Data has become the lifeblood of almost all businesses today, and as the cloud has emerged as a key solution, the demand for reliable, flexible, and secure data storage services continues to soar. Traditional on-premise storage systems often struggle to keep pace with exponential data growth and the rapidly evolving regulatory and compliance landscape. Consequently, businesses are increasingly storing, accessing, and managing their data through cloud storage.

Cloud storage is a cloud-based data storage model where data resides on remote servers, owned and operated by a cloud service provider (CSP) and accessed via a network connection. Organizations are turning to cloud storage due to its convenience, scalability, cost-effectiveness, and added features.

Dgtl Infra provides a comprehensive overview of cloud storage, delving into its workings, significance, and how it outperforms traditional storage methods. We also explore its varied types, architectures, numerous advantages, and leading providers. This analysis assists organizations in selecting a cloud storage system that aligns with their specific industry vertical and individual requirements.

What is Cloud Storage?

Cloud storage is a data storage-as-a-service (STaaS) model that allows users to save and access data on remote cloud servers via a network connection, typically the internet. These cloud storage servers are built on virtualization techniques, enabling dynamic resource allocation, workload balancing, and demand-based, instant scalability in response to fluctuating user demands.

Cloud storage service providers often deliver a broad array of additional offerings that add value to the basic storage service. These include data backup, which helps protect data from loss or corruption; file synchronization, which ensures data consistency across multiple devices or users; and application hosting, which can significantly reduce the infrastructure costs for businesses.

In general, organizations may choose to utilize cloud storage for several purposes, including:

  • General-purpose storage for everyday business use cases
  • Data protection and business continuity through data replication and backup functionalities, reducing the risks associated with data loss and downtime
  • Data archiving for long-term data retention to adhere to stringent compliance and regulatory requirements such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union

How Does Cloud Storage Work?

Cloud storage works in a similar way to other cloud-based services. Essentially, a cloud service provider (CSP) like Amazon Web Services (AWS) owns and operates a vast network of globally distributed data centers and offers storage capacity to its customers over either a public or private network connection, charging only for the actual storage space used.

This system abstracts the physical storage infrastructure, including components like hard drives and solid-state drives (SSDs), enabling users to interact through a well-defined interface. It allows for self-service management, which means users can manage their storage needs without requiring any direct interaction with the underlying hardware.

Organizations usually establish their connection to cloud storage via the internet or a dedicated physical connection like AWS Direct Connect or Azure ExpressRoute. Once data is uploaded to the cloud storage service, it’s automatically distributed and replicated across multiple servers and geographical locations, known as regions and availability zones. This redundancy is a critical feature of cloud storage, providing fault tolerance and ensuring data availability even in case of localized outages.

Access to stored data is versatile, users can retrieve or upload data through various mediums like web portals, applications, and storage management tools. Moreover, applications can utilize standard file transfer protocols like FTP or APIs such as Amazon S3’s REST API, enabling developers to seamlessly integrate their software applications directly with the cloud storage service.

Why is Cloud Storage Important?

In today’s digital era, enterprise storage systems grapple with exponentially growing data volumes that originate from diverse sources such as IoT devices, mobile applications, and business operations. Meeting the stringent requirements for data security, performance, and resilience, all while provisioning the necessary infrastructure and resources, typically incurs the highest ongoing costs for most organizations. This is where cloud storage steps in, transforming the way organizations store and manage data by enabling easy access from any location with an internet connection.

Cloud storage offers immediate scalability, elasticity, and flexibility. This cloud-based system allows organizations to adjust their storage capacity in real-time as needed, eliminating the burden of upfront hardware procurement costs and the long lead times associated with physical infrastructure expansion. It offers the cost-effectiveness of a pay-as-you-go pricing model, along with robust security measures such as encryption-at-rest and in-transit, as well as multi-factor authentication. Moreover, many providers offer disaster recovery and business continuity solutions, ensuring data can be restored swiftly and seamlessly in case of an eventuality.

Emerging features in the realm of cloud storage, such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and advanced analytics, further enhance cloud its value proposition, offering predictive insights on data trends, usage patterns, and potential anomalies. As such, cloud storage is fast becoming essential for leading organizations, transforming their data management and operational efficiency.

