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Cloud has a silver lining for ROBO storage

Providing and managing storage for remote and branch offices can be a challenge, but a hybrid approach using local and cloud-based storage may be the best solution.

Providing and managing ROBO storage can be a challenge, but a hybrid approach using a combination of local and cloud-based storage may be the best solution.

Storage managers know that providing great data storage services to remote or branch offices (ROBOs) isn't simply a matter of replicating a single, small office solution or extending data center storage to each ROBO with a WAN. But some vendors still insist that their traditional storage and data protection products can easily extend to cover ROBO needs, perhaps with just a few add-ons, a third-party product or two, and a bit of custom scripting. What they don't mention is how quickly costs can climb, how tough management can be, and what to do with users who aren't happy about compromising performance, accessibility or protection.

But there is hope. At Taneja Group, we've seen a couple of key trends that bode well for ROBO storage. First, cloud-based and cloud-enabled services are providing new opportunities to rethink and redesign storage services for distributed and mobile use cases. ROBOs are by definition distributed, and their users tend to be highly mobile. Second, some vendors are taking advantage of cloud services to build specific products to address ROBO storage challenges.

ROBO storage issues

ROBOs can range from a single user to a few dozen users, and some may even have 100 users or more. We estimate that there are more than 10 million ROBOs worldwide, and that number is growing steadily. Some of the storage challenges that ROBOs contend with include:

  • Scalability. Storage capacity and use tends to grow in most ROBOs over time, and the data protection process and associated secondary storage must scale accordingly.
  • Manageability and reliability. Typically, ROBOs lack storage and data protection expertise and resources, and remote management of storage provisioning and data protection across a number of ROBO servers and user devices can be cumbersome and error prone.
  • Collaboration and sharing. ROBO users often need to share files within and among branches. ROBO users who rely on local branch infrastructure usually won't be able to share data and collaborate with local colleagues or other sites.
  • Cost. The total cost of a full ROBO storage solution includes hardware and software, floor space, power and cooling at each site, and setting up and managing the local storage and data protection. Costs creep in for any additional "local" elements, as well as for growing complexities in centralized management and operations.

In addition to these inherent challenges, backup agent overhead, slow WAN-speed recovery times and distributed security are sources of concern with traditional ROBO storage approaches. Traditional approaches are local offerings that include physical storage at the ROBO, or centralized solutions that employ caching/accelerators to access remote storage at a data center, or in a private or public cloud.

Local storage for ROBOs

The most popular approach has been to deploy a Windows file server or NAS device for local physical storage with backup to local tape (or disk) drives, and offsite backup or replication for disaster recovery. Endpoint devices are backed up locally or remotely to a data center or cloud. This approach provides highly accessible primary storage, but it relies on local users to manage backups and, considering cost and manageability, it can't scale to many ROBO sites.

Centralized storage

The other major approach is to allocate storage centrally out of a data center or cloud, and provide access to it over the WAN via some form of cache or accelerator. Local application servers and user endpoint devices are backed up remotely, using agents that are compatible with the caching solution. This method reduces local storage costs and provides some level of centralized management, but it creates a huge dependency on the WAN, is complex to deploy and can reduce storage access performance.

Cloud-enabled ROBO storage

We believe the ideal ROBO storage offering should combine the performance and feel of local storage with the scalability, resilience, manageability and economies of a central data center or cloud. A CTERA Networks Ltd. Cloud Storage Enablement suite is an example of this approach. CTERA's offering provides a local ROBO appliance that functions as both local NAS storage and as a cloud gateway. ROBO users get LAN-speed storage, but all files are deduped, compressed, encrypted and replicated to a private or public cloud for data protection. Local applications, servers and users can continue to leverage local backup, while also getting off-site data protection. What marks this as a well-designed ROBO solution are the cross-ROBO file-sharing and synchronization features provided by the same components and connections.

There are certainly other ways to leverage cloud services for ROBOs, such as piecing together best-of-breed offerings perhaps using Huddle for collaboration, Riverbed's Granite storage for local performance and Mozy for end-user cloud backup. But purpose-built, cloud-enabled ROBO storage products offer centralized management over large-scale ROBO deployments. Ultimately, the costs to deploy and operate prepackaged cloud-enabled storage, or storage appliance "gateways," across hundreds of ROBOs can be far less than using traditional or piecemeal storage approaches.

If you're looking for a storage offering that must scale to tens, hundreds or even thousands of ROBO sites, cloud-enabled storage should be on your short-list of alternatives.

About the author:
Mike Matchett is a senior analyst and consultant at Taneja Group.

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