Cirtas Systems customers look for exit ramp from hybrid cloud storage

Hybrid cloud storage startup Cirtas Systems pulled its product off the market last month, leaving users to seek a way to back out compressed, encrypted data from their cloud SANs.

Cirtas Systems Inc.’s customers discovered the cloud can have frustrating consequences last month when the hybrid cloud storage appliance vendor pulled its products off the market. Cirtas’ sudden retreat left customers with encrypted data stored with off-site cloud storage providers.

David Jones, IT operations manager at Alexza Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., said Cirtas surprised him last month with a telephone call to inform him that the company was leaving the market and wanted to buy back his equipment. That left him with little choice.

“It’s suicide to keep it,” he said, “because you have no support on the device.”

But Alexza couldn’t simply return the block-storage Cirtas Bluejet Cloud Storage Controller it had been using for approximately a year as a beta customer and then as a paying customer. The pharmaceutical company would first need to back out the 300 GB of second-tier data stored with its Amazon.com Inc. Simple Storage Service (S3), because only the Cirtas appliance could decrypt and uncompress the data.

“It’s inconvenient, and it’s annoying,” Jones said. “We’re taking bets on how long it will take.”

A hybrid cloud storage appliance provides an on-premise cache that allows users to retrieve the latest or most active data from the local device rather than from the cloud, addressing worries about performance, network latency and outages. The appliance also typically deduplicates and encrypts data before sending it off-premises to a cloud storage provider, mitigating bandwidth and security concerns.

Jones calls the capability to have data on-premises and off-site “the thing that I loved about it and now the thing that I hate about it.” Alexza had to purchase an inexpensive device from QNAP Systems Inc. to temporarily store the 300 GB of data it must download from the cloud.

Cirtas declined requests for comment.

The April 15 Cirtas announcement came as Alexza Pharmaceuticals was preparing to increase its use of the Bluejet appliance. To that point, Alexza had used the appliance with 3 TB of local cache, only for archives and for data from underutilized and orphaned storage. But Alexza was on the verge of expanding its use of the appliance to low-priority primary storage, such as user and group folders and scratch pads for early stage development work.

The expanded use hinged on Alexza’s move to a 100 Mbps WAN, but Alexza has yet to complete the network upgrade. Jones considered the bump to 100 Mbps essential to any increased usage of the Cirtas Systems technology because the appliance had proven bandwidth intensive when handling large quantities of data.

While the Cirtas experience discouraged Jones on young technology companies, he said it didn't sour him on hybrid cloud storage appliances. Jones continues to view the concept as viable for his IT department, which must balance escalating storage needs against physical space constraints.

“At a certain point, the next shelf from NetApp or the next servers or the next whatever comes with a construction cost,” Jones said. “We’re pinched on space, so we need to be inventive and creative.”

Jones expects his next hybrid cloud storage appliance to be file based rather than block based. Alexza Pharmaceuticals had been fronting it Cirtas SAN appliance with a virtual machine running Windows Server to turn the system into a NAS box for internal users while the appliance pushed out block-based data to the cloud.

“Why not remove that virtual machine that we had to create and do something more efficiently, which would be just use a NAS box?” Jones queried, adding that the company’s main need is file-based storage. “I’ve noticed after using it for a while that file works better for us because of the data we have.”

Cloud brought no balm to Gilead

Timothy Seto, a storage administrator at Gilead Sciences Inc. in Foster City, Calif., also said he has no regrets about trying the Cirtas appliance. The biotechnology company used the product strictly in test mode, storing a mere 7 GB of backup and archive data in the cloud.

The whole cloud storage industry has gotten a couple of black eyes.

Timothy Seto, storage administrator, Gilead Sciences Inc.

The test phase wasn't without problems. Seto said reboots were initially more common than he was comfortable with, until a software update approximately two months ago fixed many of the bugs. The improvements made him cautiously optimistic about the technology.

So Seto was disappointed at hearing the news that Cirtas was pulling back from the market, around the same time that Amazon suffered a major outage to its Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) and Elastic Block Store (EBS) services, and Iron Mountain Inc. shuttered its file and archiving cloud storage.

“In our group, we like technology. We embrace it. And we wanted to see technologies like that succeed,” Seto said. “The whole cloud storage industry has gotten a couple of black eyes.”

But the Cirtas setback had negligible negative impact on Gilead Sciences. Backing out a mere 7 GB of data was no big deal after Cirtas contacted Gilead and asked the company to return the appliance. Seto said continuing to use the appliance wasn't a realistic option.

“When you have an appliance that does encryption, you definitely want that to be under some sort of support,” he said. “If we have a hardware failure, and we can’t replace the hardware, basically our encryption is locked in. We can’t get our data retrieved from the cloud.”

IT shops remain wary, but not averse to cloud storage

California State University (CSU) Channel Islands had expressed interested in the Cirtas Bluejet Cloud Storage Controller to supplement its Nasuni Corp. virtual NAS appliance. Herbert Aquino, manager of academic and information technology at the university, said he liked the idea of a dedicated appliance for a local cache, and he also liked the price.

But, through an e-mail, Aquino said the news of Cirtas’ demise has made him more cautious of new players. He said the Amazon outage caused the Nasuni filer to become “unsynchronized” from the school’s Active Directory domain and made him consider increasing the size of the Nasuni cache to 1 TB.

“The Amazon outage started me thinking that storage still needs to be properly tiered and that the hopes of storing all my data to the cloud is still not a reality,” Aquino said.

Alexza Pharmaceuticals’s Jones said risk has been rife in technology from the days of the mainframe to the most recent Amazon outage. Taking a chance on a new product from a startup can make sense if the IT shop goes in with its eyes wide open to both the pros and the cons, and determines that the on-ramp and off-ramp are reasonable, as Jones said he did in the case of the Cirtas appliance.

“I don’t regret having done it,” he said. “Did I get enough benefit that I’m not going to have an interesting set of conversations with our CFO? Probably not. But you have to take some risk at some point, and not everything you do is going to succeed.”

Priorities at Gilead Sciences have shifted, and Seto said the company has no plans to actively seek out another hybrid cloud storage appliance for backups and archives. But he also won’t turn such a product away, if a good one crosses his path.

“I would be hesitant to recommend it” for primary storage, Seto said, but he added that he wouldn’t say never either, so long as there’s a good backup plan. “I’m leaving the door open. I’m probably more 50-50.”

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