxi. We have laws that address that, but let's set those aside. But don't confuse me, who just landed in a plane and hopped in a car, with a taxi. The quality of service [is very different] between me and, let's say, on the opposite end a taxi driver in London that has to study for three years to get a taxi license. They have to know the location of every building and the best way to get there and all that stuff. They have a test to take.

The problem in the cloud storage world is that anyone with a computer and an Internet connection and a website -- and that includes my daughter -- can set up a cloud storage service. So, yes, the services have been proven reliable, but because anybody and their brother can set up a cloud storage service and advertise it, not all cloud storage services are reliable. So, you've got to use due diligence to figure out the one that you're looking at. And unfortunately, it usually means that you're going to end up going with a service that is more expensive than another service. This is definitely one of those worlds where you get what you pay for.

About the expert

W. Curtis Preston, executive editor for TechTarget's Storage Media Group and independent backup expert, has been singularly focused on data backup and recovery for more than 15 years. He is the webmaster of BackupCentral.com, the author of hundreds of articles, and the books "Backup and Recovery" and "Using SANs and NAS."

This was last published in March 2009

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