Storage Made Easy: Reflections on 2012 and looking forward through 2013

Now that 2012 has drawn to a close and we are in mid January we thought it would be useful to reflect on what we have seen through our own business as trends and pointers, look at some of the things we have done over the course of the last year and finish by looking at what Storage Made Easy brings into 2013.

Key Trends:

A key trend for our business was a switch from online personal and SMB clients to more direct channel and corporate clients using our hybrid Appliance. The work we are doing with Huddle on the channel side and Xtime and Finser on the direct side are great examples of this trend. From July our business moved from a model of online Personal / SMB SaaS to Direct Corporate / Channel sales utilising our hybrid on-premise cloud appliance. Pre July the revenue split was 90:10 online SaaS and today the model is 10:90 weighted towards the direct business/channel revenue stream. We see this as a key indication that :

a. Larger companies want to ‘own’ their own data and are focused on making their storage integrate with what they already have such as their existing identity management systems (in many case Active Directory) and existing structured data systems.

b. Companies want to stop staff using un-authorised services and have come to the conclusion that they need to put structures in place to not only prevent this but to offer an alternative.

b. Companies are focused on the data legislation and governance of structured data so that they can track all file events, a mandatory requirement for certain verticals, such as government and healthcare for example.

c. The ability to search across disparate data sets easily and also on the move is becoming more and more important for companies as they try to make productive use of their core corporate asset, their data !

Our Focus for 2013:

Our Focus for 2013 is going to be as follows:

1. Simplifying our pricing proposition. The result of this will be visible over the next few weeks. We have tried to be as flexible as possible with what we provide to users but we find that this can result in users being paralysed by the paradox of choice so we will be making these much easier to understand.

2. Concentrating on formally launching our on-premise cloud Appliance. Having done a limited release launch in 2012, we will be shortly making available the ability to download the Appliance direct from our site.We have spent a fair bit of time re-designing the installation procedure with regards to networking, https keys etc,  to make it easy to install and get going. Below is an overview of the Architecture of the SME Appliance.

3. Enabling easy IaaS deployments so that users and companies can easily deploy their own personal or company cloud onto IaaS infrastructures. We already do this for Linode  but we will be expanding this to Amazon EC2 (and maybe one other provider we cannot discuss yet) and making the whole process an easier click through process.

We had a great growth year in 2012 and we look forward to continuing that in 2013.

 

 

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IBM Bans DropBox. Here is why you don’t need to follow suit

You may have missed it but IBM recently banned their 400,000 user based from using DropBox and other services like it. Jeanette Horan, IBM’s chief information officer, said that the restrictions has been in place since a review of IBM’s BYOD policy.  A great article underlining the reasons IBM made this policy change can be found in this Information Week article from Kevin Casey.

“The risk of allowing BYOC is inherent in any organization that owns confidential or critical information, which I would assume is every corporation in existence”

however how do you enforce it ?

“There’s also that minor matter of enforcement. IBM has the wherewithal to practice what it preaches, but when IT and financial resources are already spread thin, trying to keep people from sending corporate files to their personal Gmail accounts might be an exercise in futility.”

Enforcement of policy is of course a good question and one that we are happy to expand on. What IBM are really describing is the issue of what is being termed as “Cloud Sprawl” ie. the plethora of online services that can be responsible for not only information leak, but also prevent cohesive company information visibility. We have blogged about this previously.

The SME Cloud Appliance  and service is the enabler for governance and control of different Cloud Storage providers, such as DropBox, and of SaaS Services, such as BaseCamp for example. There are specific controls built into the Appliance to enable IT to govern how access is granter to information and also specific controls to not only restrict access but audit access:


This can audit access of all cloud storage types including personal clouds (if it is decided to allow them in the organisation). The auditing is granular and logs each event type and IP address of any file or resource interaction:
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User login can groups can be controlled by Active Directory integration and Access permissions can be set against groups/roles across all information resources:

As we have shown, the Cloud File Server Appliance is a mechanism for IT within SMB’s and other companies to keep control of diverse information clouds and SaaS Cloud services whilst still promoting things such as BYOD and can be used as a SaaS hosted service or can be obtained as a Virtual Machine and hosted in-house.

