Service providers offer remote storage

A new type of network service provider may soon emerge to rival Internet service providers and application service providers, selling storage as a utility over a network link to storage facilities offering terabytes of space.

A new type of network service provider may soon emerge to rival Internet service providers and application service providers, selling storage as a utility over a network link to storage facilities offering terabytes of space.

They owe their rise to simple economics: Customers can save a significant amount of money by contracting for storage with a network, rather than building their own storage facilities.

Take Exodus Communications. The Internet hosting service now counts 4,000 customers as storage utility users. "Over the last six months, we're seeing the numbers skyrocket" for storage for a diverse set of customers, from dot-coms to traditional enterprises, says Brian Schwarz, product marketing manager at the company.

Other suppliers of storage as a utility service include Centripetal, Electronic Data Systems, IBM Global Services and StorageNetworks. They are joined by partners acting as market makers or intermediaries with end users, such as Enron Broadband Services and Xdrive Technologies. Representatives at these companies say they are in the best growth market since Britney Spears made poster makers millions of dollars.

"Until now, storage has always been produced with the idea of one user and one set of products. Now it's being shared across the network," says John Clavin, vice president of marketing at StorageNetworks, a 3-year-old company that analysts view as the first pure play in storage as a network utility.

StorageNetworks has 52 points of presence in North America and Europe and 170 customers, up from five at the end of 1999. Its customers believe they are getting storage cheaper over a network than they can build it themselves - in fact, 20 percent to 30 percent cheaper, Clavin says.

GartnerGroup Dataquest projects that what amounted to an embryonic $10 million business in 1999 will grow to an $8 billion business by 2003. "Most of the initial growth will occur within Internet data centers, accounting for 80 percent of the overall market by 2003," GartnerGroup Dataquest analyst Adam Couture wrote in his report, The Storage Utility Market: Strap In and Hold Tight.

That means the biggest appetite for network storage comes from online businesses, including Internet service providers and hosting services, as well as e-commerce sites fielding catalogs, capturing customer visit information and executing transactions. The other 20 percent of the market is in providing storage as a network utility to corporate data centers, Couture says.

In the past, storage has taken the form of disk arrays directly attached to a server needing the information. Now, "you can be 30 miles away. It's the same as being two feet away," Clavin says. Data is transferred from storage area networks (SANs) built in a storage facility to an enterprise or to the servers at an Internet hosting facility over fiber-optic cable, with switching devices providing quick routing.

Enron entered the market for storage as a utility in December by serving as a market maker, signing contracts with customers and lining up storage resources from StorageNetworks.

"When a customer needs storage at a particular location, we find the best way to make the interconnection" over the network, says Ravi Thuraisingham, Enron's lead trader in storage services. The Internet can be used as a link in the route between customer and storage center, but Enron is more likely to string together available segments of fiber-optic networks from its broadband suppliers.

In some cases, customers want offsite storage for backup and archival purposes, transferring a predetermined file with no particular urgency. In that case, the storage used may be network-attached storage, as opposed to SAN storage based on fiber-optic devices, and a Transport Control Protocol/Internet Protocol network, such as the Internet, is more likely to be involved, Thuraisingham says. He predicts SANs will eventually become the dominant form of network storage.

Xdrive, a market maker for storage as a utility for end users, has 8.7 million customers, signing up individuals from various Web site offerings including CNet Networks, says Keith Pinter, Xdrive's executive vice president.

Xdrive will supply access to storage through a Web browser, or offer an enterprise thin clients through which desktops may access remote storage. The advantage of storage as a networked utility, Pinter says, is that workers can take advantage of Xdrive's collaboration services and give a peer group access to files at a certain URL, with versioning control recording who is making changes. The service replaces the repetitive e-mailing attachments or working in a client-server system such as Lotus Development Notes, he says.

The average user needs 12 megabytes to 20 MB of storage, and Xdrive is signing up users at the rate of 15,000 to 20,000 per day, Pinter says. "It meets a human need to save things," he says.

And whatever need existed before the Internet has gotten a lot bigger with the advent of multiple network activities. Business on the Internet is creating a demand for storage that doubles every year, in some cases.

"If you don't have tremendous knowledge of storage systems, it's a problem," StorageNetworks' Clavin says. Instead of taking on the problem, companies can now let someone else bear the risk of building out a big storage capacity.