Dealing with cloud storage service providers: Avoiding vendor lock-in

Vendor lock-in remains a top-of-mind issue for cloud users. Arun Taneja explains what precautions can be taken when committing to cloud storage service providers.

In this tip series, Arun Taneja, founder and president of Taneja Group, offers his best cloud tips to users. In part one, Arun tells users how to ensure they get their data out of a cloud storage repository if they decide to switch cloud storage service providers or bring their data back in-house.

This question addresses one of the major concerns users have had about putting too much of their data -- or more importantly, their most valuable or critical data -- into the cloud. Put another way, how can users gain cloud storage benefits such as ease of accessibility and reduced costs, without the fear of vendor lock-in?

Read Arun Taneja’s cloud tips series

Making a plan for cloud storage DR

Understanding the basics of cloud gateways

How to migrate applications into the cloud

Top tips for comparing cloud storage services

This issue is on the minds of many end users we speak with, and unfortunately, there's no simple or universal answer today. Fear of vendor lock-in is clearly a legitimate concern. There are no widely adopted standards in place today to ensure that customer data can be freely moved among different cloud storage service providers’ sites. And it always seems to be more difficult and more costly to transfer data out of a cloud storage repository than it is to upload it in the first place. The more data a user has, the harder it is to move; and if the user wants to move the data to a new cloud provider, they’ll probably have to pay for the bandwidth twice. This inhibits opportunistic migration and puts customers in a weak negotiating position relative to their cloud storage service provider.

So what steps can cloud storage customers take to reduce the likelihood of lock-in, and the cost and inconvenience that go along with it? Here are a few guidelines that we recommend users follow as they shop around for a cloud storage provider:

  • Read the fine print of each provider’s policies, and if necessary, ask them directly how they facilitate moving customer data out of their cloud storage repository. Given the amount of data you’ll be uploading and its expected growth over time, could the data be moved via the Internet back into your data center in a reasonable timeframe or to a different provider’s site? As an alternative, if the volume of data is too large for digital transfer, can it be moved via a portable storage device? What's the process, timeframe and cost required for each of these approaches?

    Unfortunately, today, pulling data out of most cloud storage solutions requires a brute-force approach that you, the customer, will be responsible for. But it’s worth finding out the likely scenarios before you sign up with a provider. You may not like all the answers, but at least you’ll have a feel for the magnitude of effort and cost you might incur down the road.

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  • Ask the provider whether they offer data migration tools or services to facilitate the movement of large amounts of data. For example, while most providers require that customers moving data between clouds first download data to an intermediate location (e.g., the customer’s data center) and then re-upload the data to a new cloud, Nirvanix provides direct cloud-to-cloud data migration via its Cloud Sideloader technology. Today, this service is available only to move data into a Nirvanix cloud, but customers don't need to pay inbound bandwidth charges. Some cloud gateway vendors are also making migration easier by integrating with different cloud storage APIs and then providing a standard file system interface to facilitate data migration between those clouds.

  • Choose providers that have pledged to support emerging industry standards, such as the Cloud Data Management Interface (CDMI) standard created by the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA). The CDMI provides a standard functional interface that applications will use to create, retrieve, update and delete data elements in the cloud and, once adopted, will make it much easier to move data from one cloud to another. The OpenStack initiative is also attempting to create and enforce standards that will facilitate data movement across different platforms and providers.

As the market matures, we’re hopeful that cloud storage service providers and technology vendors will rally around a handful of cloud standards that will put the data and vendor lock-in problem to rest. But in the meantime, let the buyer beware.

BIO: Arun Taneja is founder and president of Taneja Group, an analyst and consulting group focused on storage and storage-centric server technologies.

This was first published in April 2012

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