The Starbucks model for Storage-as-a-Service

Starbucks™ is not a coffee shop. It purveys beyond coffee and tea, and food and puts together the yuppie beverages experience. The intention is to get the customers to stay as long as they can, and keep purchasing the Starbucks’ smorgasbord of high margin provisions in volume. Wifi, ambience, status, coffee or tea with your name on it (plenty of jokes and meme there), energetic baristas and servers, fancy coffee roasts and beans et. al. All part of the Starbucks™-as-a-Service pleasurable affair that intends to lock the customer in and have them keep coming back.

The Starbucks experience

Data is heavy and they know it

Unlike compute and network infrastructures, storage infrastructures holds data persistently and permanently. Data has to land on a piece of storage medium. Coupled that with the fact that data is heavy, forever growing and data has gravity, you have a perfect recipe for lock-in. All storage purveyors, whether they are on-premises data center enterprise storage or public cloud storage, and in between, there are many, many methods to keep the data chained to a storage technology or a storage service for a long time. The storage-as-a-service is like tying the cow to the stake and keeps on milking it. This business model is very sticky. This stickiness is also a lock-in mechanism.

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Multicloud is sprouting Storage Silos

Grain Silos

We get an avalanche of multicloud selling from storage vendors. We get promises and benefits of multicloud but from whose point of view?

Multicloud is multiple premises

This is an overly simplistic example how I created 3 copies of the same spreadsheet yesterday. I have a quotation on Google Sheets. A fairly complicated one. Someone wanted it in Excel format, but the format and the formulas were all messed up when I tried to download it as XLSX. What I had to do was to download the Google Sheets as ODS (OpenDocument Spreadsheet) format to my laptop, and then upload the LibreOffice file to my OneDrive account, and use Excel Online to open the ODS file and saved as XLSX. In one fell swoop, I have the same spreadsheet in Google Drive, my laptop and OneDrive. 3 copies in 3 different premises. 

As we look to the behaviour of data creation and data acquisition, data sharing and data movement, the central repository is the gold image, the most relevant copy of the data. However, for business reasons, data has to be moved to where the applications are. It could be in cloud A or cloud B or cloud C or it could be on-premises. The processed output from cloud A is stored in cloud A, and likewise, cloud B in cloud B and so on.

To get the most significant and relevant copy, data from all premises must be consolidated, thus it has to be moved to a centralized data storage repository. But intercloud data movement is bogged down by egress fees, latency, data migration challenges (like formats and encoding), security, data clearance policies and many other hoops and hurdles.

With all these questions and concerns in mind, the big question mark is “Is multicloud really practical?” From a storage guy like me who loves a great data management story, “It is not. Multicloud creates storage silos“.

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Storage in a shiny multi-cloud space

The multi-cloud for infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) era is not here (yet). That is what the technology marketers want you to think. The hype, the vapourware, the frenzy. It is what they do. The same goes to technology analysts where they describe vision and futures, and the high level constructs and strategies to get there. The hype of multi-cloud is often thought of running applications and infrastructure services seamlessly in several public clouds such as Amazon AWS, Microsoft® Azure and Google Cloud Platform, and linking it to on-premises data centers and private clouds. Hybrid is the new black.

Multicloud connectivity to public cloud providers and on-premises private cloud

Multi-Cloud, on-premises, public and hybrid clouds

And the aspiration of multi-cloud is the right one, when it is truly ready. Gartner® wrote a high level article titled “Why Organizations Choose a Multicloud Strategy“. To take advantage of each individual cloud’s strengths and resiliency in respective geographies make good business sense, but there are many other considerations that cannot be an afterthought. In this blog, we look at a few of them from a data storage perspective.

In the beginning there was … 

For this storage dinosaur, data storage and compute have always coupled as one. In the mainframe DASD days. these 2 were together. Even with the rise of networking architectures and protocols, from IBM SNA, DECnet, Ethernet & TCP/IP, and Token Ring FC-SAN (sorry, this is just a joke), the SANs, the filers to the servers were close together, albeit with a network buffered layer.

