Cloud computing has grabbed headlines over the past year as vendors seek to change the very model of enterprise computing, moving all elements to a subscription basis. With storage demands continuing to outpace the ability of IT managers to purchase equipment, cloud-based storage has suddenly become a very tempting alternative. Piers Ford reports on the possibilities.
Not since the term data warehouse was coined has there been such a buzz around a concept that, on paper at least, has the potential to revolutionise the way businesses manage their storage. Now, cloud storage has stepped up to the plate.
Everyone is talking about it in breathless terms as the data manager's dream solution: storage delivered as a service on a pay-as-you-go basis, allowing the customer to ditch those power-hungry racks - and the real estate they occupy, not to mention the operating expenses, security overhead and the backup routines. All that responsibility can be packed up and handed across to the requisite service provider.
Except that the reality is not quite so simple. Like any other software as a service (SaaS) model, the success of cloud storage must stand or fall on the quality and availability of bandwidth - in this case, potentially, on an unprecedented scale given the size of the data explosion in the Middle East.
And there is a broad consensus among traditional storage vendors that to begin with, the technology itself is best suited to very specific types of data: streaming files typical of the media sector; geographical file sharing; and non-critical archived data that will usually only be called on for disaster recovery or regulatory requirements.
For the rest, and particularly on the transactional and system development fronts, latency shortcomings, the inevitable security issues that come with web-based models, and questions around guaranteed continuity, cloud storage is not yet sufficiently evolved to be a viable option.
But technology issues are not the only hurdle for vendors and service providers to overcome. There is also customer apprehension. IT managers are understandably still cautious about SaaS as a model for buying strategically important applications like data management.
"Customers in the region are at present undoubtedly exploring various opportunities for cloud services underpinned by cloud computing environments," says Chris Carter-Jones, principal solutions consultant at Intergence Systems Middle East.
"They are linking cloud services to capex savings and cost reductions in leveraging utility-based models where charging is made against actual usage. However, many are wrestling with the relative cost-benefit and risk trade-offs, with particular concerns around security and apprehension about placing so much reliance and dependence upon these third party cloud service providers. This is perhaps unsurprising given the state of evolution of the outsourcing marketplace in general in the Middle East region."
According to Carter-Jones, there is also a sense that many customers would still be unwilling to let their internal data be held in remote locations - which means that service providers will initially be under pressure to provide very localised versions of their presences rather than relying on the virtual, global model upon which the idealised vision of the cloud is based.
"Client discussions on data reinforce the message that localised presence is important for any organisations with an appetite to adopt, as they have understandable concerns about the integrity and geographical location of their data," he says.
"Other concerns for our clients in this region include the diversity, availability and performance of internet connections into the cloud, which are of course critical in underpinning any successful cloud service, and which potentially represent a hindrance to rapid adoption given the less deregulated nature of local and regional telecoms markets," he adds.
Carter-Jones thinks early adopters will start to come on board when "reputable" providers in the region begin to offer aggressive cloud storage pricing models.
"As a first step, customers have indicated to us that they may decide to undertake a cautious strategy that begins with managing less business-critical data in the cloud," he says, "possibly combined with some form of limited disaster recovery function - with a view to increasing adoption subject to telecom services maturity and dependent upon their personal experience over time."
But while there is caution, there is also an undeniable requirement to find new and more economic ways to manage data storage. Colin Summers, a Middle East veteran who has just joined data management specialist CommVault as regional director, says customers in the region have a sophisticated understanding of the role that storage can play in their existing data strategy.
"It's partly because of the way data is exploding here," he says. "There is huge growth in the number of internet connections and mobile connections, thanks to a young population which is also growing fast. Given the rate of data growth, the moment it gets out of control the customer soon begins to understand the potential challenges.
"Backup needs to be looked at more seriously. You are not just buying a network or a stack of PCs or a piece of software. It's far more complex when data is increasing by a factor of two or three every year. And buying more tin to handle it is just putting off the inevitable. We aren't saying that cloud is the be-all and end-all. But it brings a new set of benefits and cost savings to the backup issue."
Summers says one of the problems with the way cloud storage is currently being marketed is that there are multiple definitions of what the word ‘cloud' actually means. These "splices and dices" of interpretation make it even more incumbent on service providers to set the right customer expectations.
"It will be up to data storage and mobile providers to build a portfolio of services that include the cloud model," he says. "There are still some challenges for them in bringing the cost down and while the bandwidth is getting there, we still need to motivate mobile providers to increase service levels.
"Even then, there are serious considerations to be made by businesses before embracing the cloud as a facility for backup and storage - not least the question of security. We're already seeing this problem, with security issues being raised by corporate users on sites such as Facebook and MySpace. Blocking such activity with a firewall is one approach, though for larger organisations that cannot embrace a grid computing nor utility model, the option is there to create their own cloud," continues Summers.
"We are also now starting to see the application of data management software being deployed by those building the cloud, to be offered as part of an overall service, especially meeting the demands of compliance and e-discovery. For most SMEs, capital expenditure means they are not even considering building such virtual environments, but will instead consider buying into such a service if it can deliver on a company's storage and retrieval needs," he explains.
Symantec's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, Johnny Karam, suggests that the cloud model will be a natural consideration for enterprises in the region as they look for ways to improve storage efficiency and reduce the management complexity of their rapidly expanding data environments. And they will look to the storage service and public cloud providers to help them.
But widespread availability of these services across the Gulf is still some way off, according to Chris Carter-Jones at Intergence Systems, who says the market in the region is still relatively immature.
"MEEZA, the Doha-based joint venture with the Qatar Foundation, seemingly leads the pack in terms of a degree of service availability," he says. The service provider regularly appears in media lists of proactive players which are helping to shape and develop the developing regional cloud infrastructure.
"However, at this stage, the services on offer are limited to SaaS offerings in hosted exchange and hosted sharepoint," Carter-Jones adds. "As of today, we are not aware of any regional providers of cloud storage services today under the SaaS mantle."
Looking ahead to 2010, the most critical factor in customer adoption of cloud storage seems most likely to be a combination of local service providers being bold enough to extend their portfolios, and major storage vendors bringing their global vision of the cloud model to bear on a region in which there is everything to play for.
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