Amazon Glacier Puts Data In Cold Storage

But it's more infrastructure than service, meaning there's room for other vendors to step in and extend.

Kurt Marko, Contributing Editor

August 27, 2012

4 Min Read

Much as it did with compute nodes and online storage, Amazon is shaking up the market for long-term data archives with its new AWS Glacier service. Think tax records you need to keep for seven years or patent-related intellectual property that must be available for decades--information that's traditionally been written to tape or WORM drives and sent off to a hermetically sealed vault, often operated by data-preservation specialists like Iron Mountain, Recovery Point, or SunGard. The weak link in this scheme is the physical media itself. Enterprise IT must own and operate the tape library, implement a media rotation schedule, manage multiple tape versions, hand archival tapes over to the vaulting service, and then make sure it maintains the capability to actually read the data should the need arise. No more. As in so many other business processes where Web services eliminate the middleman, tapes and their physical transport are being replaced with cloud services and the Internet.

For those who missed the initial hoopla, Glacier is an archival supplement to S3--specifically a very-low-cost ($0.01 per gigabyte per month) storage pool for information that needs to be available, but not readily at hand--as in there's no hardship if it takes three to five hours to retrieve. And the data is plenty safe and secure, using AES-256 encryption, multisite redundancy, and regular data integrity checks. Amazon claims annual durability of "11 nines," which presumably means 10 bytes per terabyte might go bad per year; except, of course, those redundant integrity checks will undoubtedly replace any corrupt blocks from data at another site.

Like all AWS products, Glacier is a usage-based subscription with no up-front charges or long-term commitment. Although Glacier is initially a standalone service, Amazon says it will soon introduce an option that allows IT to automatically move data back and forth between S3. But you'd better limit how often you do this, because while Glacier storage charges are cheap, once you retrieve more than 5% of your data store in a month, the meter starts ticking at a penny per gigabyte. Amazon has obviously been studying smartphone plans that suck people in with a low monthly fee and nickel and dime them to death for using data. Still, Glacier is meant for archival data, and accessing more than the free 5% allocation per month likely means you didn't plan well.

Amazon is mum on Glacier's implementation details, but given the archive size cap (none), price (cheap), and retrieval time specs (hours, not minutes), it's pretty clear it's doing for tape libraries what S3 did for storage arrays and EC2 for servers: cloudify them on a massive scale. Picture a roomful of these Spectra Logic beasts, each capable of holding more than 50,000 tapes and able to be aggregated into a library "complex" with more than 3 exabytes (that's more than 3 million TB).

Undoubtedly, Glacier is a technical tour de force, but it's still more infrastructure than service because there's some user assembly required to turn it into a complete long-term archive cum tape vault replacement. That's where there's an opening for cloud backup and disaster recovery software-as-a-service providers to fill the void. Much like Dropbox uses S3 as its back end, vendors like Carbonite, Code 42 (CrashPlan), and EVault (see our Cloud Storage, Backup and Synchronization Buyer's Guide for a full list) are likely to wrap software automating data-retention policies around Glacier, or comparable infrastructure-as-a-service products sure to come from the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Rackspace, to create a cloud replacement for tape libraries and vaulting software.

In fact, there are already a few cloud services for long-term archival, primarily serving niches in heavily regulated industries. Some, like nScaled, add an archiving component to a comprehensive recovery-as-a-service product, while others, like Global Relay, Smarsh, and Sonian, offer email and/or website archiving targeting industries such as financial services. But with infrastructure like Glacier easily available to anyone, look for long-term archiving to be the next frontier for mainstream enterprise and consumer cloud storage services.

Long-term data management has always been full of logistical challenges. Digitizing information has merely changed the form of media management from paper to tape. However, cloud services offer the hope of completely outsourcing the physical aspects of the problem while also automating the means of information search and retrieval, leaving IT to focus on retention policies. The big question isn't whether companies like Amazon can build the infrastructure, but whether they can reliably and securely implement long-term management and ultimately win the trust of enterprise IT.

About the Author(s)

Kurt Marko

Contributing Editor

Kurt Marko is an InformationWeek and Network Computing contributor and IT industry veteran, pursuing his passion for communications after a varied career that has spanned virtually the entire high-tech food chain from chips to systems. Upon graduating from Stanford University with a BS and MS in Electrical Engineering, Kurt spent several years as a semiconductor device physicist, doing process design, modeling and testing. He then joined AT&T Bell Laboratories as a memory chip designer and CAD and simulation developer.Moving to Hewlett-Packard, Kurt started in the laser printer R&D lab doing electrophotography development, for which he earned a patent, but his love of computers eventually led him to join HP’s nascent technical IT group. He spent 15 years as an IT engineer and was a lead architect for several enterprisewide infrastructure projects at HP, including the Windows domain infrastructure, remote access service, Exchange e-mail infrastructure and managed Web services.

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