More than 90 percent of small businesses rely on at least some cloud services, according to various analyst reports. That shouldn't be a surprise since businesses small and large happily send backup files to the cloud. What might be a surprise is the growing number of businesses bypassing on-premises file storage and storing primary files in the cloud. Say hello to the cloud NAS.
No clear definition for cloud NAS exists, says Scott Sinclair, storage analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. "You can call it a NAS in the cloud and restate the obvious. So call it a cloud application using NAS protocols to manage storage."
Cloud NAS as a content repository is too small a market to do much analysis right now, notes Sinclair. Security issues remain a compelling reason to keep data off the cloud until encryption tools protect that data in transit and on the remote hard drives, according to many IT managers. "Yet both of these features are available today," says Sinclair. "Emotional decisions and perception still matter more than available security to many managers."
Sinclair separates store and sync services like Dropbox and Box from cloud NAS. "These tools add an extra layer of authentication services, usually administered [by a department] outside the IT group. And [use of] those services is growing faster than the IT departments in those companies know." Sinclair has seen doctors sharing patient records with consulting doctors using a sync and share system to hold large image files. That practice often breaks multiple compliance regulations, but the hospitals and IT groups don't know about those shared accounts.
Security issues have become selling points for Rob Cima, CEO of FeatherShark, a cloud-focused MSP 20 minutes west of St. Louis in Chesterfield, Mo. "We resell Egnyte [an on-premises and cloud file sharing platform from Egnyte Inc.] and they handle all the security our customers need, including for HIPAA and FINRA, for medical and financial companies, respectively," says Cima. "Our storage is more secure than the servers and storage we replace."
"Our pitch is to get rid of servers," says Cima. "We use Egnyte’s cloud-only version, and sometimes an on-premise NAS from Netgear [Inc.] for local caching. Egnyte handles the file security on the wire and in their cloud, and their control extends all the way down to the Netgear appliance as well." Cima has hundreds of users on Egnyte systems, including companies with up to 50 employees. "We're having good luck with customers that have lots of data and slow links, after the first synchronization is done and the data is up there."
A Different Take on Cloud NAS
Many companies offer software and hardware that act as a front end to third-party cloud storage such as Amazon Web Services (AWS). "The long and short of a cloud NAS is that storage suppliers are extending their storage tier to the cloud," says Ashish Nadkarni, research director, storage systems for IDC. "But is it a cloud gateway like Nasuni or Zadara? Any product with AWS support?"
"The front end acts like a file server—any type of block storage device that businesses know how to use," says Nadkarni. "Before you might have [had] storage tiers of flash, expensive disks, inexpensive disks, and then cloud. Soon you'll have maybe one or two tiers in the cloud [appliance] itself, then move the rest to the cloud."
In addition to Nasuni Corp. and Zadara Storage, other players in this market include Panzura, SoftNAS LLC, and Avere Systems Inc. But Nadkarni warns that there’s disruption in the market, and most start-ups are fighting an uphill battle to get stickiness. “Start-ups will get purchased as a technology acquisition for established players,” he notes. StorSimple, for example, is now part of Microsoft's Azure, and TwinStrata with its CloudArray cloud storage gateway, is part of storage giant EMC Corp.
Nadkarni has a word of warning for those jumping into cloud NAS to lower their costs. "Storage may be cheap, but transfer charges may cost you. AWS does charge you for moving data in and out of the cloud tier." In spite of that, his research shows that the move to cloud NAS is part of a bigger trend that is the move to the cloud.
"One thing in my research that surprised me was that customers don't have much brand loyalty," says Nadkarni. "Their attitude is, ‘If it's cheaper, I'll take it,’ rather than stick with one particular vendor." But in two or three years, he says, clients will automatically assume that a cloud component is part of every storage system they buy.
"The ultimate goal for many companies is to get rid of their physical architecture," explains Nadkarni, who believes smaller and newer companies can get away with total cloud reliance, but legacy companies invested in on-premises equipment will have a longer journey. "I know of one mobile app development company that was designed to stay away from on-premise. Everything is in the AWS cloud."
But not all files work well on a cloud NAS platform, says Cima. Databases can be run as applications in the cloud, but don't do well on Egnyte, for example, because the files need to close to synchronize. Video production files are large and take too long to transfer. He suggests QuickBooks users run locally but back up nightly to the Egnyte NAS.
Cima's cloud-based managed services practice encourages clients to use cloud for everything. "In an earlier business, I was trying to get a big proposal out to a customer, and our Exchange Server went down. That day I moved to Google Apps, then threw out Microsoft Dynamics CRM for Salesforce.com, and moved our phones to VoIP. Suddenly our MSP services budget went from $88,000 on IT down to $9,000."
FeatherShark has no Microsoft-certified IT engineers on staff, and Cima says it's a much cheaper way to run his business. "The hard-core security and engineering are done by our partners."