Cloud Storage vs Traditional Storage

The primary difference between cloud storage and traditional local hardware storage lies in the storage location and method of accessibility. Cloud storage houses data on remote servers that are accessible over an internet connection. This model facilitates global access, instant scalability, and automatic backup.

In contrast, traditional storage – such as on-premise servers or external hard drives – may demand manual management, dedicated physical space, and an upfront procurement investment. However, traditional storage provides quicker direct access and more control over data, making it suitable for data-sensitive operations and high-speed local networks.

Organizations can choose a storage model based on their specific needs for accessibility, cost, control, space, and security. For instance, traditional on-premise storage can be more cost-effective under certain circumstances, such as when organizations frequently move or retrieve large amounts of data. Conversely, the pay-as-you-go model of cloud storage can turn expensive when data transfer and egress charges are factored in, significantly increasing the total cost of using such services.

Types of Cloud Storage

Cloud storage can be of different types – block storage, object storage, and file storage – each designed for specific use cases. They utilize distinct interfaces and protocols but all serve the common purpose of storing raw data.

TypeBlock StorageObject StorageFile Storage
DescriptionFixed-sized raw data blocksData as objectsData as files
StructureFlat address spaceFlat namespaceHierarchical structure
AccessRandom, byte-levelAPI-based, globalHierarchical, path-based
ScalabilityLimitedHighly scalableLimited
Use CasesDatabases, VMsWeb apps, backupShared drives, docs
PerformanceHighVaries, typically lowerIntermediate
MetadataMinimalExtensiveModerate

Block Storage

Block storage, a traditional form of data storage, saves data in fixed-sized units known as blocks. Each block is managed individually and manipulated independently, providing granular control over data storage. This distinctive feature enables applications, especially I/O-intensive ones like SQL databases or high-demand virtual machines (VMs), to interact directly with the storage medium. It eliminates the need for additional processing or protocol translations, resulting in latency reduction and improvements in response times.

Operating similar to a traditional hard drive in a PC, each block in block storage can accommodate any type of filesystem, from NTFS to ext4. This versatility makes block storage a go-to solution to augment storage for compute instances, such as those in Amazon EC2, that have limited or no attached storage. Users can flexibly create, allocate, and enlarge storage blocks, and attach or detach them from these compute instances as per the computational demand.

While block storage tends to be more expensive than other storage types like object or file storage, its superior performance makes it an excellent choice for applications necessitating high-speed storage. It delivers noteworthy advantages, including low latency, high I/O throughput, scalability, and data integrity.

Object Storage

Object storage, also known as blob storage, is the most common type of storage in the cloud. It organizes and manages data as discrete objects, which can be files of any size or form. Each object contains not only the data itself but also carries extensive metadata and a globally unique identifier to facilitate easy access and retrieval across the internet. Unlike traditional file systems that use a hierarchical folder structure, object storage, such as Amazon S3, maintains data in a flat namespace, promoting easy scalability. Within each namespace, objects are compartmentalized into buckets, which are logical containers devised to organize objects based on themes like project, purpose, or ownership.

Object storage typically introduces higher latency compared to block storage or file storage systems. This is because object storage operates at a higher level of abstraction, involving the management of additional metadata layers and complex data retrieval processes. Despite this, object storage’s high scalability and cost-effectiveness make it a preferred choice for storing large quantities of unstructured data. This encompasses various types of data, such as documents, digital media (images and videos), system backups, and application log files.

However, one key characteristic of object storage systems is that modification of files typically requires re-uploading the entire file. Thus, it proves more suitable for use cases necessitating infrequent modifications, such as long-term archiving, backups, storing snapshots or clones of block volumes, static files serving for web applications, and data lakes for big data analytics.

File Storage

File storage organizes and manages data using a traditional hierarchical structure, akin to a typical file system with files and directories. These files, complemented with metadata like names, sizes, permissions, and timestamps, are stored in cloud-based folders. This hierarchy streamlines file organization and navigation, crucial for large-scale data management in the cloud. Though it tends to have higher latency than block storage, a more performance-oriented cloud storage type, file storage is generally a more cost-effective option.

