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My youngest daughter used to have trouble with her animals. Whenever she saw a giraffe, she would say "zebra" and whenever she saw a zebra she would say "giraffe!" Although an adult would never make that mistake, one can understand why a child would: She was new to these names, and they were entirely arbitrary words. Besides, both are quadrupeds with bizarre coloration and patterns. But my daughter definitely knew a horse when she saw one!

Private Clouds and SSPs: Horses and Zebras
Today's cloud storage world can be equally confusing to the uninitiated. Long-time IT folks remember the storage service providers (SSPs) of a decade ago and have watched as storage and server virtualization have gained prominence.

When cloud storage began to get some press a couple of years ago, it was natural to try to fit it into the existing paradigms and understandable to fail to spot the differences.

Internal IT systems have been on the road to virtualization for years. I recall being excited about the potential of server and storage virtualization over a decade ago. But storage service providers like StorageNetworks (where I worked in 2000) didn't use any of this fancy stuff. Rather, the SSPs of last decade were zebras, built of the same storage area network (SAN) storage systems used by their customers but clothed as a service-oriented business.

As Hu Yoshida of HDS points out in his blog, SSPs were not a raging success. But they were not the colossal failure many assume - just ask the vast assortment of StorageNetworks alumni now in charge at places like HDS! True, all that conventional enterprise storage gear had trouble with multi-tenancy, but the real issue for SSPs was financial. They built out world-class storage networks (pardon the pun) and wrapped them in expensive home-built management and provisioning software. By the time they had a workable offering, the price tag had risen to levels that were hard to justify.

Today's private storage clouds, as touted by HDS, NetApp, and others, are horses of a different color. Enterprise storage systems are much more flexible and sharable thanks to integrated virtualization and advanced management features. But they retain the traditional enterprise storage access mechanisms, construction, and cost. If you're looking for a horse, it's a blessing to find one: These "cloudy storage" solutions can be plugged in and used precisely because they are conventional. The kind of storage workload described in Hu's blog (massive I/O connected to virtual servers) is best served by these impressive but ordinary storage devices.

Public Cloud is a Different Animal
Not every workload needs a workhorse, however. Many have questioned how widespread the need is for the next generation of high performance connectivity. Database systems remain the only really common high-I/O workload, though highly-concentrated server virtualization systems will also soon join this club. But these make up only a small percentage of overall IT server and storage deployments. The majority of applications demand low cost and high flexibility more than extreme performance.

This is especially true of the types of applications using public cloud storage today. Regardless of industry vertical, every business would benefit from having their vast reference and archival datasets available online rather than moldering on tape. Intelligent cloud storage platforms are rapidly being integrated with the best data management and archiving applications to make this a reality. Already, companies like Nirvanix are hosting petabytes of archival data for the largest corporations and governmental entities. They chose public cloud storage over internal disk or tape because it was competitive on cost as well as being exceptionally available.

The next generation of business applications will make use of the other big benefit of cloud storage: Collaboration. Forward-thinking businesses have already deployed applications with integrated data sharing using public cloud storage to enhance their technical support and customer service activities. A new wave of similar business-to-business collaboration tools is on the way. IT infrastructure folks might not have noticed this shift in focus by developers, but the revolution in collaborative software is about to strike.

Although the casual observer might not discern it, public cloud storage solutions are as different from virtualized internal systems and the old SSP offerings as giraffes are from horses or zebras. Today's cloud storage providers are rejecting conventional enterprise storage devices in favor of software solutions based on commodity server hardware. Server and storage virtualization, Fibre Channel SANs, and even enterprise NAS are rare in the data centers of cloud storage providers. Instead, they have re-thought the challenge of protecting data and servicing customers and their solutions have the side effect of being much less expensive. Hardware cost is disappearing, and cloud providers are instead focusing on the "glass floor" of operations and management costs, as well as raising the bar on service and availability.

Place Your Bets
This new world will not erase the old, but cloud solutions have little use for traditional server and storage infrastructure approaches. There is a race "up the stack" as IT companies deploy platforms and services rather than merely offering faster versions of last year's server and storage equipment. This is the reason for VMware's acquisition of SpringSource (and perhaps Zimbra) and a series of investments on the part of EMC, Cisco, Dell, HP, IBM, and the rest. There will still be a market for the nuts and bolts products that support traditional IT systems, but these big players are betting that the action is elsewhere.

More Stories By Stephen Foskett

Stephen Foskett has provided vendor-independent end user consulting on storage topics for over 10 years. He has been a storage columnist and has authored numerous articles for industry publications. Stephen is a popular presenter at industry events and recently received Microsoft’s MVP award for contributions to the enterprise storage community. As the director of consulting for Nirvanix, Foskett provides strategic consulting to assist Fortune 500 companies in developing strategies for service-based tiered and cloud storage. He holds a bachelor of science in Society/Technology Studies, from Worcester Polytechnic Institute.