Free Storage In Cloud's Secret: Leftovers

Startup Symform offers up to 200 GBs free using a network of participants' excess capacity.
10 Important Cloud Apps For SMBs
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Free storage in the cloud might sound too good to be true. But startup Symform has built a new kind of cloud storage by enlisting customers to form a storage network made out of their surplus, on-premises storage capacity.

By joining the network and contributing 150 GBs of storage, you get to use 100 GBs somewhere on the network. Simply doing the math, that might sound like a bad deal. But there are advantages to having a geographically separate storage site, and that has prompted many businesses and individual business professionals to start using a cloud storage services. A Morgan Stanley study of cloud users last year concluded that all types of cloud services were on the upswing at a rate of 60% percent a year; use of cloud storage, however, was growing at 67%.

By adopting a remote storage service, businesses simplify their backup and disaster recovery procedures. If you always have a copy of your data at a site separate from you own data center, you reduce the risk that a local disaster will put you out of business. With a remote copy of the data, even if multiple failures occur at once among your own storage volumes, you'll still have good copies of your data.

[Even the Social Security Administration is considering cloud storage. To learn more, see Social Security Considers Private Cloud Storage. ]

Perhaps in part due to increased online chatter saying that on-premises storage prices have been falling faster than in the cloud, Amazon Web Services just reduced the cost of its S3 storage from 11%-13.5%. Barracuda Networks last August abruptly doubled to 100GBs the amount of storage it offers for $50. Symform wants to encourage the notion that storage in the cloud has gotten too pricey.

"It's not only too expensive initially, but look at the layers of charges behind the front end," said Margaret Dawson, VP of marketing at Symform, referring to data transfer, command execution, and bandwidth charges from popular cloud storage suppliers.

The most recently added cost is the gateway storage controller, which performs a number of enterprise-class services in moving on-premises data to the cloud, including snapshotting, caching, encryption, and compression. Such cloud service controllers are available from Nasuni, Nirvanix, and Trend Micro; Amazon Web Services brought out its AWS Storage Gateway at the end of January, which, after a 60-day free trial, costs $125 a month. (Some companies have failed recently while trying to get businesses to implement cloud storage on a grander scale. Cirtas Systems, backed by $32.5 million in venture capital, struggled to sell its $70,000 BlueJet storage gateway controller last year. The company laid off its staff and closed its doors.)

Dawson says Symform's approach gets around some of these cloud storage charges, although she acknowledges it's being used mainly by knowledgeable IT consultants, who first formed the backbone of the storage network, and small businesses.

"Most business run with 30% to 80% extra storage capacity," she noted. By contributing some of that excess to the Symform network, they gain the advantages of having an offsite source of storage at no or low cost. Symform will double the amount of free storage to 200 GBs if the user recommends a friend who signs up as well.

Of course, that kind of capacity is not going to last very long for, say, Best Buy or Walmart. But Symform has invented ways of tapping into a distributed set of storage resources that offer guarantees of data availability. For example, the storage network monitors the heartbeat of participants' storage devices by pinging them to make sure they're available. If devices start to disappear at one participant, it automatically moves the data to a more reliable site.

When distributing the data, Symform doesn't put it all in one place—rather, it spits a block of data up into 64 fragments, then spreads it across 96 storage nodes. In doing so, it's created two copies of half the data. One fragment could disappear, and odds are even it would still exist at a Symform site. Failing that, the data owner keeps a copy, and a new duplicate can be replicated from it. The extra fragments generated are a way of reducing the risk that any data will be lost, Dawson explained.

By splitting a block into 64 fragments and uploading them to 96 separate storage nodes, Symform is using a low-cost form of parallel processing to move the data out the customer's door as fast as possible. That way, the speed of storage devices at any single site won't be a constraint on its replication on the Symform network. Likewise, retrieval activates 64 devices in parallel instead of one or a small RAID array.

To participate on the network, users do not need a storage gateway controller. They use a lightweight Symform agent, downloaded "in a few seconds" to the site, to direct the traffic. The service uses AES 256-bit encryption in data transfer and storage so that the only party able to view the data is the data owner, holding the encryption key.

Dawson acknowledged that Symform's service isn't yet an enterprise-level form of cloud storage. "If we were going to go after the enterprise market, we'd make some changes," she said--such as creating two full copies instead of 1.5 of the customer's data.

It may be too much to assume existing surplus storage at business sites can be formed into the kind of impromptu cloud storage network that Symform says it has produced. But Symform is using several elements of cloud computing--a central intelligence directing distributed processing, operations executed in parallel, and division of a given task--to attack the high cost of storage.

"In implementing this model, we're hoping to be a disruptive force in the market and lower storage prices," said Dawson. "If nothing else," she added, "we're getting the discussion going."

As enterprises ramp up cloud adoption, service-level agreements play a major role in ensuring quality enterprise application performance. Follow our four-step process to ensure providers live up to their end of the deal. It's all in our Cloud SLA report. (Free registration required.)

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