Cloud File Storage – “What is Cloud Storage?” is a series of posts for business leaders and entrepreneurs interested in using the cloud to scale their business without wasting millions on infrastructure. Despite its relative simplicity, information about “Clouds” is awash with very obscure jargon. This guide aims to reduce the hype and give you the information you need to convince stakeholders that scaling your business in the cloud is an important next step. We hope you find it useful, and will let us know what additional insights you may need.” –Editors
The term cloud storage is used in popular media as if everyone knows exactly what it means. But ask anyone to list and specify the different types of cloud storage, and you’ll probably get some blank views. This, despite the fact that understanding the different types of cloud is critical to deciding on the right storage solution for your business. With that in mind, we’ll look at the three main types of cloud storage. Below, you’ll find a quick and easy-to-use field guide to the three basic types of cloud storage in use today: object, file, and block storage.
Cloud File Storage
Your business has certain needs. Maybe you need to share content with a number of contributors, producers, or editors based around the world. Or maybe you have a large, complex database of sales metrics that you need to process or manipulate that emphasizes your capabilities on the spot. Or you may just have data that you need to archive. Regardless, while people are quick to recommend “the cloud” for any business scenario involving data, you need to know which cloud is the right one to use.
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In cloud storage, the definition of ‘object’ is quite simple. An object store is literally a collection of data with one unique identifier and an infinite amount of metadata.
Maybe that doesn’t sound so simple. Let’s break it down into its components to make it clearer.
The data that makes up this object can be anything—an audio file of an advertising jingle, a photo album from your company, a 300-page software manual, or simply a grouping of related bits and bytes.
When such data is added to object storage, it typically receives an identifier known as a Universally Unique Identifier (UUID) or Globally Unique Identifier (GUID). This identifier is a 128-bit integer. In layman’s terms, this means that the identifier—the “name” of the object—is some kind of complex number. Identifiers are very complex, allowing each identifier to be considered unique.
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The third and final component of an object is its metadata—literally “data about data”—which can be any information used to classify or characterize the data in a particular object. This metadata can be the name of the jingle, the set of geographic coordinates where a series of digital images were taken, or the name of the author who wrote the user guide.
The main advantage of object storage—and the reason for its use by most cloud storage providers—is that it allows the storage of large amounts of unstructured data while maintaining easy data accessibility. Larger amounts of storage are achieved thanks to its flat structure—by using GUIDs instead of the hierarchical characteristics of file storage or block storage, object storage allows for unlimited scalability. In other words, by eliminating structure, there is more space for data.
The higher level of accessibility is thanks in large part to the metadata, which can be customized indefinitely. Think of metadata as a set of labels for your data. Because this metadata can be refined and rewritten and expanded indefinitely, objects in the object store can be easily rearranged and scaled, based on different metadata criteria.
It is this last point that makes object storage so popular for backup and archiving functions. The unrestricted nature of metadata allows storage administrators to easily enforce their own policies for data preservation, retention, and deletion, making it easier to strengthen data and create better “disaster recovery” strategies such as Reed-Solomon Erasure Coding and Vault Architecture.
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The main use cases for object storage generally include storing large amounts of data that businesses only need to access on a regular basis. For example, if your business does a lot of production work on any medium, you may need a lot of space to store your finished project after its useful life is over, but you may
This kind of accessible archive is perfect for object storage because the data doesn’t need to be overly structured. For example, KLRU, the Austin Public Television station responsible for broadcasting the hit musical “Austin City Limits,” recently chose to move their archive of 40+ years of recordings to cloud storage. Object storage provides an inexpensive, but reliable, archive for all their work. And their ability to organize content with metadata means they can easily distribute it to their network of licensees (or anyone else interested in using the content).
The scalability and flexibility of object storage have made it a top choice for many businesses turning to cloud solutions. That said, the relative complexity of the naming scheme for objects — 128-bit identifiers aren’t exactly user-friendly for most of us — and the metadata management approach can prove too complex or unsuitable for certain use cases. For media production companies and agencies, this often leads to the use of third-party software (including Media Asset Managers (MAM) and Digital Asset Managers (DAM)) that overlay organizational schemas on top of object storage. If this doesn’t work, many turn to file storage, which we’ll cover next.
For administrators who need a friendlier user interface but smaller storage requirements—think millions of files, not billions—file storage might be the answer.
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File storage? In file storage, data is stored in files. These files, in turn, are organized into folders, and these folders are then organized into directories and subdirectories hierarchically. To access files, users or machines only need the path from directory to subdirectory to folder to file.
Since all data stored in such a system is already organized in a hierarchical directory tree, such as files on your hard drive, it is therefore easy to name, delete or manipulate files without any additional interface. If you’ve used almost any operating system (whether Windows or Apple iOS, or whatever), then you’re probably already familiar with this type of file and folder tree and are more than capable of working within it.
Approachability of file storage is often seen as its main advantage. However, using file storage in the cloud adds one key element: sharing. In cloud file storage, such as on individual computers, administrators can easily manage access and edit permissions across files and structures making security and version control much easier to manage. This allows for easy access sharing and thus easy collaboration.
The disadvantage of a file storage system, however, is that if you plan for your data to grow, there comes a certain point where the hierarchy and permissions will become complex enough to slow down the system significantly.
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In general, discrete amounts of structured data work well in file storage systems. If it describes your organization’s data profile, and you need robust sharing, cloud file storage might be for you. Specific examples would include a business that requires a web-based application. In this case, a file storage system can allow multiple users who need to manipulate files at the same time access what they need, while also clearly delineating who can make changes. Another example is data analytics operations, which often require multiple servers to modify multiple files at once. These requirements make file storage systems a good solution for that use case as well.
Now that you have a better idea of the difference between object and file storage, let’s take a look at block storage and specific use cases.
Many cloud-based enterprise workloads today use block storage. In this type of system, data is broken down into sections called blocks, and then stored throughout the system which can be physically distributed to maximize efficiency. Each block receives a unique identifier, which allows the storage system to reassemble the block when the data it contains is required.
Block storage systems in the cloud are used in scenarios where it is important to be able to quickly retrieve and manipulate data, with the operating system accessing these data points directly across the block volume.
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Block storage also separates data from the user’s environment, allowing that data to be spread across multiple environments. This creates multiple paths to data and allows users to retrieve them quickly. When a user or application requests data from the block storage system, the underlying storage system reassembles the data block and presents the data to the user or application.
The main disadvantages of block storage are the lack of metadata, which limits organizational flexibility, and its higher price and complexity—compared to the other solutions we’ve discussed.
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