What is Cloud Storage?

The IT industry (manufacturers) sometimes gets ahead of itself. Time and again it’s guilty of introducing a technology, generating an enormous amount of discussion, and then moving on before the real implementors, IT professionals, get a chance to really understand it. Cloud storage is one of these cases, where many IT professionals are still asking “what is cloud storage and how should I use it?”.

Cloud storage means different things to different people depending on how it’s implemented. The most common implementation is a ‘public cloud’, which is essentially storage capacity accessed through the internet or a wide area network (WAN) connection, and purchased on an as-needed basis. Users can expand capacity almost without limit, by contacting the provider, which typically operates a highly scalable storage infrastructure, sometimes in physically dispersed locations.

This expansion ability drives a common expectation that cloud providers have massive storage infrastructures. As a result most cloud storage hardware and software systems developers have also focused on scalability and ease of management. A grid architecture is common, with storage being made up of clusters of each server or nodes that are coupled together to present a single storage area or single management point.

This clustering can take two forms, either tightly coupled or loosely coupled. In tightly coupled clusters, identical, or very similar nodes are joined to form a single storage pool or file system with centralized execution of storage functions. Loosely coupled clusters, however, can be largely dissimilar nodes coupled together by a global file system with storage functions being individually executed across the nodes. Each has their pros and cons and will be detailed in an upcoming Storage Switzerland article.

The interface to the cloud storage is what the storage manager or the user will see. This is typically some sort of appliance or software application that runs locally and then sends data to the cloud. It can be as simple as presenting a file interface to the cloud storage area, meaning that it looks like a network mounted drive or it could be integrated into a backup or archive application.

Cloud storage is a new distribution model, however, with the potential for economies of scale. Aside from cost, its benefits are outsourced operation, simple, unlimited growth and ‘enterprise’ features for smaller users – like high availability, security, data protection, etc.

Finally, there is a lot of discussion about the second implementation, internal or ‘private clouds’. This essentially is taking the capabilities of a public storage cloud, like scalability and cost effectiveness, and bringing them to the large data center. The use case could be to create a cloud storage-like service for the organization that can be accessed from anywhere or it could be as simple as leveraging a cloud storage solution to build a highly scalable, easy-to-use NAS.

With the infrastructure in place the next logical question is “what are the best uses for this storage platform – archive, backup, collaboration?”. This is something that we’ll examine in the next article.


Twelve years ago George Crump founded Storage Switzerland with one simple goal; to educate IT professionals about all aspects of data center storage. He is the primary contributor to Storage Switzerland and is a heavily sought after public speaker. With over 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the US, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN, Virtualization, Cloud and Enterprise Flash. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland he was CTO at one of the nation's largest storage integrators where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection.

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