object storage (sakkmesterke/Shutterstock.com)

Why agencies are turning to object storage

As agencies struggle to find space to store data -- basically any digital document, photograph, video clip or audio file -- they’re turning to object storage.

Popularized as a way for cloud providers to store massive amounts of unstructured data, object storage is scalable and keeps physical footprints manageable. Because it’s available as a service, object storage can also be cost-effective. But its biggest benefit is its ability to meet modern data storage needs.

“Object storage is really probably the first storage that crossed the threshold of petabyte scale,” said Julia Palmer, research director in the area of emerging infrastructure technologies at Gartner. “Object storage changed the paradigm. There’s no longer files, those are the objects, and you talk to them via the specific programmable APIs.”

By 2021, more than 80 percent of enterprise data will be stored in scalable, or scale-out, storage systems in enterprise and cloud data centers, up from 30 percent today, Palmer wrote in a 2017 research paper.

Current users include California’s Department of Technology, which uses storage-as-a-service under a contract with reseller Enterprise Networking Solutions. ENS added object storage from Cloudian to its HyperStore cloud storage service for state agencies “in an effort to curb the proliferation of acquisitions of storage that were occurring all over the state,” ENS Director of Business Development Chad Hodges said.

The National Institutes of Health is using object storage for data-intensive applications, and Utah’s Department of Technology Services offers state agencies a Hosting Object Storage product that is a “low-performance, unstructured data storage option available for low-access files such as long-term data archives, documents or logs generated and managed by applications, and audio/video/image files.”

The difference between object and traditional storage is that the latter grows only to a certain point, said Jon Toor, chief marketing officer at Cloudian, which offers scale out storage. He likens it to filling a storage box. When it’s full, “you have to go buy a new one,” Toor said. “Think of it as being a rack of storage devices, and when that rack is full, you have to go buy a new one. With Cloudian, you never do that. You just keep adding on to the one you already have.”

Object storage makes government users’ and IT managers’ jobs easier, he added. For users, it provides a limitless, scalable pool of storage, while IT managers can see a reduction in storage-related work because it can bring a 3-to-1 savings in rack space.

“The problem with traditional storage is every time you bring in a new box, [the IT manager] gets a new task,” Toor said. “He has to go update this thing and update [that] thing and manage the users and groups on this thing, so it becomes a new project for him. … The problem is, he eventually gets overwhelmed.”

Another benefit is that object storage encourages conversations about what kind of storage is best for a given workload, Hodges said. “It’s forcing people to do proper data classification to determine what tier of performance is the most appropriate" for the type of data  they’re storing and  how much storage they need at what times. "I think the [misconception] is ‘I have to hurry up and buy everything I’m going to need for the next three to five years because that’s the way budgets work.’ A service like this is saying, ‘No, let’s do it responsive to what the true need is.’”

Although object storage’s roots are in the cloud -- Amazon’s Simple Storage Service API is the “de facto standard for object storage,” Palmer said -- more vendors are offering on-premise solutions. She didn’t have specific numbers but said more vendors are joining the market and reporting growth of object storage consumption both on-prem and in the cloud.

“We have a huge uptick in unstructured [data] in our day and age, and this unstructured data pretty much describes what object storage accommodates,” she said. “Unstructured data that object storage is tackling is 80 percent of the data that is created in the world, and this is also growing much faster than structured data, so I think we will experience another uptick in the near future just by the amount of data we are generating," she said. "It will find its way into object storage eventually because it’s considered to be one of the least expensive storage options.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.


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