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Charles Babcock
Charles Babcock
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Nirvanix Shutdown: Some Customers Face Mission Impossible

Cloud storage provider's pending shutdown gives customers 2 weeks to move data out -- and that's not enough time given bandwidth realities. One expert's advice: Panic now.

It's as if New York City filled up with residents over 100 years, then, in a catastrophic event, everyone tried to get out at once. The bridges, tunnels and tube trains aren't big enough to allow that.

Something like that appears to be happening with Nirvanix. The company has hit a wall financially and advised its customers Monday to move their data elsewhere by Sept. 30. Gartner analyst Kyle Hilgendorf said Wednesday that Nirvanix customers have flocked to Gartner seeking advice on how to quickly move their data. Customers have also told him that the initial deadline has been extended to Oct. 15.

That may not be long enough.

Nirvanix has hundreds of customers who have stored many terabytes or petabytes of data with the cloud service, as one of the best and most enterprise oriented ones available. According to InformationWeek's sister publication CRN, one of them has 20 petabytes of data stored on Nirvanix's Storage Delivery Network. The data trickled in slowly over several years. Storage Delivery Network was first launched in 2007. But the pipes that carried the trickle in are still the only pipes available to carry what is now a flood tide trying to get out.

[ Want to learn more about Nirvanix's troubles? See Nivranix Tells Cloud Storage Customers: Move Your Data. ]

Andres Rodriguez, CEO of Nasuni, a storage system supplier relying on major public cloud providers, said cloud exit pipes are designed to handle a few customers at a time, not the whole customer base. They have a set bandwidth under contract with the cloud supplier. Storage service providers in some cases will keep them minimal to hold down their network bandwidth costs. Their investment is in adding new customers, not helping existing ones exit quickly.

"Two weeks is too short a time," Rodriguez said in an interview. Each Nirvanix customer must locate another supplier, sign a contract and get connections made for the data to move from one service provider to another. Or the customer must establish storage capabilities on premises. Four weeks probably isn't enough time for that, either, he said.

It's as if a homeowner filled a swimming pool over many days, using a garden hose. Then he decides he must empty the pool quickly, but "if all he has is the garden hose, the water can't suddenly rush out through it," Rodriguez said.

With everyone trying to get their data out of Storage Delivery Network, each customer will be allocated a share of the bandwidth available. Rodriguez estimated that it might take 10-12 months to remove one petabyte under such circumstances.

Nirvanix officials have yet to comment publicly on what's going on. News that anything was amiss came from a U.K. partner, Cloud Aorta, which is now seeking to raise funds for Nirvanix. The Nirvanix website continues to call for business as usual with no reference to difficulties or a potential hazard of storing data with a company that may not have a future. In fact it continues to solicit new customers. Nirvanix CEO Debra Chrapaty took over nine months ago, leaving her post as CIO at Zynga to take the job. Repeated calls to company officials at its San Diego headquarters were routed to an answering machine, which records a message that fails to produce any corporate executive response.

Rodriguez's Nasuni is in a distinct but related business to Nirvanix. It supplies a system that spreads customer's data out over two cloud storage providers. Two years ago, it placed some of its customers' data on Nirvanix. At the time, it ran a test of downloading data from its main storage suppliers, and Rodriguez's staff detected slowdowns at Nivranix. The decision to stop doing business "was a technical decision. It was based purely on our own study," which was controversial at the time. Existing Nirvanix customers labeled it "unfair" after Nasuni published the results, recalls Rodriguez.

But Nasuni prompted 20 of its customers to move their data to the two vendors who showed the strongest download performance, Microsoft's Azure and Amazon Web Services' S3. The last customer finished moving off Nirvanix 30 days ago.

"We had seen the cracks in their system. The performance was dropping as you scaled up the download. I said to myself, 'These guys are falling further and further behind,'" as Amazon, Rackspace, Google and Microsoft all used highly scalable storage as their loss leader to get customers hooked on cloud computing. Their download performance can scale as download traffic increases.

Nirvanix appears to have conceived of itself as an archive of data in the cloud. Data steadily arrived in predictable, small streams. The business plan didn't anticipate a need to export all the data of all its customers over a short period. Unfortunately, that circumstance has arrived.

Gartner's advice was brutal. Panic now, not later, Hilgendorf said in a blog Wednesday.

"What are clients do to? For most -- react ... and react in panic. You have 2 weeks. Go! You don't have time to worry about how much data you have stored there. You don't have time to upgrade network connections or bandwidth. You don't have time to order large drives or arrays to ship to the provider to get your data back. You may not even get any support from the provider! You may be facing the worst company fear -- losing actual data," he wrote in the blog.

Maybe it won't come to that. CRN reports that a Nirvanix partner, Aorta Cloud in the U.K., wants to raise money from partners and customers to keep Nirvanix in business. HP and IBM have steered important HP Cloud and IBM Smart Cloud customers to Nirvanix's door as a recommended storage vendor. Will they stand by and watch customers' data go down the drain? IBM did not respond to an InformationWeek query. But it's possible those discussions have already occurred. If money is available, why did Nirvanix tell customers to clear out by Sept. 30, then Oct. 15?

What's happening is something like the sinking of an "unsinkable" ship. It's hard at first for passengers to believe that the host is in jeopardy. Then, as that fact sinks in, it's even harder to believe there's a deadline for getting out. The idea that customers must do so before the crew announces that all lifeboats are gone and there's nowhere else to turn is completely contrary to the idea of who we all thought Nirvanix was -- a safe place to store data. When it turns out that it wasn't safe, and is becoming less so by the day, then the next stage is probably as Helgendorf suggested: panic.

If Nirvanix's data export pipes prove to be too small, there may be ways that some of the data center services that it uses will find ways to augment the bandwidth available, regardless of existing contracts. Deliverance may come by some unanticipated means, and if so, that's fine. But storage in the cloud has taken a blow from which it will not soon recover.

If Nirvanix can't be saved, it will tend to consolidate cloud storage use in the hands of the strongest cloud vendors, the ones that can afford to offer storage as a loss leader. Losing Nirvanix may mean losing the prospect that there will be a multitude of storage choices. Those that remain, like Amazon, may continue to make it inexpensive to get your data into the cloud. But with fewer providers, it may get even more expensive to get it out.

Learn more about cloud risks and benefits by attending the Interop conference track on Cloud Computing and Virtualization in New York from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4.

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