Using the Cloud to Make IT Better: CTERA Cloud Storage Enablement

The public cloud has backed IT into a number of uncomfortable places; specifically, there are a number of environments where company data is being created in places where it is difficult to protect. This is especially true for smaller companies with little to no IT staff and remote office branch offices (ROBOs where IT staffing can also be short). Tight budgets often push people to less expensive solutions that have little to no data protection features, or to fully cloud solutions (especially sync and share services like Dropbox) that do not offer the performance that local storage can provide. These choices often lead many organizations to one of two extremes: local IT services without backup, or remote IT services with no performance. CTERA is attempting to address these challenges with a single product aimed primarily at smaller companies and ROBO deployments within distributed enterprises.

At first glance, CTERA’s appliance appears to be the same as other storage gateway products. Their claim, however, is that they offer much more functionality than the typical storage gateway and they do so at a fraction of the cost. This claim might not make sense on the surface, but once one examines things a little deeper, it seems possible.

The idea is relatively simple: put a small appliance in each ROBO that acts as an NFS or SMB server, allowing customers to store on that appliance data they want protected or shared. That appliance then deduplicates and compresses its content and replicates it to a central cloud repository. Traditionally, vendors offering such a service do so in a caching manner, that is that the local appliance stores only recently created and frequently used data. CTERA’s model is to have each local appliance store all data for the remote/branch office it is protecting. Again, one would think that this would increase cost, as it would require more disk than the traditional approach. However, this does not appear to be the case.

To the NFS/SMB server model, CTERA adds a backup client that can be installed on any server, desktop, or laptop. It will back up that laptop, desktop, or server to the nearest CTERA appliance, which will then deduplicate, compress, encrypt and replicate that data to a central cloud repository.

Because they understand the need for file sync and share services, CTERA has also added such functionality to their desktop/laptop client. Customers can experience all of the functionality they would expect from their favorite sync and share app, but instead of storing the files outside of IT’s control, all such data is also stored on each user’s local appliance and then replicated to the cloud provider of your choice.

The secret to reducing cost, CTERA says, is to significantly reduce the local computing and storage requirements created by the deduplication functionality. Deduplication is accomplished by creating a cryptographic hash for a chunk of data, which is then looked up in a hash table. CTERA’s competitors have chosen to store their hash table locally, which increases both compute and storage requirements for the local appliance. By moving this functionality to the cloud, CTERA is able to use ARM and Atom processors instead of the Xeon processors used by their competitors. In addition, competitors storing their hash table locally tend to do so in flash for performance reasons. By not buying flash and using much cheaper ARM and Atom processors, CTERA can offer a local appliance that is much less expensive than their competitors.

Although they are dedicated to removing the need for some cloud apps (e.g. desktop backup, sync and share) for the customers this is targeted at, CTERA understands that some customers will continue to use services such as Amazon AWS or Microsoft Azure. This is why they recently announced a backup service for these environments that will back up these environments to the customer’s private cloud or another cloud provider. The simplest use of this service is to backup any files or VMs in any of their supported cloud providers to any of their supported cloud providers — including private cloud offerings. The backups are application aware via Microsoft VSS. CTERA has also done the work necessary to allow customers to integrate CTERA’s backup-as-a-service offering into their service catalogs.

StorageSwiss Take

CTERA has created a quite extensive set of tools in one package, including an SMB/NFS server that backs itself up, backup software that backs up other systems to that server, and a file sync and share service. To that list they have now added the ability to back up public cloud environments. Doing all this at a cost less than their competitors is quite a feat.

W. Curtis Preston (aka Mr. Backup) is an expert in backup & recovery systems; a space he has been working in since 1993. He has written three books on the subject, Backup & Recovery, Using SANs and NAS, and Unix Backup & Recovery. Mr. Preston is a writer and has spoken at hundreds of seminars and conferences around the world. Preston’s mission is to arm today’s IT managers with truly unbiased information about today’s storage industry and its products.

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