Choosing the Right Cloud Storage Provider

Wednesday May 28th 2014 by Andy Patrizio
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More and more data is leaving the confines of the enterprise for the cloud. Here's how to pick the right provider.

Cloud storage is a recent development with big pluses and minuses. On the plus side, you know have an outsource option to move data outside of your enterprise, sparing you the expense of investing in company storage. All of the major cloud storage providers support a variety of endpoint devices, so people can access the same data on a laptop, tablet or phone.

On the down side, your company data is now leaving the confines of your data center, going who-knows-where, and there is the potential for compromise both at the storage end or during the transfer outside your firewalls.

The speed of deployment is probably the major appeal. If you want to deploy more storage, that means going through the requisition process, putting it out to bid from CDW and Ingram Micro, waiting for it to arrive, then building the hardware, testing and debugging, then deploying.

Weeks if not months go by. And then, maybe your storage needs decline and you end up with a cabinet of hard drives gathering dust.

Now contrast that with a recent experience of Shadrach White, CEO of Cloudpwr, a cloud services consulting firm in the state of Washington. He deployed a dual core SQL Server web instance server on Microsoft Azure in 20 minutes. If the configuration isn't right, "just delete it and start over," he notes.

Enterprise cloud storage is not about dragging a few images or music files. That's what DropBox and OneDrive, among others, are for. This is for mass storage that previously had to be done on premises. In the case of DNAnexus, a biotechnology firm, the company needed 350 terabytes of capacity. Even with 6TB drives on the market, that's a whole lot of drives to buy, not to mention the housing and connection to the network, maintenance, and repairing failed drives.

As the company documented in a case study (PDF format), Google took the heavy lifting off its hands, allowing it to focus on the user interface elements for users of the data. This has allowed the company to focus on its core business, rather than working on keeping its storage systems up and running.

So what should you do if you are in a similar situation as DNAnexus and need to host vast quantities of data? Is enterprise cloud storage in the cards? There are a number of checkbox issues to cover before making the decision to let your data go outside your enterprise walls.

Prime Motivator

The first question would be to determine what you are hoping to accomplish by adopting a cloud storage service. There are plenty of good reasons, including:

• Finding cheaper alternatives than maintaining storage in-house.

• Automatically backing-up difficult to manage employee endpoints.

• Storing data off premises for recovery or failover processes.

• Taking advantage of collaboration and other processes/applications supported by some vendors.

Figuring out what the final goal is can drastically simplify choosing vendors to work with, since some will simply be out of the running because they don’t support necessary services, have other specialties, and so forth. That’s the point where real research and analysis kicks in, like examining a company’s service offerings, rates, SLAs, and client satisfaction rating.

In the end, the key motivator is likely going to be cost. Is it cheaper – both in acquisition costs and on-going costs – to go with a cloud storage provider or build your own storage systems. While finances are as good a reason as any, there are other things to consider.

What Matters: Three Little Words

Service Level Agreement. SLA. Know those words and live by them for they will make or break you and your decision. There are plenty of storage services, but it's the SLA and the promises made that make the difference and separate the good from the bad.

"It goes without saying that cloud customers need to carefully review SLA agreements with legal representatives and IT staff. The former can help decipher the agreement itself and the responsibilities of all involved. Consulting with IT is critical to ensure that the services and scenarios in the SLA are aligned with the organizations actual processes and needs," said Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT.

The SLA is critical as it lays out what the vendor agrees to deliver, what the customer can expect to receive and their individual and mutual responsibilities. So when contemplating a cloud storage provider, you need to go over a lot of elements:

• Performance — First and foremost, get a guarantee of service availability and response times, security/privacy, and recovery guidelines/expectations.

• Data—access, location and portability. Make sure the data can be accessed from anywhere by any device.

• Problem identification and resolution – the storage provider should be finding problems, not your users.

• Service updates and additions – new services are always being added. Find out what's in the works.

• Mediation of problems and disputes – Who will take your call when there is a problem? You don't want it to go to a help desk in India.

• Ending or exiting services, including transitioning processes, to make sure you get everything back and it's securely disposed.

What Matters: Price/Performance

White disagrees on the importance of SLAs. "SLAs are all pretty standard. All of the data centers buy the same insurance policies from the same insurance companies, in terms of data loss and liabilities. What are you paying for? The performance you need. That's the decision you need to make when choosing Amazon or Google Compute or any other service," he said.

The costs for cloud storage can vary by as much as thousands of dollars, most of which depends on the amount of storage you want and the extra features. White says you get what you pay for in this regard and should buy according to need.

"It depends on what you are trying to do. If you are trying to launch the premier of the new movie and want everyone to be able to download the trailer, you will pay a little more to get the best service. If you are trying to launch a product, you might go with a free service just to get through that project. So it depends on your needs," he said.

Next Steps

Cloud services are still in early stages, making this really a 'let the buyer beware' situation, said King. "Customers should never take a claim or offering at face value. In other words, always confirm and never assume, even if everything checks out and your chosen vendor looks like exactly what you're looking for, that something won't eventually go wrong. It will and that's when real professionals step up and make things right," he said.

The next thing to do is pick a provider and standardize on it. Companies can loosen the reins on hardware with BYOD policies, but when it comes to using an outside service, it should not let people pick the one they want, because you end up with a situation where company data is on a dozen different services. IT should help with the decision on which service you are going to standardize on, said White.

You should also determine how the storage services will co-exist with your existing solutions, especially if you intend for the storage service to co-exist or enhance what you already have. Some cloud services will have better integration with your enterprise than others.

Also, you must determine ownership prior to letting the data go outside the firewall. This isn't an IT issue, it's a policy and HR issue, said White. "Most employee agreements have NDA and non-compete clauses. HR should look at those agreements and include language around cloud services," he said.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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