These days every software and hardware vendor under the sun seems to be planning or mounting a move to the cloud to help meet storage needs, and for good reason.
Cloud storage has the potential to save vast sums of money, and can be scaled or tweaked to meet a company's exact needs.
This idea was neatly summed up by IDC storage research director Ashish Nadkarni earlier this year. "As one of the most noteworthy developments in the evolution of IT, cloud has transformed the IT delivery and supplier ecosystem permanently," he said.
"The storage hardware, software and services industries have the potential to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of this trend.
"By pivoting around the appropriate part of the storage value chain, they can deliver the right solutions for all types of public and private cloud deployments."
The popularity and importance of robust storage is viewed as a key area driving growth in the overall cloud industry which, according to the latest statistics from research house Markets and Markets, will be worth a staggering $121bn by 2015.
Cloud storage services are popping up with increased frequency to meet this need, each attempting to take a slice of the growing market.
While great on the one hand, the sheer number of services, each claiming to have the definitive answer to a company's storage requirements, has made it difficult to know which package is right.
Is the cloud right for you?
The first and most important question when considering a storage option is whether the cloud is the right place to store your company's data.
The importance of this question was expressed expertly by Bank of England CIO John Finch at the Cloud World Forum.
"All the [cloud] vendors will be telling you that you don't need IT teams as they'll do the heavy lifting for you. That is sometimes true, and there are cases where cloud can be a real enabler, but that doesn't mean it's always right," he said.
"Think about business models. There are many different variants [in] how you can scale using other people's infrastructure. One size doesn't fit all.
"The vendors will also tell you there is a financial upside. My answer is don't let the bean counters tell you how to count your beans. Go and see an external accountant."
Finch's comments have been proved true time and time again in recent months with a wave of privacy issues and data breaches afflicting cloud storage providers.
This year alone we've seen data leaked and stolen from more cloud storage providers than can easily be counted.
These have included alleged breaches to Apple's iCloud and the ever popular Dropbox, which has been subjected to several cyber attacks over the past few years.
With this in mind firms would do well to remember, as noted by research house Forrester, that cloud storage is technically outsourcing, making it vital to check the vendor's security credentials and how much the move is going to cost.
Small to medium-sized business
Thanks to the consumerisation of IT many SMBs are already using cloud services, even if they don't know it.
A company may not have a formal policy allowing employees to store business data on consumer services, such as Dropbox, Google Drive or Apple iCloud, but many workers do anyway.
The reason for this is simple: it's easy and convenient. Most of us now use a cloud storage service in our personal lives and find it quicker and easier to store work files in the same place rather than in a separate work service.
This is dangerous as it takes the data beyond the protected work network and leaves it at increased risk of physical and cyber theft or loss, as noted by Nick Ioannou, IT manager at Ratcliffe Groves Partnership.
"People just think we're slowing them down and compare it to their speeds at home. They don't understand all the layers and security we add on," he said.
As a result it's important for SMBs looking at cloud storage to use a commercial, not a consumer, solution.
For those willing to do this there a number of decent services available. Dropbox and Box both offer work account options for basic needs that add enhanced security and management features to the consumer versions.
For the particularly security-conscious, many security vendors, including Symantec, Trend Micro and F-Secure, also offer SMB storage packages.
Enterprise companies' moves to cloud storage are obviously going to be a lot more complex, and it will be some time before this is the norm.
"The transition from hardware appliances to software-only storage will take years to complete, but momentum is building rapidly," Forrester analyst Henry Baltazar explained in the firm's Market Overview: Software-Only Storage report.
With this in mind picking the right provider is more important than ever, as each has its strengths and weaknesses.
There are plenty of big players offering a variety of on-premise storage options, including EMC, NetApp, IBM, HP and Hitachi Data Systems, but the move to a public cloud is one of the biggest trends in enterprise storage at the moment and many companies will be unable to ignore it.
As noted by analyst firm Gartner in its 2014 Magic Quadrant for Public Cloud Storage Services report: "By year-end 2016, more than 50 percent of global companies will have stored customer-sensitive data in the public cloud, which is an increase from less than five percent in 2013."
Numerous technology vendors have therefore developed public or hybrid cloud options that enterprise companies would do well to consider. Big names in this field include Amazon Web Services, Google, Microsoft, HP, IBM and Rackspace.
Gartner currently lists Amazon and Microsoft as ‘leaders in the field', although again neither is listed as ‘perfect'. Amazon is viewed as the ‘safe' bet, owing to its role in pioneering the public cloud eight years ago and its strong developer and independent software vendor support.
On the darker side, Amazon is not as transparent about its architecture as its competitors, which may be a problem for companies that want detailed information about how and where their data is stored.
Microsoft, by comparison, is praised for its established role in working with enterprise firms and its turnkey delivery of cloud storage services which simplifies its engagement with vendors and organisations.
But Microsoft is a late entrant to the market and has yet to forge strong partnerships with the major storage vendors, making it a potentially unsuitable choice for firms looking to extend an on-premise storage environment.
There is currently no single cloud storage provider that can be described as perfect, and the answer to which is best is determined largely by the customer's precise needs.
With this in mind, companies looking to store data in the cloud should carefully examine and define their requirements and determine which provider ticks the most boxes in a secure and cost-effective manner.
For more information on cloud storage, visit the Intel IT Center.
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