Five things you need to know about cloud file services

by Joseph K. Clark

Cloud file services offer access to file data and the flexibility of hosted cloud storage infrastructure, with the number of suppliers providing cloud-based file storage growing significantly over the last few years.

These services are sometimes pitched as a “NAS replacement”, and companies including Nasuni, Panzura, and Ctera have positioned themselves as enterprise-grade alternatives to on-premise NAS hardware. Some claim over 80% cost reductions compared with local NAS or products such as Microsoft SharePoint.

Alongside the specialist vendors are the three hyperscale cloud providers, AWS, Google Cloud Platform, and Microsoft Azure, which all have cloud file services.

Industry stalwarts such as NetApp and IBM are also in the market, with NetApp offering its technology via options that range from on-premise systems to partnering with AWS.

“The goal is to create a globally distributed file system, so employees and distributed users can access their files from anywhere, and to replace traditional NAS environments,” says Brent Ellis, an analyst at Forrester.

“Changes to the way we work have pushed a lot of businesses to adopt these services, but it was being driven by the move from capex to opex even before the pandemic.”

Cloud file services and what they are not

At the basic level, cloud file services present enterprise customers with a file system-based architecture that allows the storage of documents and other unstructured data.

cloud file services

This is distinct from block storage for applications or cloud-based computing infrastructure. Under the skin, file services might be based on object storage, but suppliers present users with a file system, such as NFS or SMB.

This allows the cloud service to work the same way as on-premise NAS but with the added advantage of remote access or access via a browser.

However, enterprise cloud file services differ from the file-sync-share services offered by Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, or Microsoft OneDrive. These services are focused on individual users.

Consumer-oriented sync-and-share services lack enterprise cloud offerings’ management and monitoring functions and typically work by synchronizing files on a user’s desktop or another personal device. OneDrive is an excellent example of this, with its close ties to Microsoft Office 365.

Although such services are helpful per user, they are not a replacement for NAS infrastructure or adequately managed and secured enterprise cloud storage.

Cloud file storage aims to bridge that gap by offering end-user convenience and enterprise-level control.

Cloud file services: The benefits

Initially, enterprises might look to cloud file services to move from on-premise hardware and the up-front capital spending required to an OPEX model. Cloud services also provide resilience and redundancy because data is located off-site. And users can scale storage capacity more quickly without recourse to physical hardware upgrades in the Office or data centre.

But these are not the only benefits. Often, businesses find that the flexibility keeps them there once they have moved to cloud infrastructure for file storage.

“We are seeing users convert capex spend on a NAS to opex spend on per-user licenses so that they can tailor their costs,” says Forrester’s Ellis.

“But simultaneously, they enable a more mobile workforce and eliminate some of the frustrations of using traditional file shares over VPNs. You can access files anywhere you can get a net connection.”

He adds that cloud file services can also achieve higher availability levels than on-premise systems.

Broadly, CIOs should expect cloud file services to provide robust user account management, security, and high availability. They can also offer NAS-style features, such as versioning, backup, and recovery.

But enterprise cloud file services also provide shared workspaces, multi-site collaboration, and appliance-based file sync beyond the sync-and-share offerings. File-based locking is critical to prevent users from overwriting each other’s work. Buyers should also specify where their data is stored, essential for compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation and other regulations.

Cloud file services: The limitations

As with any cloud service, access to sufficient bandwidth can be a limitation, especially for the initial migration to the cloud. One way to address this, adopted by suppliers such as Ctera and NetApp, is to provide a local appliance that manages ongoing file upload and sync. That is especially useful for branch or remote offices that might lack connectivity.

Another limitation is contractual rather than physical. Buyers of cloud file services need to understand the suppliers’ obligations in the event of an outage.

What measures does the supplier have to back up data and provide failover? If an organization moves files to the cloud to reduce capex, it may no longer have on-premise hardware to recover and restore data fully. This is more critical if the service is being used for production data rather than an application such as archiving.

IT managers should also consider how much control they will have over resources. “Generally, with cloud or consumption-based pricing, you don’t have hard [capacity] limits,” says Ellis. “Costs can get out of control if everyone keeps everything.”

He adds that features such as robust account control and tiering less-used data to lower-cost storage will help.

Suppliers might also claim to offer infinite capacity, so it pays to check the volume sizes they contribute and whether they are practical and fit the organization’s workflows. And, as with all cloud storage, CIOs should check data egress charges.

Cloud file services: The key suppliers

Specialist cloud file services suppliers include Nasuni, Ctera, and Panzura.

Nasuni is a file- and object-based storage system that can run on AWS, GCP, or Azure.

Cetera emphasizes its support for collaboration, enterprise file-sync-and-share, and its integration with Office. It also uses object storage under the hood and has multi-cloud support.

Panzura also lists collaboration as one of its features, replacing NAS drives and backup and recovery systems.

NetApp offers its Cloud Volumes for File Sharing and shared block-and-file storage via its user-managed Cloud Volumes ONTAP architecture. This supports NFS, SMB, and SCSI on top of AWS’s S3, Azure, and Google Cloud.

IBM offers cloud file storage in capacities up to 12,000GB.

Cloud file services: Cloud providers vs. point solutions

Point solution suppliers emphasize that they can replace an organization’s hardware NAS technology directly. They encourage a more excellent range of features than those the big three cloud hyperscalers offer. These include more advanced backup and recovery services and the ability to support small offices, teams, and individual users. They also promote other features, such as team collaboration, which are not usually native to a physical NAS device.

Services such as AWS are positioned towards more demanding, data-intensive applications such as content management and media or big data analytics. These applications need file-based storage but do not directly aim to replace local NAS hardware.

However, a direct comparison between specialists and hyperscalers is complicated because the large cloud providers offer essential file sharing in home directories. And cloud file services, including NetApp, Ctera, and Nasuni, work on top of the hyper scalers clouds. Ultimately, the decision for each IT team will come down to features, reliability, and cost.

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