File storage and object storage, two key cloud storage types, both handle data as files. However, file storage is specifically engineered to manage frequently modified files, like those in a live cloud-based database. This makes it an ideal choice for cloud applications and datasets that necessitate concurrent file access and manipulation by multiple users or systems.

Cloud Storage Architectures

Storage is implemented in the cloud through various architectures and systems, including Network Attached Storage (NAS), Storage Area Network (SAN), Distributed File Systems (DFS), and Software-Defined Storage (SDS).

Network Attached Storage (NAS)

Network Attached Storage (NAS) refers to a dedicated file storage architecture where hard drives or SSDs are connected to a network, facilitating file-level access to data. It is an advantageous configuration that allows multiple users or applications to simultaneously access and share files across a network. Cloud service providers (CSPs) frequently offer NAS as-a-service, introducing the benefits of scalable, pay-as-you-grow and shared file storage within the cloud environment. This service enables organizations to store, manage, and backup their files in a secure, centralized location, accessible globally via the internet.

Cloud NAS can be accessed by clients or applications using standard file-based protocols such as the Network File System (NFS) or the Server Message Block (SMB). This compatibility ensures seamless integration with existing applications and legacy systems that inherently depend on file-based access, thereby simplifying data management and enhancing operational efficiency.

Storage Area Network (SAN)

A Storage Area Network (SAN) is a high-speed, dedicated network consisting of interconnected storage devices, such as hard drives, solid-state drives (SSDs), or optical disk drives. These devices provide block storage to both individuals and organizations. Recognizing the need for scalable and reliable block storage solutions, many cloud service providers (CSPs) offer SANs as-a-service. This service is crucial for organizations that handle large databases or transaction-intensive workloads and need swift, block-level access to their data.

Access to a Cloud SAN is enabled via specific protocols such as Fibre Channel, a high-speed network protocol purpose-built for SANs, and Internet Small Computer Systems Interface (iSCSI), which facilitates block-level storage access over shared IP networks.

Though SANs may entail a complex setup requiring significant configuration and ongoing support, they offer a clear advantage in terms of speed over alternatives like Network Attached Storage (NAS), especially critical for cloud-based, real-time applications.

Distributed File Systems (DFS)

Distributed File Systems (DFS) represent a file system architecture that distributes files and data across multiple nodes or servers within a network, a crucial element of modern cloud storage infrastructure. Primarily adopted in large-scale, cloud-native applications such as streaming services or big data analytics, they effectively cater to data-intensive operations.

DFS can be efficiently implemented in both Network Attached Storage (NAS), which is optimal for sharing files over a network, and Storage Area Network (SAN) environments, where block-level storage is essential. Leveraging DFS, cloud service providers (CSPs) can strategically manage and disseminate data across diverse storage nodes, regions, or availability zones.

This strategy provides high availability, promotes fault tolerance, and facilitates efficient data access, a key measure of performance for cloud-based storage solutions.

Software-Defined Storage (SDS)

Software-Defined Storage (SDS) represents a storage architecture in which storage resources and management functionalities are abstracted from the physical hardware infrastructure. This decoupling enables organizations to virtualize their storage resources, a method providing improved flexibility, scalability, resource optimization, and ease of management.

Cloud service providers (CSPs) deliver a storage control plane that is fully decoupled from their physical storage devices. Such a design exposes the underlying infrastructure as a virtualized pool of storage resources. As a result, it simplifies the aggregation of storage capacity and dynamic allocation based on fluctuating requirements, whether those come from data-intensive applications or from individual user needs within an organization.

Advantages of Cloud Storage

Cloud storage provides numerous advantages for individuals and businesses, including scalability, cost efficiency, disaster recovery, automatic updates and backups, reduced IT requirements, and accessibility.

