With the volume of data slated to grow tenfold by 2020, organisations have been reconsidering their storage options to reduce costs and speed up their business applications.
Object storage, in particular, is finding favour with digital businesses that are attracted by the flexibility and scalability of the technology, which uses software to define objects such as documents, photos or videos.
Craig Fulton, partner in cloud application migration at IBM Australia, offers a useful analogy for the difference between traditional file storage and object storage: while traditional file storage systems offer the equivalent of step-by-step directions to the location of a file, object storage provides the GPS coordinates to that file.
Both have their uses, but the GPS option is clearly a faster way to locate something.
Fulton says object storage has also found its way into enterprises that are grappling with expanding collections of various types of data, including unstructured data which the technology is adept at handling.
Object storage also offers the flexibility of using different types of storage media to manage storage costs better, based on application requirements. This is valued by organisations that want the option to use faster but more expensive flash storage when needed, or cheaper disk storage when it makes sense.
Although object storage is available on-premise through virtual appliances, purpose-built hardware or through software designed to run an object storage system built on commodity hardware, object storage services from the likes of Amazon Web Services (AWS) have been gaining popularity.
In 2006, AWS launched its Simple Storage Service (S3), a cloud-based object storage service that kicked off the era of cloud computing. Not surprisingly, the public cloud supplier remains a major player in the object storage-as-a-service field, with a growing Australian clientele.
“Customers want to store an increasing amount of information at lower cost and with reliable access,” says Simon Elisha, AWS’s head of solutions architecture for the public sector in Australia and New Zealand. He adds that there has been strong demand for S3 as the foundation for a digital platform.
US-based object storage analytics service Chaos Sumo recently released the findings of its 2018 report, which reveals massive enterprise appetite for S3, particularly for running data lakes, which are challenging information architecture.
However, technology analyst Gartner predicts a blurring of the on-premise and cloud-based object storage markets. “Enterprise buyers are already treating them as one market,” it notes in its Future of object storage report. “Increasingly, enterprises are choosing between products such as Dell EMC Isilon and IBM Cloud Object Storage for storing large amounts of unstructured data.”
Not for everyone
Despite object storage’s promise, Gartner reckons that only between 5% and 20% of the potential object storage market has transitioned to the technology.
Object storage is not for everyone, notably organisations that are moving to in-memory computing, or for applications such as customer relationship management (CRM) that are powered by relational databases and have not been built to accommodate object storage.
And those that are using object storage are not getting the most out of the technology. Chaos Sumo found that only 36% of organisations using object storage for data lake applications said it was easy to retrieve information, and just 7% said the data was easily analysed.
Two out of five respondents have resorted to using home-grown solutions to solve visibility and analytics issues in object storage, while RedShift, Amazon Athena and the Elastic stack have some followers, according to the report.
But whatever tools enterprises deploy, more than half of all survey respondents said it took more than three months to set up their analytics architecture.
Disillusioned, yet persistent
Perhaps not surprisingly, Gartner’s most recent storage hype cycle has object storage entering a phase it describes as the “trough of disillusionment”.
But it seems enterprises are willing to persist. When Chaos Sumo asked 120 organisations about their appetite for object storage, 72% said they are using S3 or something similar.
Most said they use object storage as a cheap alternative to on-premise storage systems for backup and archiving purposes, but the technology is increasingly being deployed for application hosting (38%), media hosting (34%) and business analytics (32%).
“IT leaders that require highly scalable, self-healing and cost-effective storage platforms for unstructured data should evaluate the suitability of object storage products,” says Gartner. “The common use cases are archiving, content distribution, analytics and backup.”
According to IBM’s Fulton, the most enthusiastic adopters have been larger banks, media companies and organisations with significant amounts of data generated from the internet of things (IoT) and big data initiatives.
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Although organisations can set up in-house object stores, AWS’s Elisha warns of the “non-trivial engineering issues” that organisations face if they try to operate their own object stores rather than use object storage in the cloud.
In Australia, magazine publisher Bauer Media is already using S3 to host its online magazine store and to process images, while Redbubble, an online marketplace for print-on-demand products, uses the same service to host five million designs.
Other use cases include an insurance company that is storing statements on S3, which holds trillions of objects and handles millions of access requests each second, and a number of companies that store recordings of contact centre calls on the service.
“It’s the Swiss Army knife for storage,” says Elisha.