Whether you are a corporate, a SoHo/one-man-band or an SME, what matters is the degree of integration you plan to employ with your existing IT systems, which can range from one or more PCs, a networked server, or an entire corporate IT resource.
What is needed for all cloud applications is intermediary software. In the case of Amazon's cloud services, this can be something as simple as Jungledisk, which creates a virtual cloud-based drive for your PCs and/or servers.
Or you can go to an intermediary service provider like Altexa, who will make the Amazon DIY approach a lot easier for you.
Or if you are using HP or IBM kit - or, for that matter, any other major PC/IT vendor, including Cisco or Citrix - you can also talk to your reseller.
But it helps to do your homework first, so let's look at the main offerings in the marketplace:
Amazon S3 - simple, cheap DIY storage
Amazon's Simple Storage Solution (S3) is part of Amazon Web Services (AWS). It is designed to offer a simple, economically-priced online storage facility for serious home PC users, as well as small companies.
Larger firms can opt for additional services under AWS, but for most companies, Amazon S3 offers low-cost storage that is available on a near-anywhere anytime basis.
You will need to use an application like Jungledisk, which runs under Windows, Apple Mac and Linux. This free applications essentially allows Amazon S3 online filespace to act as a virtual drive for your PC and server. Jungledisk will also auto-schedule back-ups of your data.
Jungledisk is a free overlay to Amazon S3, but you can also sign up to Amazon S3 via online intermediaries such as Altexa, ElephantDrive and Filicious.us, who will greatly simplify the sign-up/installation procedures, although they tend to charge a little extra for their service.
Amazon S3 is very economically priced. You will spend, for example, around £2 a month to interactively store, access and transfer a library of 10Gbytes of data online and the service can support access to your data bucket - which can be stored in the US or Europe (your choice) - from multiple PCs.
This makes the service very price-competitive if you have multiple PCs - say three PCs in an office and a couple of laptops - which would work out to be expensive with some of the more traditional online back-up services.
The pricing menu may look complex, but it still works out cheap, even if you use the online data bucket as a networked drive (as many users do).
For an SME with around 100Gbytes of online storage, costs are still measured in the low tens of pounds.
IBM Smart Business Desktop
IBM's cloud storage offering is the IBM Smart Business Desktop (SBD), which is due to launch in the US and Europe this October.
Subscription pricing has yet to be confirmed, but sources suggest the service will be priced competitively, although perhaps not as economically as Amazon's service, which relies on third-party software to interface with a company PC/server environment.
IBM's SBD service promises to be a complete offering and is designed to enable end-users with network-attached PCs and other devices the ability to access applications and data through a centrally managed computing environment.
IBM's SBD service will be offered in three main categories, aimed at SoHo/small businesses, mid-sized business and enterprises.
According to Jan Jackman, IBM's vice-president of end-user services, the public desktop cloud service is designed to help bring efficient way to deploy and manage desktop infrastructures.
IBM is already working with a number of third parties - including Citrix, Desktone, VMware and Wyse - to offer an integrated cloud storage services at what it calls "competitive subscription service pricing".
To use the basic service, businesses will use either a thin client or a PC/browser/Java environment, logging in across an HTTPS connection.
Users will be able to use online tools such as Virtual Storage Optimiser, which helps reduce expensive physical storage requirements and enables the quick creation of virtual machines.
HP's cloud offerings - linkups with VMWare, RedHat
HP seems to be aiming higher than Amazon and IBM with its cloud storage services, which have yet to be given a launch date, although sources are suggesting early 2010 for a soft launch.
HP seems to be preparing to offer its cloud services through its existing resellers, with commercial links with VMware and RedHat, to ensure integrated packages are available to corporates and mid-sized companies.
Central to the linkup with VMware is a range of services/products including the HP Insight Control for VMware vCenter, a San Readiness Assessment for server virtualisation, packaged HP migration services for vSphere and HP Operations Manager for virtualisation.
These tools will complement HP Blade Matrix for the datacentre, a server blade, storage, network connectivity and set of software resources bundle aimed at delivering virtualised infrastructure more efficiently.
The linkup with RedHat, meanwhile, will centre on Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5.4 for HP BladeSystem and Proliant servers.
