Storage in the Sky

Storage Management
Storage in the Sky
Cloud storage offers federal agencies numerous benefits, but is also viewed as a risky proposition

By Cara Garretson

Cloud storage is an obvious answer to the question ‘Where should the federal government put the data it is collecting?’ Yet while awareness of cloud storage and its benefits is high, implementations by federal agencies remain few and far between. Despite recent mandates to consolidate federal data centers – in which cloud storage could play a significant role – the model still presents more questions than answers in the minds of agency IT professionals.

In May, the National Institute of Standards and Technologies (NIST) hosted a one-day workshop on cloud computing in the federal government. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra keynoted the event and issued a call to action; he told attendees they could usher the move to the cloud by helping to develop cloud-related standards and validating key cloud specifications, which should help alleviate some of the risk concerns surrounding cloud. With data-center consolidation being one if the main pillars of the Federal CIO’s cloud initiative, cloud storage could figure heavily into the equation.

Cloud Benefits
The Federal CIO’s cloud initiative is designed to reap the benefits of the advantages that this model of computing offers regarding storage management and costs, which are numerous. In addition to reducing infrastructure costs due to less equipment required on site, cloud storage is also perceived as reducing operational costs, thanks to the pay-as-you-go models offered by cloud service providers. Then there are management benefits, as storing data in the cloud means fewer administration headaches since the service provider becomes responsible for tasks like back-up and recovery. Faster time to mission is another advantage, as cloud storage eliminates the need for the IT department to acquire and provision storage for new initiatives. The model also eliminates the need for agencies to plan ahead for future storage requirements.

“The obvious benefits for a government agency are that by using the cloud for storage, each individual data center now doesn’t have to have the equipment, and you don’t have to worry about temperature, storage conditions, sizing up and down the equipment… with cloud, the scale is wonderful,” says Leonard Eckhaus, founder and president emeritus of AFCOM, a professional association of data center managers.

Storage Management: Benefits Chart
IDC eXchange, “New IDC IT Cloud Services Survey: Top Benefits and Challenges,” Dec 15, 2009

In addition to these benefits, there are some instances of successful cloud storage implementations made by the private sector that can serve as examples. In August market researcher Ovum published findings that enterprises are experiencing significant cost savings thanks to public cloud storage services. The report, entitled “Clouds Open for Enterprise Storage,” detailed the benefits offered by public clouds that store data generated by in-house applications.

“Not only do they relieve the burden of storing data on customers’ premises, but they also have the multiplying effect of transferring to the cloud provider the responsibility of backing up that data,” said Ovum senior analyst Timothy Stammers in a statement.

Dale Wickizer, CTO of storage vendor NetApp’s U.S. Public Sector division, sums up the cost benefits of cloud storage neatly: “There’s nothing cheaper than the disk drives you don’t buy.”

Cloud Concerns
Yet adoption of cloud storage hasn’t ramped up due largely to agency concerns over letting critical data be stored off site and managed by a third party; storage vendors and observers agree that security is the No. 1 inhibitor to cloud storage adoption. It will take significant effort on the part of public cloud service providers to beef up their security, privacy and compliance measures to the point that agencies are comfortable handing precious data over.

“The No. 1 objection to cloud that government customers wrestle with is still privacy and security,” says NetApp’s Wickizer. Wrapped in are issues of control, he says; since individual silos of information are easier to control, departments tend to want to keep data sectioned off, instead of comingled on the same infrastructure, regardless of what security promises are made.

“There's nothing cheaper than the disk drives you don't buy.”
Dale Wickizer, CTO, NetApp's U.S. Public Sector Division

Among the other concerns are the availability of data stored in the cloud. While cloud service providers offer detailed service-level agreements to guarantee availability and performance to their customers, many big providers have experienced outages at their sites, which brings agencies back to the belief that data stored in a division’s own silo is not only safer but more available. And until the interoperability standards that Kundra called for in May are worked out, agencies fear service provider lock-in.

Another concern is the true cost of cloud storage. While at first glance it seems less expensive to rent out only the storage space an agency needs and pay just for what is used, once data-transfer rates are layered on top of storage costs the prices begin to rise and the equation becomes complicated.

“The problem with storage is that there are transfer costs to get it into the cloud, transfer costs to get it out of the cloud, and of course MB/month fees for keeping it in,” says Tim Grance, program manager of Cyber and Network Security at NIST. “Basically, you can’t get a lot of data in and out without hitting the transfer fees.”

Storage Management: Challenges Chart
IDC eXchange, “New IDC IT Cloud Services Survey: Top Benefits and Challenges,” Dec 15, 2009