The online storage wars ignite

For decades, the answer to where we were supposed to store our ever-growing piles of data was a simple one: Buy a bigger drive and get it on your network. And as your storage needs continued to grow, you added more of the same.

It was an easy answer borne out of a simple technological reality. Networks just didn’t have the bandwidth to effectively allow companies to store huge volumes of content anywhere but relatively near to where it was going to be used. For the typical IT shop supporting countless corporate headquarters-bound, desktop-using information workers, that meant basements filled with successive generations of ever larger spinning disk and tape drives.

Doesn’t sound very sexy, I know. But that’s hardly the point. Sometimes in tech, the least sexy topics are the most crucial to your organization’s well-being.

And so it goes with storage. Information workers have always been packrats, of course, zealously holding onto every last document, spreadsheet, graphic, audio and video file wherever we can find the room. As data types have evolved from simple text to elaborate multimedia, and as networks have grown from focused corporate resources to mobile and social-enabled collaborative infrastructure, storage has hit a major inflection point. Tightening regulatory pressures only add to the urgency, as they force companies to hold onto even more stuff, and for ever-longer periods of time, and to be ready to package it and share it with government agencies and law enforcement with virtually no notice.

Bigger isn’t necessarily better

Thanks to this new world order, it’s no longer enough to add an order of magnitude to the drive size every few years and call it a day. Indeed size is now only part of the equation, and as we race through gigabytes and terabytes to petabytes and beyond, having enough space to save our stuff is barely table stakes. As much sense as it once made to stick all that glorious, spacious, security blanket-like storage in the basement, that’s all beginning to change. Because if it’s still sitting in the basement, it can’t be everywhere your mobile- and social-enabled workforce needs it to be.

In short, storage is inevitably divorcing itself from physical, locally owned, provisioned and supported infrastructure. At the risk of sounding like I’m dropping another buzzword, it needs to live in the cloud. And as workflows and infrastructures shift toward always-on, cloud-based, utility-like services that are paid for via subscription and delivered through the fattest broadband and wireless pipes you can possibly afford, storage is inevitably being dragged into a cloud-based future.

Which is exactly as it should be. Online storage gives DRP-challenged IT shops a simple answer to their security, redundancy and availability challenges. It frees them from capex-intensive investment cycles and instead allows more precise, demand-driven subscription-based budgeting. Turn it on and off as business needs dictate, and only pay for what the business requires. It also frees IT admins from non-value-added management of traditional storage infrastructure, and potentially clears their schedules so they can spend more time finding innovative solutions on behalf of the businesses they serve.

It’s all about money

Sounds great in theory. And for the most part it is. But reality can often throw in a roadblock or two along the way, and online storage is no exception. While the advent of ever fatter and faster pipes has given technology decision-makers a growing list of potential infrastructure options, they’ve still been getting stuck over the oldest excuse in the book: Price.

Despite the double whammy of rapidly improving broadband/wireless network performance and ever more mature tools for managing mobile storage, the third leg of the triad, the one with dollar signs on it, has remained out of reach for many. In a world where dirt cheap spinning disks got seemingly got cheaper by the week, the ROI of cloud-based storage still wasn’t compelling enough for most organizations to make the leap. Sticking with bigger versions of the tried and true drive infrastructure has been the budget-friendly, career-safe, risk-averse preferred strategy for most mainstream techies. I can’t say I’d blame them, because if it’s always worked, why change anything?

That conservative mindset is beginning to change thanks to a burgeoning price war between the heavyweights of the online storage world. And as the giants engage in an accelerating tit-for-tat battle to push online storage pricing into near-disk-like territory, the very future of storage is being rewritten. Your next storage buy may not even be for a physical drive.

Cheaper by the day

Dropbox had already established a mainstream price level with its $9.99-per-user-per-month-for-100 Gb offering. Box then lowered the bar to $5 per user per month before Google became the first heavyweight player to dive into the cut-rate storage pool. It dropped its Drive service to $1.99 per month for the same amount, part of a 68% price reduction overall, and soon enough the other giants were sharpening their pencils, as well. Amazon shaved its Amazon Web Services pricing by between 36% and 65%, then Microsoft announced it would match Amazon’s reductions with its OneDrive for Business offering. Don’t expect this pricing merry-go-round to end anytime soon.

While vendors adjust pricing all the time, the speed, breadth and depth of these cuts strongly suggests cloud-based storage may finally be hitting a tipping point, and businesses that may have been on the fence may want to begin rethinking their position. In fact, from a security perspective, the risks of not incorporating public cloud storage into the overall mix could outweigh the rapidly falling costs. Increasingly mobile workforces are also driving the need for content to live in the cloud.

Without an effective foundation of cloud-based storage, geographically spread-out teams are stuck emailing content back and forth and wrestling with the inevitable versioning issues that result. Cloud storage allows real-time editing no matter where your people are, with the added bonus of fusing customers, suppliers and other stakeholders into your workflow, as well.

A strategic shift

The shift of workflow toward increasingly diverse mobile devices, some of which may already be limited in their ability to store substantive work locally, further validates the business case for cloud-based storage. If you want to play in this league, traditional storage just won’t do.

Companies that embrace mobile collaboration as a core competency stand to competitively differentiate themselves from organizations that simplistically view cloud-based storage as a replacement for or extension of traditional drive-based infrastructure. In fact, the opportunity is far more strategic than that, and the rapid downward pricing trend presents companies of any size, in any sector a golden opportunity to get in on the online storage ground floor.



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