Small companies face uncertain storage needs and can't afford RAID arrays and the talent necessary to maintain them. Traditional media companies are scrambling to warehouse content online, lest some wildcat organization beats them to the punch. Hospitals are under growing pressure to keep long-term digital archives of every poke, prod and scan conducted within their walls. The time is right to know a thing or two about off-loading storage to the Internet.
At bare minimum, outsourced storage solutions ensure consistent access to data, regular and safe backups, and a guaranteed fast turnaround on data recovery. Those are not new concepts.
"These are things they ask for internally but often can't get, because their people are doing 100 other things," says Dan Glisky, president of managed storage provider Compsat Technology of Southfield, Mich.
At its most basic level, Internet-enabled storage can help fight the most elementary of all computer-user failings: keeping information safe.
"It's clear that more corporate-critical data is being maintained on laptops and desktops," says IDC's Steve Widen. "Drop the laptop, and destroy all the data that's on there."
Avoiding the hassle of juggling removable media like Zip disks or CD-ROMs can be as easy as setting everyone up with a free or low-frills account at consumer sites such as Yahoo!, Driveway or Xdrive.
Online backup systems that have an always-on monitor client, such as Connected Corp.'s Connected.com, have an edge over pure Web interfaces employed by low-end solutions. Connected has the ability to force a backup automatically when a laptop rejoins the network or a desktop is well past due - something a browser can't monitor.
Connected offers its service to customers and resellers as a full-service hosted app, complete with unlimited storage for about $250 per PC, per year, or as a network-storage technology that can be implemented on a corporate WAN or intranet and managed locally.
That's fine for data that belongs to one computer, but there's also the need to share data with others. Mangosoft recently unveiled Mangomind, a shared storage service that looks and acts like a standard Windows drive path. That holds for administrators and users, meaning that IT staff or a storage-management partner can configure access rules and permissions in much the same way as any NT-based directory.
Because it is reasonable to expect customers to want to store data as close to their applications as possible, Mangosoft is pursuing partnerships with ASPs aggressively.
Still, not everything is painless for $30 per seat, per month. Conflict management is still relatively manual - if two users offer conflicting versions of the same file, the offending material is placed in a conflict bin for administrative consideration.
Beyond securely backed-up presentations and shared sales forecasts lies the realm of the Internet storage area network, where more than the desktop is at stake. With high-speed connections, specialists like StorageNetworks make it look easy to outsource countless gigs of crucial customer data. Meanwhile, businesses still want to keep the really important data close to home.
"In large enterprises, maybe 20 to 25 percent of the data is business-critical. And they are leaving that data on-site, because they're a little hesitant to [outsource] the crown jewels of the business," says Widen. That still leaves a significant opportunity and a lot of volume to be accounted for.
CreekPath Systems' Greg Mangold believes that the value of high-end outsourced data can be measured by simply looking at the price of failure. While an outsourcer has both the resources and the single-minded dedication to keep storage running, in an in-house scenario, "the minute it goes down, you start paying more," he says.
Even so, not all high-capacity, online storage environments are created equal. San Francisco-based Scale Eight specializes in storing and transmitting extremely large files to a broad audience. Spokesman Dave Donohue affectionately refers to what the company does as "pickup truck" storage.
The company's technology sacrifices milliseconds of retrieval time in order to focus on managing large libraries of extremely large files that might be demanded by up to two million people at any given time.
According to Donohue, most large outsourced storage solutions are tuned to database requirements - the need to pull small records very quickly.
"In a call center where you have to access millions of [customers], thirty milliseconds is too long to wait for a record to pop up," he says. But with media files stretching into the multi-megabytes, the company applied supercomputing principles to ensure that millions of people could theoretically access the same file at once, without worrying too much about the lag to start the transaction.
So far, the company is focusing on partnerships with content aggregators and service providers such as Akamai. Akamai serves as a reseller and cache for popularly accessed items, with Scale Eight providing direct access to lower-demand archived material. Scale Eight counts online media start-ups such as Unsurface and Vingage among its client base. Pricing is listed as $30 per managed, mirrored gigabyte of storage per month, plus additional server bandwidth charges.
It turns out that laying down the infrastructure is only part of the challenge. With storage - particularly storage with a direct conduit to the Internet - comes the responsibility for keeping the wrong people out of the loop. Widen says that is a significant challenge to storage solution partners.
"SSPs [storage service providers] and ASPs are struggling with this: As you accumulate more customers, more people are coming in and accessing data at your facility, so you clearly need to have strong access policies in place to prevent someone inadvertently getting access to someone else's data."
A common solution is to encrypt all data at the source, rather than just during the transmission. That helps protect the content from prying eyes and limits the long-term risk that loss or damage can incur. And with redundant storage on multiple sites, even losing a drive to failure or theft should provide no discernable break-in service.
Even with per-gigabyte hard-disk prices continually falling, it is clear that for many, storage is a problem that needs expert attention. Online managed storage is an attractive way to solve that problem.
"Content is increasing in two dimensions. Each piece of information is getting larger, and the amount of content is getting larger," says Greg Howard, principal analyst for HTRC Group (www.htrcgroup.com).
When another room full of rack-mounted spinning disks is simply not an option, Internet vaults await.
Store It On The Net
|Networked storage implementation and manage-
ment service provider
|Developers of Connected TLM, online storage and
|Offers primary use and backup remote storage
|Provides Windows-compatible remote file systems
|Specializes in remote media storage and streaming
to the masses
|High-end outsourced SAN provider