Cloud Storage For All: How To Build Your Own Practice


Moving all or part of a customer's storage to the cloud can be a real boon in terms of reducing the cost and increasing the flexibility of their IT environments.

But solution providers that take the plunge into this new technology will find one benefit specific to them: cloud storage can be an easy first step into the nascent cloud computing business.

The goal of cloud storage is to move part or all of a company's data from its own IT infrastructure to another infrastructure where it can be separately managed. Data can be stored and accessed over the Internet on a storage infrastructure owned either by the company or by a third party, and with that infrastructure housed either on-site or at a separate location.

Because capacity in storage clouds is paid for on a per-gigabyte basis, it can be considered an operating expense rather than a capital expense. The total cost of storage stored in a cloud typically depends on the capacity, and so in theory can rise and fall as capacity increases or decreases. However, capacity seldom decreases, unless part of it is used for specific temporary projects such as testing of new applications.

While the cost-per-gigabyte of using a storage cloud sometimes seems low when the total amount of data stored is low, the costs can add up quickly as capacity increases, and can exceed the cost of storing the data in a company's own infrastructure. However, outsourcing the management of that data, a feature of cloud storage, could result in significant cost savings for many customers.

A Storage Cloud For Everyone

There are several different types of storage clouds available.

  • Basic direct-to-user service: A host of cloud storage providers sell basic cloud storage service direct to consumers and businesses, which can upload data files and sometimes directories over the Internet to a shared infrastructure, recover or restore those files as needed from anywhere, and in some cases share their data with authorized users via some sort of electronic key.

    One common feature of these basic services is automated backups, which are important because the biggest weakness in any backup process is ensuring a backup is actually done.

    Customers may pay a flat monthly or yearly fee, a per-gigabyte fee for the storage, or a combination of flat fee for a certain amount of storage followed by a per-gigabyte fee for storage beyond that amount.

  • Basic backup services for resellers and service providers: Several of the basic cloud storage providers allow solution providers or managed service providers to resell the services either using the cloud provider's or the reseller's brand name. Examples include two of the more well-known business storage cloud providers, Mozy and Carbonite.

    Solution providers reselling such services do so in exchange for a portion of the monthly or yearly fee or for a one-time finder’s fee. Such an arrangement gives the service providers access to a wider range of potential customers. For solution providers, the primary benefit will be recurring monthly revenue with little or no up-front investment in IT infrastructures.

  • Cloud storage appliances: A number of vendors, including the likes of eFolder, provide an appliance or software to build an appliance that solution providers can use to build their own storage cloud, along with the software necessary to provide the service to customers and automate tasks such as billing and monitoring customer data usage.

NEXT: A Myriad Of Ways To Build Storage CloudsSolution providers using such appliances can offer cloud storage either with their own brand name or that of the technology developer. They can also resell a cloud storage service through other solution providers. MSPs can also add such a service to their other customer offerings.

  • Access to public clouds: Public storage clouds such as Amazon Web Services or Iron Mountain feature massive amounts of available capacity that can be accessed at a low cost per gigabyte per month, typically with a very basic interface to access that capacity.

    Several software and appliance vendors, such as startup Cirtas, offer technology that provides an interface to public storage clouds with such features as backup, recovery, disaster recovery, replication and so on. Solution providers or MSPs that partner with them get access to recurring revenue via the monthly service charges, which customers pay. Customers pay for the access interface through their solution provider and contract directly with the public storage cloud provider for the required capacity.

  • Hybrid local and cloud storage: Many hardware and software developers offer a combination of technologies that allow solution providers to offer both local backup appliances combined with cloud storage. In such a system, customers back up data to an appliance sitting in their own data center or server closet, which allows quick restoration or recovery of data. The data on that appliance is then backed up to a storage cloud for a second layer of protection.

    Some providers, such as i365, give solution providers the ability to set up a backup appliance at the customer's site for fast recovery of small amounts of data, another appliance at the reseller's site for backing up the first appliance's data, and a public cloud offering for backing up the second appliance's data.

    Note that, except for the most basic, direct-to-user, storage clouds, the vendors are providing solution providers with turnkey solutions that enable them to become cloud service providers with a minimum up-front investment of money and engineering expertise. This makes them suitable not only for MSPs looking to easily add storage as a part of their managed service or cloud offerings, but also for traditional solution providers looking to take their first steps toward cloud computing.

Taking Advantage Of Storage Clouds

While storage clouds are very popular for backing up data and for sharing files ranging from baby pictures to business documents, solution providers can help customers take advantage of those clouds in a variety of ways.

This is especially true for customers who have already virtualized all or part of their server infrastructures, as virtual servers can be used in cloud environments to do several storage functions.

  • Disaster recovery: When all a company's data is backed up to a cloud, it can be restored to virtual or physical servers in case of a temporary or permanent failure of a primary data center. However, restoring of large file sets over the Internet can be a very long process, depending on available bandwidth, and so having the data also stored on a backup appliance or a small storage cloud at the solution provider's site with the ability to restore locally is a good option for many customers.

  • Test environments: Testing new applications eventually requires the use of real customer data, which can result in the temporary use of expensive hardware. A storage cloud provides the needed capacity for testing on a temporary basis.

  • Data and file sharing: Storage clouds can be used to keep files and data available to multiple users when protected with encryption and passwords.

NEXT: Getting The Message To CustomersGetting The Message To Customers

Cloud storage is a quickly maturing business but still requires much evangelizing and handholding by solution providers and MSPs.

Most business customers have a basic if imperfect understanding about what storage clouds are, said J.P. Villaume, president and owner of Gulf States Computer, a Baton Rouge, La.-based solution provider that partners with Mozy for storage clouds.

However, Villaume said, it takes time to help understand how it works. For instance, until recently, companies such as Mozy offered unlimited cloud storage capacity to consumers for a fixed fee. When it eliminated that option, it made it easier for Gulf States Computer to sell to businesses.

"Before, when we talked to customers, they'd say, 'Hey, I heard Carbonite and Mozy give unlimited backups,'" he said. "But now that they're shutting that [unlimited capacity] down, customers are better able to see the importance of good service."

When bringing cloud storage to customers, the first step is to help them choose what applications and business data can be best addressed with the cloud, said Jerry Pezzino, managing director of storage and data management business at Denali Advanced Integration, a Redmond, Wash.-based solution provider working with Hewlett-Packard and Axcient.

For customers with a lot of primary data, they can consider moving part of that to the cloud and keeping stubs, or pointers to that data, on local storage for fast access, Pezzino said.

"Most importantly, customers want a single pane of glass to see their files regardless of whether they are on local disk or on a cloud," he said.

Security of data on a cloud can also be an issue, Pezzino said. "Nobody wants to be the first victim to put data on a cloud and see it compromised," he said. "Our medical customers were probably the last to make the move to the cloud."

Steve Brown, vice president of sales and business development at BlueHawk Networks, a San Jose, Calif.-based solution provider that builds cloud infrastructures for customers, said security of storage clouds has actually become less of an issue over time.

"I think concerns about security are disappearing," Brown said. "People see Amazon and how it is able to partition the data to prevent unauthorized users from accessing it."

In some cases, cloud storage can sell itself, said John Zammett, president of HorizonTek, a Huntington, N.Y.-based solution provider that recently started partnering with i365 on cloud storage.

One customer who just signed up for a $6,000-per-month disaster recovery storage cloud did so after a more traditional sales cold call, Zammett said.

"Our rep called the customer to ask about their primary backup needs," he said. "The customer said they had none, but then asked us about whether we have a cloud backup. And we said yes."