Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/09/17/cloud_storage/

Cloud storage: Is the convenience worth the extra expense?

Weigh the benefits

By Trevor Pott

Posted in Storage, 17th September 2013 16:06 GMT

Sysadmin blog Judging by my inbox, quite a few businesses have taken to heart my warnings about the legal issues that arise when you allow your data to be exposed to US jurisdiction.

Companies outside the US sense a gap in the market and are pouring in. Within a few years I suspect I will be perfectly comfortable with recommending nation-local cloud services as feasible, so I think it is worth taking a moment to review the economics of cloud storage.

In November I had a go at the economics of cloud storage, the short version being that it is hard to see it making sense for my personal use. I want to expand on that and start looking farther afield.

Fact of life

Even if you are one of those curmudgeonly types that abhors the cloud I can pretty much guarantee that you use cloud storage in one form or another every month.

The example we don't think about is software updates. If you have been doing IT long enough you will remember when software updates were a thing that came on physical media and no two shops were ever at the same patch level.

Today, virtually everyone accesses a publicly shared storage repository and downloads updates for everything from their operating system to new firmware for their lightbulbs.

Cloud storage is simply a fact of life and so integrated with the way we work that the economies of entire nations would simply collapse without it.

These types of cloud storage are one-to-many of course. Software updates, game downloads, even the websites you visit all fall into that category. Yet these are also often paired with personalised storage upon which have become equally dependant.

A Steam cloud sync for your video game data, even your chat history on Skype or Gtalk is a miniature bit of cloud storage available only to you (and the NSA robots that love you).

Straw man

At a small level – your Dropbox for example – cloud storage makes perfect sense for most people. The amount that you are backing up each month – or each day – is well below typical broadband bandwidth limits. It gets highly questionable for dial-up and satellite users and this gives us an easily understandable basis to discuss the wider issues.

With a broadband connection we not only don't question the value of digital distribution of patches and software, we demand it. We have pictures stream from our phones into our Dropbox – and from there onto our PCs – despite knowing we will pay for that bandwidth. We value the convenience enough to pay the toll.

The maths of convenience and the economics of the bandwidth costs change dramatically when you start trying to drink the internet through a 56kbps straw, but still people persist.

Oh, they grumble about the cost but most will cheerfully start a Dropbox syncronisation round and leave the PC to do its thing for three solid days. This seems mad at first, until I realise that I do the exact same thing.

Hot and Steamy

The hard drive in my Alienware is on the way out. The SMART statistics still say it is good, but after 20 years you just know when that toggle is about to change. I have been avoiding dealing with it but I won't have that luxury forever.

When I stopped to ask myself why I am procrastinating the answer is twofold. Firstly, I refuse to put another spinning-rust drive in there and the Micron/Crucial M500 960GB SSD I would need to replace my current drive can't be had.

A fix will require a smaller drive, which means a complete rebuild of the system as I change it from a single-disk setup to an "OS and major apps on the SSD, everything else on some spinning-rust" configuration.

I am a sysadmin and this isn't exactly difficult for me, but a rebuild would essentially mean restoring my system from a cloud backup, even if I don't think of it quite that way.

Windows updates to a fresh Windows 7 SP1 install take the better part of a working day at the broadband speeds my home system can muster. A full Steam synchronisation of my game library would take at least two days. Syncing my Dropbox, Gdrive and Teamdrive is another three days and you can add several hours to get all my miscellaneous apps downloaded.

I can't afford to flatten my DSL connection for the better part of a week; my livelihood is tied to that internet connectivity. Despite this, at no point have I dismissed the idea of doing the rebuild. I am simply putting it off until it is convenient.

Steady and ready

The one thing I don't question is whether or not those services will be there when I need them. I can count the number of times I have noticed Windows Update to be down in the past decade on one hand.

Steam periodically blinks offline, but rarely more than a few hours a year. I have not noticed Teamdrive, Dropbox or Gdrive ever being unavailable and have simply taken their availability for granted.

Barring trips to the wilderness, I have always managed to find enough bandwidth

As a professional cynic and catastrophist (otherwise known as a systems administrator) I know better than that. I can dig up downtime statistics and spin you tales of how many different ways these services could be made unavailable.

In practice, however, they have proved to be there when I needed them. Barring trips to the wilderness, I have always managed to find enough bandwidth to get them.

This explains one very important value proposition of cloud storage, and by extension cloud backups. The infrastructure you are sending your files to just works. You still need two copies of any data you put in the cloud, but I think the arguments about the services being available when needed are done with.

Pipe dream

There is business value in having someone else take care of making a reliable cloud storage and backup point. Convenience has value and cloud providers can achieve economies of scale that individual businesses are unlikely to match. Where the economics of the equation play out is bandwidth.

Just as the dial-up user struggles with Dropbox or I avoid rebuilding my desktop, business data requirements stretch the capabilities of mainstream data delivery. You not only need to be able to back up your data every day, you need to have a plan in place to get the data back into production should a restore be required.

If I extend how consumers deal with this problem into the business world then bandwidth issues are simply a matter of finding someone with a big fat pipe and making arrangements to use it should things go sideways.

The obvious stand-by for me would be to rent a U of space at the local colocation facility and set a server up to be charged on a per-GB basis. If I ever need to get my cloudy backups quickly I can trigger a download of the information on the colo server. Then I simply drive over, pull the disks and take them back to my server room to perform a restore.

It may not be quite as convenient as letting Steam update all night but it gets the business up and running quickly and I do enjoy the convenience of offsite backups just working the rest of the time.

I think it is fair to say that this is something most of us are willing to pay a premium for. The better your cloud provider, the more options it will have for getting at your data more easily.

Incredible shrinking space

The legal issues surrounding putting our data online are being cleared up. Cloudy storage vendors are moving from new technology to old hat. One by one the arguments against cloud storage are being demolished.

If you are small enough then cloud storage makes sense. If you are so big that bandwidth is cheap and plentiful then cloud storage makes sense. There is a zone in the middle where it is of questionable value. This looks to be shrinking and the shape of this zone is increasingly not dictated by simple maths.

The cost of online backups may be higher than doing something more local; certainly the cost of restoring is. Bandwidth costs rather a lot and our data storage requirements are not going down.

But what is convenience worth? What value do you place on not having to engineer a solution yourself? The answers to these questions might surprise you. ®