Five things you need to know about cloud file services

We look at cloud file services, which provide a file system-like architecture that gives users access to file data wherever they are, just as if it were a local NAS filer

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Cloud file services offer access to file data and the flexibility of hosted cloud storage infrastructure, with the number of suppliers offering cloud-based file storage growing significantly over the last few years.

These services are sometimes pitched as a “NAS replacement”, and companies including Nasuni, Panzura and Ctera have positioned themselves as enterprise-grade alternatives to on-premise NAS hardware. Some claim cost reductions of more than 80% compared with local NAS or products such as Microsoft SharePoint.

Alongside the specialist vendors are the three hyperscale cloud providers, AWS, Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure, which all have their own cloud file services.

Industry stalwarts such as NetApp and IBM are also in the market, with NetApp offering its technology via options that range from on-premise systems to partnering with AWS.

“The goal is to create a globally distributed file system, so employees and distributed users can access their files from anywhere, and to replace traditional NAS environments,” says Brent Ellis, analyst at Forrester.

“Changes to the way we work have pushed a lot of businesses to adopt these services, but it was being driven by the move from capex to opex even before the pandemic.”

Cloud file services, and what they are not

At the basic level, cloud file services present enterprise customers with a file system-based architecture that allows storage of documents and other unstructured data.

This is distinct from block storage for applications, or cloud-based compute infrastructure. Under the skin, file services might be based on object storage, but suppliers present users with a file system, such as NFS or SMB.

This allows the cloud service to work in the same way as on-premise NAS, but with the added advantage of remote access, or access via a browser.

However, enterprise cloud file services are quite distinct from the file-sync-share services offered by the likes of Dropbox, Box, or even Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive. These services are focused on individual users.

Consumer-oriented sync-and-share services lack the management and monitoring functions of enterprise cloud offerings, and typically work by synchronising files on a user’s desktop or other personal device. OneDrive, with its close ties to Microsoft Office 365, is a good example of this.

Although such services are useful on a per-user basis, they are not a replacement for NAS infrastructure or properly managed and secured enterprise cloud storage.

Cloud file storage aims to bridge that gap by offering end-user convenience and enterprise-level control.

Cloud file services: The benefits

Initially, enterprises might look to cloud file services as a way to move from on-premise hardware and the up-front capital spend required to an opex model. Cloud services also provide resilience and redundancy, because data is located off-site. And users can scale storage capacity more quickly, without recourse to physical hardware upgrades in the office or datacentre.

But these are not the only benefits. Often, businesses find that once they have moved to cloud infrastructure for file storage, it is the flexibility that keeps them there.

“We are seeing users convert capex spend on a NAS to opex spend on per-user licences, so they can tailor their costs,” says Forrester’s Ellis.

“But at the same time, they enable a more mobile workforce, and eliminate some of the frustrations of using traditional file shares over VPNs. You can access files pretty much anywhere you can get a net connection.”

Cloud file services can also achieve higher levels of availability than on-premise systems, he adds.

Broadly, CIOs should expect cloud file services to provide robust user account management and security, and high availability. They can also offer additional, NAS-style features, such as versioning and backup and recovery.

But enterprise cloud file services also provide features such as shared workspaces, multi-site collaboration and appliance-based file sync, which go beyond the sync-and-share offerings. File-based locking is critical to prevent users overwriting each other’s work. Buyers should also be able to specify where their data is stored, which is important for compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation and other regulations.

Cloud file services: The limitations

As with any cloud service, access to sufficient bandwidth can be a limitation, especially for the initial migration to the cloud. One way to address this, adopted by supplierrs such as Ctera and NetApp, is to provide a local appliance that manages on-going file upload and sync. That is especially useful for branch or remote offices that might lack connectivity.

Another limitation is contractual, rather than physical. Buyers of cloud file services need to understand the suppliers’ obligations in the event of an outage.

What measures does the supplier have in place to back up data, and to provide failover? If an organisation moves files to the cloud to reduce capex, it is possible it will no longer have on-premise hardware to fully recover and restore data. This is all the more critical if the service is being used for production data, rather than an application such as archiving.

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IT managers should also consider how much control they will have over resources. “Generally, with cloud or consumption-based pricing, you don’t have hard [capacity] limits,” says Ellis. “Costs can get out of control if everyone keeps everything.”

Features such as robust account control and tiering less-used data to lower-cost storage will help, he adds.

Suppliers might also claim to offer infinite capacity, so it pays to check the volume sizes that they actually offer and whether these are practical and fit the organisation’s workflows. And, as with all cloud storage, CIOs should check data egress charges.

Cloud file services: The key suppliers

Specialist cloud file services suppliers include Nasuni, Ctera and Panzura.

Nasuni is a file- and object-based storage system that can run on top of AWS, GCP or Azure.

Ctera emphasises its support for collaboration, enterprise file-sync-and-share, and its integration with Office. It also uses object storage under the hood, and has multi-cloud support.

Panzura also lists collaboration as one of its features, along with replacing NAS drives, and backup and recovery systems.

NetApp offers its Cloud Volumes for File Sharing, as well as shared block-and-file storage via its user-managed Cloud Volumes ONTAP architecture. This supports NFS, SMB and iSCSCI on top of AWS’s S3, Azure and Google Cloud.

IBM offers cloud file storage in capacities up to 12,000GB.

Cloud file services: Cloud providers vs point solutions

Point solution suppliers emphasise that they can directly replace an organisation’s hardware NAS technology. They also promote other features, such as team collaboration, which are not usually native to a physical NAS device. They promote a greater range of features than those offered by the big three cloud hyperscalers, including more advanced backup and recovery services and the ability to support small offices, teams and individual users.

Services such as AWS are positioned towards more demanding, data-intensive applications such as content management and media, or big data analytics. These applications need file-based storage, but do not directly aim to replace local NAS hardware.

However, a direct comparison between specialist providers and the hyperscalers is complicated by the fact that the large cloud providers do offer basic file sharing in the form of home directories. And cloud file services, including NetApp, Ctera and Nasuni, work on top of the hyperscalers’ clouds.

Ultimately, the decision for each IT team will come down to features, reliability and cost.

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