Is online storage for you?

These days in IT, you can buy a service for anything – including, once again, your storage.

Recent surveys indicate that small and medium sized businesses (SMBs) that shy away from extending their IT resources represent almost half of storage-as-a-service users.

Today’s storage-as-a-service providers have arisen from the ashes of the dot-com era’s storage service providers (SSP).

But they differ in one critical way: They want to store your backups and e-mail archives, not your mission-critical, front-line data. The new storage-as-a-service idea has gained cachet quickly among IT professionals who don’t want the burden of data backups, e-mail management and content archiving.

Such holds true for Corey Grone, IT manager at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH). The backup burden has eased considerably since he began using EMC’s Mozy storage-as-a-service offering, Grone says. The Mozy online backup service has helped him provide consistent backup for seven departments of varying technological sophistication.

“Our departments run the gamut, from having lots of personnel and technology infrastructure to having none,” Grone says. “Using Mozy was a way for us to deploy a backup solution across the board in a straightforward, rapid and easy way without having to worry about infrastructure and personnel to man the infrastructure and all of the issues associated with traditional backup strategies,” he says.

With Mozy, which EMC acquired along with Berkeley Data Systems in September 2007, Grone backs up user files on desktops and laptops nearly continuously. If users lose data, they can recover it over Mozy servers.

At first, the thought of relying on storage-as-a-service for data backups was a big concern, Grone says. His worries disappeared once he conducted his due diligence, however. Mozy won him over with such features as encryption of data in transit and at rest. In addition, Grone likes that Mozy lets users create their own encryption keys to guarantee privacy.

Online data-backup services can help out the bottom line, too. With online backup, IT departments can avoid having to invest in backup software, hardware and media, and still provide reliable data protection. Online backup services are priced in two ways – by the amount of backed-up data in gigabytes or by the number of servers, desktops and laptops backed up. For example, Mozy costs $24 for a single server license and 10GB of storage or from $30 to $70 for five servers and 20GB of storage.

At the University of Pittsburgh, the cost to the GSPH of planning, implementing and maintaining a backup infrastructure would have been prohibitive, Grone says. “Implementing Mozy sidesteps all of these concerns and presents a secure off-site backup solution that is easy to deploy and maintain,” he says. “The pay-as-you-go pricing model also ensures that our costs match our utilization, providing immediate return on investment.”

Storage service evolution

Acceptance of the storage-as-a-service concept has been a long time coming. In the dot-com era, a variety of SSPs launched with the goal of providing online storage facilities for companies that couldn’t develop their own storage infrastructure readily. Most SSPs, including Storability, Storage Networks and StorageWay, failed amid user skepticism about an outsider’s ability to store business-critical data reliably.

A few SSPs managed to survive the bust, however, and have made the transition into the storage-as-a-service world. Two examples are PNHS subsidiary AmeriVault and Arsenal Digital Solutions, which have secured a place for themselves offering online backup and archiving. Arsenal Digital services now form the heart of IBM’s storage-as-a-service offerings; IBM acquired the company in December 2007.

Besides former SSPs, storage-as-a-service providers include other longtime storage vendors and small players, too. For example, data-protection mainstay Iron Mountain became one of the first established storage companies to offer storage-as-a-service. It entered the market four years ago via acquisition, first grabbing Connected, then LiveVault. Connected provided online backup for laptops and PCs within enterprises; LiveVault aimed its services at backing up servers in the same environment.

Smaller storage-as-a-service companies, including Asigra and Robobak, offer their online backup technologies through a reseller channel of managed-service providers (MSP) and telecom companies. Asigra, for example, has expanded its Televaulting services through such MSPs as Data Store 365. Robobak, which has been offering services for remote offices and branch offices since June 2007, is building a channel through US Data Vault and Digital Fortress. IBM, though certainly not a small company, also works the managed-services channel for storage-as-a-service offerings picked up through Arsenal Digital. It offers ViaRemote for servers and PCs through its Business Continuity and Resiliency Services division and AT&T. (Compare Data Backup and Replication products.)

Last year, storage-as-a-service really started heating up. Besides EMC’s acquisition of Mozy and IBM’s of Arsenal Digital, HP and Symantec launched storage services of their own.

Other storage-as-a-service activity includes Autonomy’s acquisition of Zantaz in July 2007 and Dell’s acquisition of MessageOne, a start-up offering Microsoft Exchange server failover and e-mail archiving services. In addition, CommVault, known for its data-protection software, entered the storage-as-a-service market early this year. It offers a managed data-protection service through DBS International, Incentra Solutions and Rackspace US, as well as a remote management service.

Storage-as-a-service buy-in

Almost half of storage-as-a-service users are in the small-to-midsize-business market – such organizations as the University of Pittsburgh’s GSPH that do not want to extend their IT resources with a backup infrastructure. Larger enterprises are adopting storage-as-a-service, too, to protect data on laptop and desktop computers, IDC reports.

Storage-as-a-service appeals particularly to enterprises that need to replace or supplement faulty tape infrastructures with more reliable backup and protection technologies.

Such a need is what drew Joe Gillis, MIS manager for The Beal Companies, a real-estate management firm in Boston, to online data backup services. In the past, he would run a traditional grandfather-father-son backup rotation with daily, weekly and monthly tapes. Once a month, he’d ship the tapes off-site. “Depending on when a disaster occurred, my data could be as much as a month out of date,” he says. “With the off-site archiving, you don’t face that problem.”

An early storage-as-a-service user, Gillis added in the AmeriVault-AV online service for remote data backups and e-mail archiving almost five years ago. “Not having to take tape home or ship it to an archiving site data protection is the primary advantage of using a storage service,” he says.

For extra protection, Gillis runs backups locally, too. “To be honest, though, the restoration process from the vault is so quick and simple, there is really no advantage to having a local copy, except if the Internet happens to be down,” he says.

American Warehouses also has complemented tape with online data backup service. The logistics-services provider in Houston learned its lesson the hard way. After a hardware failure on one of its HP servers, the company was down for two weeks recovering the data.

“The tape drive had failed for the previous four days and had not sent us a notification to say that it was not getting a good backup,” says Tony Carter, CEO of American Warehouses. “One of the applications on our server . . . hosts a warehouse-management system that is the spinal cord of our operations.”

Following the failure, Carter turned to online data-backup services from Terian Solutions, a reseller of Asigra’s Televaulting software, to protect mission-critical applications. He’s been using the services for almost two years. Downtime of any sort can’t be tolerated any longer.

“If we are down for two weeks anymore, we are out of business,” Carter says. That would be a pretty sad ending for a 50-year-old company.

Deni Connor is principal at Storage Strategies Now. She can be reached at dconnor@ssg-now.com.

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