The HP BladeSystem Matrix is described as a "cloud infrastructure in a box" that brings the economics, scalability and response times of the cloud to diverse applications across datacentres.
Hosting services offering cloud facilities
It is worth noting that most hosting companies also offer cloud-based storage services. Peer 1 and Rackspace, for example, fall into this category, having recently expanding their services overseas from their home territories of North America.
Peer 1 offers CloudXcelerator, a service under which its partner ElasticHosts offers customers cloud applications housed in the Peer 1 infrastructure. ElasticHosts provides flexible server capacity for scalable web hosting.
According to ElasticHosts, its Peer 1 linkup makes the company the first cloud infrastructure provider to offer dual redundant availability zones in Europe. The service costs from £29 a month.
Rackspace, which has previously allowed UK companies to host their private clouds in its datacentres, is now managing Linux and Windows cloud storage services for its clients.
Rackspace has nine datacentres globally and three in the UK offering website hosting and storage services.
The rest of the pack
Several other players, including NetApp, are offering/preparing to offer cloud-based storage services.
Cisco and EMC have formed a joint venture company to develop an integrated datacentre platform for computing, networking and storage.
The joint venture does not involve virtualisation software supplier VMware, which is majority owned by EMC and in which Cisco is a significant investor.
Even Dell is joining the game by OEM-ing Brocade's storage and Ethernet/IP switches (as IBM is also doing) so it looks like the market will become even more crowded in the coming months.
Pros and cons of cloud computing
According to Caroline Ikomi, technical director at Check Point Software Technologies, the economics of going down the cloud route for data storage are highly attractive.
But, she says, there are also security issues to be worried about.
"Where, for example, is my data really being stored? What happens when I delete it - is it really deleted, or is there a back-up somewhere I am not aware of?" she says.
It is because of security issues like this, she says, that the industry is very much at the start of the learning curve and companies of all sizes are taking baby steps to get to grips with the technology.
The problem is that virtually all company IT systems are engineered to support physical drives, so integrating a cloud environment into the system involves a lot of work on the software and integration front.
Then there is the problem of data losses and leakages. In the real world, you can see your PC or drive has been stolen, but in the virtual world, there are no such comforts. Which makes meeting compliance and regulation something of a headache,.
"This is the reason why VMware as brought out VMSafe to meet the compliance needs of companies," says Ikomi.
As a result of these issues, Ikomi advises any IT manager to take it slowly with cloud computing and understand that integrating cloud storage into an existing IT infrastructure is more about fitting the technology in, rather than going for the cheapest option.
Dominic Monkhouse, managing director at hosting firm Peer 1, says the current interest in cloud storage is very exciting.
"We have been doing hosting for 10 years now, offering storage as a service on the internet, so it is not such a new concept for us. We are seeing a lot more companies looking at their cloud options, however," he says.
Because of transaction processing, many companies are not going down the shared cloud server route, but opting for their own cloud-based servers.
The problem facing companies of all sizes, says Monkhouse, is that cloud computing means different things to different people. And all companies have different needs in terms of security and integration.
John Rollason, solutions marketing manager at NetApp, says clients are rarely looking for cloud storage services on their own.
"There are four main cloud services most of our customers are looking for: infrastructure, platform, storage and applications," he says, adding that in most enterprises the services are all linked.
Cloud services, he says, can save companies a lot of money on their IT storage and systems, but using cloud services tends to involve taking a shared resources approach, and for some companies this may not always be the best option.
According to Rollason, most corporate datacentres are seriously inefficient, with only about 10% of resources being used.
"That means that 90% of discs are spinning, being powered and air-conditioned, unnecessarily. Using the cloud for datacentre services makes sound financial sense, as cost efficiencies can be improved significantly," he says.
European Amazon pricing
- $0.100 per Gbyte - all data transfer in
- $0.170 per gigabyte - first 10Tbytes/month data transfer out
- $0.130 per gigabyte - next 40Tbytes/month data transfer out
- $0.110 per gigabyte - next 100Tbytes/month data transfer out
- $0.100 per gigabyte - data transfer out/month over 150Tbytes
- $0.012 per 1,000 PUT, COPY, POST, or LIST requests
- $0.012 per 10,000 GET and all other requests