A decade ago, when the public clouds started appearing, data storage and compute were mostly inseparable. There was demarcation of public clouds and private clouds. The notion of hybrid clouds meant public clouds and private clouds can intermix with on-premise computing and data storage but in almost all cases, this was confined to a single public cloud provider. Until these public cloud providers realized they were not able to entice the larger enterprises to move their IT out of their on-premises data centers to the cloud convincingly. So, these public cloud providers decided to reverse their strategy and peddled their cloud services back to on-prem. Today, Amazon AWS has Outposts; Microsoft® Azure has Arc; and Google Cloud Platform launched Anthos.

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Of Object Storage, Filesystems and Multi-Cloud

Data storage silos everywhere. The early clarion call was to eliminate IT data storage silos by moving to the cloud. Fast forward to the present. Data storage silos are still everywhere, but this time, they are in the clouds. I blogged about this.

Object Storage was all the rage when it first started. AWS, with its S3 (Simple Storage Service) offering, started the cloud storage frenzy. Highly available, globally distributed, simple to access, and fitted superbly into the entire AWS ecosystem. Quickly, a smorgasbord of S3-compatible, S3-like object-based storage emerged. OpenStack Swift, HDS HCP, EMC Atmos, Cleversafe (which became IBM SpectrumScale), Inktank Ceph (which became RedHat Ceph), Bycast (acquired by NetApp to be StorageGrid), Quantum Lattus, Amplidata, and many more. For a period of a few years prior, it looked to me that the popularity of object storage with an S3 compatible front has overtaken distributed file systems.

What’s not to like? Object storage are distributed, they are metadata rich (at a certain structural level), they are immutable (hence secure from a certain point of view), and some even claim self-healing (depending on data protection policies). But one thing that object storage rarely touted dominance was high performance I/O. There were some cases, but they were either fronted by a file system (eg. NFSv4.1 with pNFS extensions), or using some host-based, SAN-client agent (eg. StorNext or Intel Lustre). Object-based storage, in its native form, has not been positioned as high performance I/O storage.

A few weeks ago, I read an article from Storage Soup, Dave Raffo. When I read it, it felt oxymoronic. SwiftStack was just nominated as a visionary in the Gartner Magic Quadrant for Distributed File Systems and Object Storage. But according to Dave’s article, Swiftstack did not want to be “associated” with object storage that much, even though Swiftstack’s technology underpinning was all object storage. Strange.

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Cloud silos after eliminating silos

I love cloud computing. I love the economics and the agility of the cloud and how it changed IT forever. The cloud has solved some of the headaches of IT, notably the silos in operations, the silos in development and the silos in infrastructure.

The virtualization and abstraction of rigid infrastructures and on-premise operations have given birth to X-as-a-Service and Cloud Services. Along with this, comes cloud orchestration, cloud automation, policies, DevOps and plenty more. IT responds well to this and thus, public clouds services like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platforms are dominating the landscape. Other cloud vendors like Rackspace, SoftLayer, Alibaba Cloud are following the leaders pack offering public, private, hybrid and specialized services as well.

In this pile, we can now see the certain “camps” emerging. Many love Azure Stack and many adore AWS Lambda. Google just had their summit here in Malaysia yesterday, appealing to a green field and looking for new adopters. What we are seeing is we have customers and end users adopting various public cloud services providers, their services, their ecosystem, their tools, their libraries and so on. We also know that many customers and end users having several applications on AWS, and some on Azure and perhaps looking for better deals with another cloud vendor. Multi-cloud is becoming flavour of the season, and that word keeps appearing in presentations and conversations.

Yes, multi-cloud is a good thing. Customers and end users would love it because they can get the most bang for their buck, if only … it wasn’t so complicated. There aren’t many “multi-cloud” platforms out there yet. Continue reading