  1. Scalability: cloud storage services offer dynamic scalability, enabling users to quickly adjust their storage capacity as per requirements. This flexibility aids organizations in adapting to evolving storage needs without fear of running out of space or wasting resources on unused storage
  2. Cost Efficiency: operating on a pay-as-you-go model, cloud storage systems like Amazon S3 negate the need for significant initial capital outlays. Users only pay for the exact amount of storage they utilize, enhancing cost efficiency
  3. Disaster Recovery: acting as a robust disaster recovery solution, cloud storage permits organizations to backup their data to the cloud. This avoids the need for continual expansion of on-premises storage systems. In the event of on-premises system failure, the data still remains securely stored in the cloud
  4. Automatic Updates and Backups: many cloud storage services automatically update and backup files. This not only ensures data integrity but also provides a safety net against data loss, with features like restore options and trash retention
  5. Reduced IT Requirements: by minimizing the need for extensive on-premises IT infrastructure, cloud storage services alleviate the workload on IT staff, leading to further cost savings and allowing them to focus on strategic tasks rather than routine maintenance
  6. Accessibility: using an internet connection, cloud storage services can be accessed from anywhere. This promotes remote work and fosters effective collaboration among geographically dispersed teams, with shared folders and file version history

Cloud Storage Providers

Many cloud service providers (CSPs) offer flexible cloud storage options, along with features like data backup and file syncing. While different providers may use varying terminology to describe similar storage concepts, the core idea remains consistent: storing and managing data in the cloud.

Outlined below are examples of the block storage, object storage, and file storage offerings from the major CSPs:

CSPBlock StorageObject StorageFile Storage
Amazon Web Services (AWS)Amazon Elastic Block Store (Amazon EBS)Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3)Amazon Elastic File System (EFS)
Microsoft AzureAzure Disk Storage, Block blobsAzure Blob StorageAzure Files
Google CloudPersistent DisksCloud storageFilestore
Oracle CloudBlock VolumesObject StorageFile Storage

How to Access Cloud Storage

A fundamental aspect of any storage system is the speed and ease with which data can be accessed when needed. Organizations have various options for accessing cloud storage, depending on their specific data accessibility requirements, security concerns, and the chosen cloud service provider (CSP):

  1. Web Portals and Desktop & Mobile Applications: CSPs offer web-based portals or dashboards that organizations can use via web browsers to access and manage their stored data. They may also offer dedicated applications that create a synchronized folder on users’ computers and mobile devices, allowing users to access and manage files directly from their devices. These portals and apps use HTTP/HTTPS protocols to establish a connection between the user’s device and the provider’s cloud servers
  2. Web Services APIs: CSPs typically offer APIs that allow software developers to integrate cloud storage functionality into their own applications and systems, thereby providing tailored access and control. These APIs, often RESTful in nature, offer a streamlined way to interact with cloud storage services, enabling seamless integration, efficient data management, and often automated data operations. The specific web services API used may vary based on the CSP, but most utilize secure HTTP/HTTPS protocols for their APIs
  3. File Transfer Protocols: many CSPs support standard file transfer protocols, such as Network File System (NFS), Common Internet File System (CIFS), FTP (File Transfer Protocol), SFTP (Secure File Transfer Protocol), and Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning (WebDAV). WebDAV, an extension of HTTP, facilitates collaborative access and management of files on a remote server. These protocols often provide quicker data access than web service APIs, especially for large datasets
  4. Block-based APIs: beyond web services APIs, CSPs may also offer block-based APIs for lower-level data interaction. These APIs grant users and applications direct access to storage blocks – fixed-sized data chunks, providing more granular control and efficient handling of large data sets. Block-based APIs utilize protocols like the Internet Small Computer System Interface (iSCSI) and Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) over Fabrics for robust and fast data operations
Mary Zhang covers Data Centers for Dgtl Infra, including Equinix (NASDAQ: EQIX), Digital Realty (NYSE: DLR), CyrusOne, CoreSite Realty, QTS Realty, Switch Inc, Iron Mountain (NYSE: IRM), Cyxtera (NASDAQ: CYXT), and many more. Within Data Centers, Mary focuses on the sub-sectors of hyperscale, enterprise / colocation, cloud service providers, and edge computing. Mary has over 5 years of experience in research and writing for Data Centers.

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