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Thoughts on Amazon’s new onsite Storage Gateway announcement

Amazon Web Services has announced that it now offers a new storage gateway appliance (virtual machine image) that can be placed on a customers site. What benefit is this ? It really provides an easy way to integrate local storage or systems with the facility to replicate data to the Amazon Cloud. For example you could add the technology to an existing data center so that it resided between servers and storage  so that you could easily start replicating data to Amazon S3.

Note,however,these are actually stored as EBS Volumes. So although users can access data stored in this fashion locally from the gateway, if they wish to access this data directly through AWS they would need to start an EC2 instance and attached the EBS volume. . This in and of itself makes it easier to then integrate S3 stored data with other AWS services (if this is important to you). Note that this is not ‘replacing’ what you already have (ie. “great, I can just use the Cloud”), it is in addition to what you already have.

Firstly lets look at what the requirements are to host the Gateway.  These are:

  • VMware ESXi hypervisor (v4.1) on a physical machine with at least 7.5GB of RAM
  • Four (4) virtual processors assigned to the appliance VM along with 75GB of disk space for the Open Virtual Alliance (OVA) image installation and data.
  • A “proper” sized network connection to Amazon.
  •  iSCSI initiators on either Windows server 2008, Windows 7 or Red Hat Enterprise Linux

(Also note that the Gateway beta is optimised for block write sizes which are more than 4Kb.  AWS warns that using smaller I/O sizes are likely to cause overhead which can result in storage space that is effectively ‘lost’. This means that prior to installation there needs to be a check made on the file systems / volumes to ensure they can use the larger allocation sizes).

Firstly we’d like to point out that it’s great to see Amazon adding their own on-premise Cloud Gateway. It’s great to see them competing with the likes of  EMC, TwinStrata, and Nasuni. It would have been nice to see NFS or CIFS supported as interfaces, as from our own interactions with customers, we believe that is what customers really want to see, but maybe we can expect to see that added as the Gateway offering matures.

(Differences between iSCSI & NFS: iSCSI and NFS both allow storage access over an IP networking infrastructure. The difference is that iSCSI enables block storage transfer whereas NFS and CIFS transfers files.)

Many customers may find that they already have the capabilities for which they would use the Gateway, such as snapshots, backup and archiving, which is a pretty old, mature and I would expect a little more cost effective mechanism of achieving similar goals. However with that said we can see many use case where, with our own Cloud File Server Appliance where customers will really embrace the Gateway.

So where does the AWS Cloud Gateway end and the SME Cloud Appliance begin ? Well, the first things to understand about the SME Cloud Appliance is that it acts at a layer ‘above’ the storage. It provides a mechanism to unify disparate data sources into one file tree, add unified user access management and permissions, add unified governance and e-compliance, has focus on enabling companies to manage ‘Cloud Sprawl’, and leverages the ability for companies to let staff “bring your own device” (BYOD). In short, as I often say when asked to comment about Storage in general, the response is “it’s all about the App”. Storage in and of itself is not a single source in companies and secondly having things stored is no good unless you have unified, search, logic, control and anytime anywhere access that supports all desktops and all devices. This is what we essentially are bringing to the table with our Cloud File Server Appliance.

To take advantage of the Amazon Cloud Gateway what would be required is for us to connect to the local iSCSI stored data within the Gateway and this is something we will be looking to do in the short term.

For further information see the Amazon Cloud Gateway Storage FAQ’s. Also note that Amazon are also doing a free webcast on 23rd February.

 

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Cloud federation and governance will dominate in 2012

It’s seasonally topical to write a blog post that will draw a close to the old year with some predictions for the New Year, so read on for a post that fits with that trend…

2011 has been an eventful year for SMEStorage. On the business side we have always been a privately owned self funded company. We have never been VC backed and we’re profitable and have needed to be to be self sufficient. To enable us to expand the founders took a decision to raise some money to enable the company to continue to grow and expand the company. To this end Vehera, the owning entity of SMEStorage sold a small amount of equity enabling Vehera to raise a million dollars to fund the companies push for 2012. This will give the ability to add some more staff to enable us to grow the opportunity we see for our technology with ISP’s and the Enterprise.

