The main functions for services like Dropbox and Box.net are simple sharing and, to a limited degree, collaboration. Multiple parties can share access to a cloud-based storage device that's easier to set up than a networked drive. That helps small and medium-sized businesses as much as it helps consumers. But businesses, including even smaller ones, are encountering a need far outside the realm of consumer desire: They're starting to utilize big databases that go way beyond the size or scope of individual files.
This is where an object storage system could come into play. It's a way for data to be symmetrically clustered across multiple devices, utilizing a self-optimizing storage map that keeps data replicated, but never bottled up in the same place. We've seen such a system in OpenStack. One commercial alternative is from a company called Caringo, and is called CAstor. This month, an Israel-based company called CTERA Networks, Ltd. has adapted its appliance-based "Dropbox for SMBs" to support CAStor, in an effort to make object storage and backup more of a turnkey process.
Shoving the cloud through a bottle
"Broadly speaking, when you look at the problem we're trying to solve, cloud storage is very scalable, very flexible, on-demand that you can set up publicly or privately," explains Rani Osnat, CTERA's vice president of marketing, in an interview with RWW. "But the issue with using it in today's environment is that, unless you're using it for co-located cloud applications, you still have quite a few challenges to making it easy."
Most businesses' Internet connections, Osnat explains, are far inferior to their own local network speeds, so maintaining the logistics for a live data connection becomes challenging. When you add security to the mix, that makes the data package bulkier still, which ends up choking off bandwidth.
"Thirdly, there's an integration issue, in terms of systems as well as business process," he goes on. "If you look at the various uses an SMB has for storage, whether it's for servers or file storage, when you think about how you port all this to the cloud, today it's not really feasible. It's a future trend, but something that's not happening right now. It's primary use case is for secondary storage - things like backup, collaboration, disaster recovery, data protection, archiving. What an SMB will look for is not raw storage that they can use as a disk drive, because the performance is not there for it, but rather something that supports a business process in an application like backup, like file-based collaboration or synchronization.
Cloud in a box
The solution CTERA proposes for business is a hardware-based appliance that mitigates the communications bottlenecks between the cloud portal at the data center, and the data pool at each branch level. "The user interacts with the appliance, and then the appliance interacts with the cloud," Osnat describes, "creating a transparent buffer between the user and the cloud, giving the user the feeling that he's working with a local device and not something that's 'out there.'"
Indeed, that sounds like what Dropbox and Box.net do for consumers. For businesses such as SMBs, Osnat asserts, there needs to be a higher service level - one that gives an administrator some measure of control over the accessibility of stored objects by other individuals, including to branch offices. While any business can set up an Amazon S3 account, he says, all it really offers is space. And online backup services like Carbonite, he argues, are essentially reworked versions of consumer services whose premium is substantiated by price alone, making them uneconomical especially on a per-PC basis.
"Just putting files in the cloud is not backup," he explains. "How do I manage versions? How do I ensure that everything is de-duplicated so I don't waste space and bandwidth? How do I back up multiple servers, desktops, laptops, multiple users and make sure that they can have access to their own files?"
CTERA's service is comprised of two components - one on-premise, the other at the cloud service provider. The smallest version of the on-premise appliance comes in the form of what CTERA calls a CloudPlug - a box just slightly larger than your average AC adapter, which actually does plug into an electrical outlet. It has USB and eSATA ports for connection to an external hard drive of up to 4 TB capacity, and an Ethernet port that connects directly to the router.
The data center version of the appliance, by comparison, is a rack-mount unit with 32 TB of storage built-in, and is recommended for multi-tenant scenarios with around 500 branches.
The local storage serves as part of the larger pool - not really as a cache per se, but as a cloud storage gateway. Think of CloudPlug as the local component in a hybrid storage network that incorporates a public cloud platform running on CAStor. This platform is then accessible using CTERA's portal. Files being sent to the public cloud, including for backup, are de-duplicated and encrypted by the gateway using 256-bit AES.
Each CloudPlug appliance is actually a full-featured NAS, supporting CIFS, NFS, RSYNC, WebDAV, and FTP protocols. So using the portal software, it can be administered with storage quotas, per-user privileges, bandwidth usage warnings with throttling, and synchronization rules.
As a backup appliance, CTERA leverages the help of managed agents installed on PCs. These agents can back up Microsoft Exchange files, such as offline folders, as well as live SQL Server databases while maintaining consistency.
Managing the cloud on-ramp remotely
CTERA offers its cloud-based portal for resale to service providers. For a medium- to large-scale enterprise, from a few dozen to a few hundred branches, each branch may install a single CloudPlug appliance. Each one in the loop may be managed collectively from this portal. Here, storage quotas may be directly associated with users or groups in Active Directory, and appliances may be monitored and addressed through a centralized dashboard in real-time.
In addition to Caringo CAStor, CTERA supports cloud storage platforms from OpenStack, EMC Atmos, Hitachi HCP, IBM GPFS, Nirvanix, Mezeo, and Scality RING, as well as Amazon S3, with more to come. "We translate the file structure into digestible blocks, and store it in those platforms," says Osnat.
"From the user perspective, when they want to access the backup of a specific revision from three weeks ago, they go into the CTERA portal, and they can see the file manager structure, choose the right version, and retrieve it. Or they can restore an entire server. But Caringo is not a file system but an object-based storage system," he continues. "So you wouldn't be able to find that specific file there, because it's divided among blocks. We do this translation at the portal level."
For small and medium businesses, as well as enterprises, CTERA does not sell its services directly to customers; instead, it goes through multi-service providers (MSPs), CSPs, and service partners. It is those partners who run the data center portals, not CTERA. "As one journalist put it to me, we're an arms dealer," says the CTERA VP. "We don't supply the war, we just provide the arms.".
"With smaller businesses, these issues are more severe because these guys don't have the resources to set up their own applications, do their own integration, customize, and integrate," Osnat adds. "They want packaged solutions. And this is where we come in."