Confidence in the Cloud

IT managers are charmed by the concept but fear giving up control of data. Here's why.

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It's not how to get the data back that worries Manjit Singh, but whether he'd even have access to the data if the provider went belly up. "If it's bankrupt, the creditors might just come in and take the equipment, and they don't care what's on it," says Singh, vice president and CIO at Chiquita Brands International. He has yet to give cloud storage a try.

Rich Zoch is experimenting with Zetta's storage service at the University of Texas at Austin -- but not for primary storage. "It's a great platform to offload backup archives that are encrypted," says Zoch, senior systems administrator. But so far he has trusted the service only with dummy data. He says he plans to use it as a secondary storage pool for backups as an alternative to tape.

Zoch says he likes the fact that Zetta uses public key encryption that's compliant with Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2, but the university still might decide to encrypt the data itself before transmitting it. And since he's using Zetta only for secondary copies, he's not worried about getting it back if something happens on Zetta's end.

It might also be impractical to move large amounts of data from a cloud storage provider's site if the communications pipeline is too small. "If you can do only 1MB/sec. or 2MB/sec., it could take months or even years to get your data back," says Jeff Treuhaft, co-founder and CEO of Zetta. He says putting in a dedicated connection capable of transferring data in a timely fashion adds about 25% to the cost of Zetta's service.

Even if the stored data is accessible, some storage-as-a-service applications, such as Zmanda Inc.'s backup and recovery systems, store data on a third-party platform such as S3 on the back end. So it's important to do due diligence on where and how data is hosted and how to get it back, says Singh. But, he says, that's no different from the checks one should do with any other software-as-a-service provider that stores data.

What's the best way to get started with external cloud storage services? "You have to trust, but verify," Ruth says. That means touring the data center to see what's stored where, creating a service-level agreement with meaningful metrics and performing regular audits to make sure the vendor is living up to them. And if the storage-as-a-service provider is using a third party for the underlying storage infrastructure, you'll need to perform due diligence on that vendor as well.

Despite the challenges, most users see a bright future for cloud storage. Singh says he could see a role for cloud storage for file services if he had to replace his file servers. Others see the cloud as a potential way to back up remote offices.

Mildenhall says he sees a larger role for cloud storage at Apollo as well. "It would be reasonable to put file sharing and e-mail in the cloud," he says. And Mildenhall says he envisions a day when core business data might be hosted in the cloud -- as long as he has backups of everything.

Ultimately, Ruth says, IT organizations might use cloud storage as an alternative to building additional data centers to hold copies of critical information. But, he adds, "they need to get over the idea of moving the data off-site."

Next: Moving data to the cloud

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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