Cloud storage: Searching for the public/private sweet spot

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How do you combine the accessibility and file-sharing functionality of public cloud storage with the security and pricing advantages of an on-premises solution? Connected Data thinks it has the answer.

Public cloud storage services are attractive to consumers, small businesses and (often in defiance of their own IT departments' guidelines) individuals within enterprises. Most offer a basic storage, synchronisation and sharing service for free, with additional capacity and value-added services available on a monthly or yearly subscription.

Dropbox is the poster child in this market, offering best-in-class usability and, since April 2013, an IT-friendly version called Dropbox for Business. According to the privately-held San Francisco-based company, it has more than 300 million users, saves 1 billion files a day, supports 19 languages with users in over 200 countries, boasts 97 percent penetration into Fortune 500 companies and has 300,000 apps built on the Dropbox Platform. Initially hosted exclusively on Amazon Web Services (AWS), Dropbox apparently moved to a hybrid hosting model about a month before the launch of its business service.

Another prominent cloud storage service is the more business-oriented Box, which recently (23 January 2015) went public — a full year after filing for its IPO. In its first set of financial results as a public company, Box reported a net loss of $52.9 million, or $2.64 a share, on revenue of $62.6 million for the quarter ending 31 January 2015 (revenue up 61 percent from 2015). For the fiscal year 2015, Box reported a GAAP operating loss of $166.7 million on revenue of $216.4 million (revenue up 74 percent from fiscal 2014). These losses caused Box's share price to fall by 13 percent, reflecting concern that the company may find the cost of customer acquisition during its growth phase unsustainable in the face of deep-pocket competition from the likes of Google and Microsoft.

Public cloud as shadow IT

Challenging service provider economics are not the only worry about public cloud storage services. Recent research commissioned by Connected Data (of whom more below) reveals that 90 percent of a 100-strong sample of UK IT decision-makers believe that sharing sensitive data in the public cloud poses some level of risk. However, only a third (33%) actually ban employees from using public cloud services at work — and of these, more than half (58%) admit they would be unaware if workers were flouting the ban. There's a high level of public cloud service usage (69%, regardless of company policy), with nearly a third of companies (29%) suspecting that more than half of their employees use them. At 27 percent, the use of public cloud services ranks higher as a perceived risk to company data than lost devices (25%), malicious staff behaviour (18%) and hacking (14%). As for actual losses of confidential data via public cloud services, 13 percent of companies admit to it, while a further 19 percent are unsure whether this has happened or not.

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The attractions of public cloud services, including across-device access to files and good usability, even outweigh the possibility of disciplinary action: Connected Data's research found that unauthorised public cloud usage was grounds for instant dismissal in 22 percent of the UK firms surveyed and a written warning in 40 percent.

Companies with concerns about data security, and who want control over where their data is stored (for compliance purposes, for example), will be interested in private cloud solutions. One of the most interesting is Connected Data's recently launched Transporter for Business, which, as the company puts it, "reinvents NAS to work like Dropbox".

Transporter for Business

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Transporter on-premise appliance form factors: Transporter (top left), Transporter 15/30 (top right) and Transporter 75/150 (above). Image: Connected Data

There are three Transporter hardware form factors: the original conical Transporter, launched in 2013, with up to 2TB per node and a single Gigabit Ethernet connection; the desktop Transporter 15 and 30 enclosures, with 8TB and 12TB capacity per node respectively, plus dual GbE connections and redundant drives; and the rackmount Transporter 75 and 150, with 12TB and 24TB capacity per node respectively, plus dual-GbE, redundant drives, redundant power and cooling, and SSD metadata acceleration. The model numbers refer to the number of users supported per device.

There are no monthly subscriptions with Transporter: you pay for the on-premise appliance and that's it. The 15, 30, 75 and 150 'for Business' models cost £2,000, £3,000, £7,800 and £14,500 respectively and are competitively priced compared to public cloud storage services — Connected Data estimates that a 75-employee company would pay the equivalent of a 12TB Transporter for Business (£7,800) in subscriptions in just nine months.

What makes Transporter for Business stand out is the software experience, and the way the service is architected. The desktop software is unashamedly modelled on Dropbox, installing a native folder directly into Windows Explorer or Mac OS Finder and delivering functionality and usability with which users are already familiar. Within the Transporter folder, users can create their own folder hierarchy, and can assign read/write or read-only access to other users with a Transporter account and the software installed. Data is automatically and intelligently synced, and replicated between Transporter appliances under administrator control to deliver the required level of redundancy. You can also access Transporter-held data on demand from mobile devices running Android or iOS.

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On-premise Transporter appliances can serve a variety of business needs, while delivering Dropbox-like usability. Image: Connected Data

Connected Data's CEO Geoff Barrall likes to compare Transporter for Business's disruptive potential with that of Skype, noting that Connected Data's servers are only involved in establishing secure peer-to-peer connections between authorised devices and do not store customer data. Since encryption keys are generated and stored on the on-premise Transporter appliances, Connected Data has no access to customer files, which is a particular attraction for vertical-market customers such as legal, healthcare and financial companies. Other key benefits include Active Directory integration, unlimited versioning and undelete capabilities, and no limit on file sizes.

Outlook

Plenty of storage vendors will build you an on-premise private cloud, but few (if any) offer Connected Data's combination of user and administrator friendliness, control over data location and redundancy, and competitive pricing.

According to CEO Geoff Barrall, the original prosumer Transporter quickly found its way into large enterprises, whose feedback encouraged Connected Data to deliver a scalable business version. From what we've seen so far, Transporter for Business looks like a particularly good fit for SMEs, verticals and departments in large enterprises.

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