Cloud Storage a Steep Climb

Companies in various vertical industries are taking tentative steps toward the savings, and risks, of the cloud.

It's been nearly five years to the day since Amazon introduced its groundbreaking Simple Storage Service -- or S3, as it's more commonly known. But despite that offering's track record, many enterprise IT executives still struggle with the notion of using cloud-based storage services to hold their corporate data.

Whether they're in manufacturing, finance, healthcare or education, IT professionals are as concerned as ever about data security and privacy, with regulatory compliance weighing heavily on their minds, so they fret about sending data offsite. Likewise, they wonder if performance will be adversely affected if there's a long distance between an application and its storage site.

For reasons such as those, "we're really not seeing much willingness to put enterprise data in the cloud yet," says Gartner analyst Adam Couture, who covers storage services.

That isn't to say that enterprises are shying away from cloud storage entirely. Many companies in vertical markets of every ilk have found the cloud to be a perfect fit for their backup, archival and file data. In other words, the cloud makes sense when speed of retrieval isn't an issue.

And Couture says the perception of the cloud's suitability as a storage medium for mission-critical data and applications will change over the years, as enterprises grow to accept public cloud computing in general.

"If you're running Amazon EC2 [the company's cloud computing service] and S3, and the storage is the same physical location as the server, latency becomes a nonissue, and you won't be charged every time you move the data, because it's local," he says.

Storage that's simple

In fact, you can already find notable organizations using cloud storage in a variety of industries. Turning to the cloud is a logical move when you're involved in distributing a lot of data to a Web site, perhaps with the help of a content delivery network. Indeed, prime examples of cloud storage users are companies in media, retail and other verticals that are accustomed to finagling content delivery over the Web.

"When we think about who's using the public cloud for storage, it's really those like media companies that have need for fluctuating storage, and a lot of it. They go to the cloud, plop stuff in extra storage that they need for a certain period of time -- it's a fluid resource for them," says Ruthbea Yesner Clarke, an analyst at IDC.

Streaming media is the perfect use case for public cloud storage, Clarke adds.

"That's extremely storage-heavy. It's constantly being pinged, but it also involves lots of peaks and valleys and back-and-forth flow to a main pile of storage," she says.

For example, PBS Interactive stores 90% of its streaming video content in the Amazon S3 cloud. "S3 is brain-dead simple -- you put stuff in it and take stuff out of it," says Drew Engelson, chief architect and senior director of platform development at PBS in Arlington, Va.

In PBS's case, S3 is the origin server for media assets that get delivered via Amazon's CloudFront content delivery network. "We put the high-bit-rate original files on S3 for permanent storage and for ingestion into transcoding workloads. So we'll drop a high-bit-rate file into a particular S3 bucket that is being monitored by a transcoding service," he says. "The transcoding service will pick up that high-bit-rate file, transcode it into our final output format and drop those into a different S3 bucket. From there we can deliver those files through CloudFront."

It would have been possible, but difficult, to stream video content using a traditional infrastructure, according to Engelson. "We're a media organization, with a goal of delivering as much PBS content to end users as possible. We've simply found that this is one way that makes it easier to do that," he explains.

Success stories like that have helped generate interest in public cloud storage, says Couture. After all, the model does come with considerable positives -- scalability up and down, pay-by-use pricing, vendor-provided management, and software agnosticism. Those qualities, of course, are particularly appealing to lean start-ups and small and midsize companies, he says.

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