What is cloud storage?

Cloud storage enables users to store data on remote servers using an Internet connection.

Learning Objectives

After reading this article you will be able to:

  • Understand what cloud storage entails
  • Define the four primary types of cloud-based storage
  • Weigh the pros and cons of storing data in the cloud

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What is cloud storage?

Cloud storage is a method of data storage and organization that takes place in the cloud, a network of remote servers that can be accessed over an Internet connection. With cloud-based storage, users and businesses can store, access, and maintain their data from any location that offers an Internet connection, rather than confining their files to a single location or device.

Before cloud computing was common, users maintained their data on a personal hard drive or on-premise data center, limiting their use of that data to one location. Think of it like choosing to invest in a landline rather than a mobile phone. As long as the user is inside their house, they’re able to get to the phone whenever it rings, but as soon as they leave their property, they become unreachable. With a mobile phone, however, they can answer a call from any location.

It works the same way with cloud storage. Users no longer have to stay home (or inside their office building) in order to access their data 24/7; instead, they can take their files on the go without lugging around expensive and limited hardware.

How does cloud storage work?

Cloud storage vendors allow users to rent storage space on networks of remote data servers. Users pay cloud vendors for the ability to run applications, host services, and back up data to the cloud and usually adhere to usage limits that can be expanded for an additional fee, enabling them to scale their storage needs as necessary.

Is cloud storage safe?

Cloud storage vendors need to ensure that files aren’t compromised, lost, or destroyed in the cloud. Since there’s no way to completely safeguard against hardware failure, cloud vendors use redundant storage methods, duplicating essential hardware, data paths, and power supplies to keep their cloud storage services up and running at all times.

For example, say a user wants to back up their entire photo library from their smartphone to the cloud. Multiple copies of their photos will be sent to multiple data servers, so in the unlikely event that their phone gets irreparably damaged or one of the servers spontaneously combusts, they’ll still be able to retrieve those files from another server.

What are the benefits of cloud storage?

  • Data accessibility: Users can access their files from multiple locations and devices and easily share their files with other users as needed.
  • Scalability: Upgrading existing on-premise infrastructure may require expensive hardware and additional IT support, costing businesses valuable time, money, and effort. Cloud storage enables businesses to scale their storage needs without the added expense and expertise required to do so internally.
  • Disaster recovery: When data is stored in a single physical location, it is vulnerable to natural disasters, human errors, and hardware failures. Online cloud storage doesn’t face the same issues, as cloud vendors prevent critical data loss with redundant storage systems (data is replicated on servers sharing one geographic location) and geographic replication (data is replicated across multiple servers and geographic locations).

What are the disadvantages of cloud storage?

  • Security threats: Online cloud storage provides secure and efficient data management, but that doesn’t mean cloud vendors are immune to privacy issues, hacks, and security breaches. Entrusting sensitive data to third-party vendors can raise a number of concerns around data confidentiality, Internet file transfers, and the management of internal and external file access. Some of these issues can be avoided with a hosted private cloud service, though private cloud options are often more expensive than public and hybrid cloud services.
  • Limited data management: Users who choose a public or hybrid cloud storage service relinquish partial or total control of their data organization to an outside vendor. Legacy on-premise infrastructure may not be fully compatible with certain cloud storage systems, and a complete migration to the cloud is often a complicated process. This is another area in which internal private cloud storage or hosted private cloud storage may make more sense for those looking to retain complete control over the way their data is stored.
  • Vendor lock-in: Just as it can be difficult to migrate from on-premise infrastructure to a cloud service, it can be difficult to migrate from one cloud vendor to another. The longer a business utilizes a particular cloud vendor, the more they run the risk of vendor lock-in due to contractual stipulations, incompatibilities between vendor systems, and lack of data migration tools and services.

How is cloud storage managed?

Cloud storage has several deployment models, including personal storage, private storage, public storage, and hybrid storage.

Personal storage allows individual users to store data in the cloud and access it from multiple Internet-enabled devices, such as a mobile phone, tablet, or laptop. This is the main method consumers use to back up their files to the cloud. Using cloud computing services like Google Cloud, users can sync their data across multiple devices and retrieve it wherever they have a secure Internet connection.

Public storage refers to a cloud storage vendor that manages the data of multiple users in a public cloud. Each user rents storage space in the cloud while releasing the burden and expense of maintaining the underlying infrastructure to the cloud provider. Although users share cloud storage (a practice called ‘multitenancy’), they do not have access to each other’s data, in the same way that different residents might share an apartment building without being allowed to enter each other’s apartment units.

Private storage is a cloud storage service that is privately arranged for a single business. A standard private storage solution can be managed in an on-premise data center (internal private cloud) or remotely by a third-party vendor (hosted private cloud). Because it is only accessible to one business, private storage offers a higher level of security than public storage. However, businesses that choose to deploy internal private clouds may find them a less reliable option, as they can suffer critical data loss if their on-premise facilities are compromised.

Hybrid storage refers to a combination of public and private storage. Businesses that cannot afford expensive private storage options may elect to host some of their data in a private cloud while taking advantage of the scalability and affordability of a public cloud.

How are files stored in the cloud?

Cloud services are compatible with three primary types of data storage: file storage, block storage, and object storage.

File storage is a hierarchical system of data organization that nests folders of data within directories and subdirectories. Inside each folder, files are tagged with metadata* for easy identification and retrieval, though this process becomes vastly more complicated when applied to a large amount of data. Although file storage is one of the most affordable cloud storage solutions, it doesn't scale up easily.

When comparing the benefits and drawbacks of various storage systems, it may be helpful to think of each system as a way of organizing clothing. File storage is like putting clothes in separate, labeled dresser drawers. One drawer might be for shirts, with smaller sections apportioned within the drawer for dress shirts, t-shirts, and tank tops. It’s a straightforward system that’s easy to keep track of, but one that may become unwieldy if used to organize hundreds of individual clothing items.

Block storage organizes data into storage volumes called ‘blocks.’ Each block is comprised of files that have been arranged into same-sized chunks of data and tagged with a unique identifier. The controlling operating system treats each of these volumes as a separate hard drive and allows them to be stored in whatever environment is most convenient. While block storage makes data organization and retrieval easier than file storage, particularly for businesses with massive amounts of data, it faces metadata constraints and is often a less cost-effective option.

Block storage is like trading in a dresser for plastic tubs. Each tub holds the same amount of clothing and can be labeled with the kind of clothing it contains: shirts, socks, pants, etc. Instead of trying to find room for a large dresser (or building a separate room to contain multiple dressers), the tubs can be placed wherever is convenient for easy access and retrieval.

Object storage refers to the creation of distinct units called “objects,” each of which contain unstructured data, metadata, and a unique ID. Because objects are stored in a flat address space (rather than a file directory) and enable more complex metadata customization, object storage makes data retrieval even easier than file and block storage. It also combines some of the benefits of file and block storage, as it’s both cost-effective (users pay only for the storage space they require) and scalable (users can use object storage systems to manage massive amounts of data).

Object storage is like creating compact, custom containers for each type of clothing and labeling every container with a Sharpie. One container might be for blue dress shirts, another for pink biking shorts, a third for animal-print socks. Although the containers cannot be modified, they can be more easily stored and identified than tubs or dressers.

An even more simplified type of object storage is called Binary Large Object (blob) storage. Blob storage allows for storing arbitrarily sized unstructured collections of data.

*Metadata helps organize files by assigning descriptors to pieces of data, such as titles, tags, categories, prior modifications, and permissions. The more detailed the metadata is, the easier it is to find and retrieve a file within a data storage system.

How does Cloudflare support cloud storage?

Cloudflare acts as an independent third party in any cloud storage deployment, using a global Anycast network to accelerate traffic, improve security, and boost performance for businesses utilizing cloud storage solutions. Cloudflare also helps minimize vendor lock-in by supporting multi-cloud implementation and reducing the number of operational changes that need to be made at the network level.