On the Technology front we continued building out our support for Cloud’s resulting in SMEStorage now supporting over 35 Storage and SaaS Clouds. We also released a native Windows Phone Client,and also the first versions of Mac and Linux Cloud Tools and we enhanced our native browser plug in’s with support for Google Chrome and Safari. We also enhanced our iOS App for iPhone and iPad many times over the course of the year as well as releasing a native Android client for Phones and tablets. In addition to all of this we also improved our core offering with a myriad of new features which included adding protocol adaptors that exposed Clouds mapped to SMEStorage over WebDav, FTP or the Amazon S3 API, even if the underlying Cloud does not natively support these protocols.

So what for 2012, well, firstly we’ll continue to add more services that can be federated and managed. Shortly we’ll be announcing support for SugarSync, and the UbuntuOne Cloud. We’ll also be adding services less traditionally associated with file stores. The first of these will be BaseCamp, which will be followed by some CRM SaaS services and we have in mind another project / collaboration SaaS tool.

We’ll also be adding even more Cloud governance and e-compliance features. If your interested on our take on Cloud Sprawl and governance please see our prior blog post on this subject.

We intend to push out our revised Cloud Appliance in early 2012. This will give any customer the ability to have a hybrid Cloud governance application that deals with Cloud and local data and service federation that they fully control and own. Customers will be able to host this in their own data centre as it will be available as a VMWare, XEN or KVM appliance. As an alternative we intend to enable easy access to an Amazon EC2 based instance. We also intend to make it easy for resellers to get their ands on it and offer it as a value add to their own business.

It’s our firm belief that with the greater adoption of Cloud, and the increasing array of Cloud Services that 2012 will be the year of Cloud Federation and governance as companies struggle to manage and control the Cloud services deployed in their organisation. We believe that with our advanced service features, comprehensive access clients, and Hybrid on-premise Cloud Appliance that we are well placed to help companies who struggle with these issues.

For general predictions, we’ll make just one, and that is that the “free lunch” is coming to an end. In a volatile economy services that offer “free” may look appealing, but all businesses need to make money to survive and free eventually needs to become paid, and companies need a solid business model to survive. Hoping to capitalise at some point on a large user base of free users is not a business plan. There is room for some element of freemium, we use it ourselves, but our belief is that it has to be underpinned by a solid business plan. If you’d like to read more about this, see this post which goes into a little more depth.

All that remains to be said is to wish you all a “Happy New Year” and we hope all your hopes and dreams are realised in the forthcoming year.

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Take back control of Cloud Sprawl and Governance in your Organisation

The proliferation of Cloud Storage and Cloud SaaS Services is both a blessing and a curse for businesses. In the past IT was able to control and lock down which applications and services could be used, but today services such as Box.net, and DropBox, and a host of others gives IT at best a headache and at worst a challenge that is a constantly moving target.

End users are also driving for use of such tools as they strive to increase personal productivity which the various SaaS services provide, and which IT would like to ban or lock down so they become the antithesis of what they were intended to be.

Even tools that are authorised by IT are not necessarily immune to this problem. What happened to that file link a user shared from SharePoint? Who opened it? Was it supposed to be shared?

Recent research commissioned by Opsview reveals 67 percent of UK IT decision-makers worry about how easy it is for their staffs to sign up and install cloud services. The survey also found that 76 per cent of IT directors admitted employees are likely to flout IT policies in order to make use of cloud services. This research was backed up by separate research conducted by Global Technology Provider Avanade in which it revealed the emergence of Cloud sprawl  had 67% of 600 executives interviewed in the UK were worried that the rapid adoption of publicly-available cloud services was putting their company at risk.

What is required is some form of Cloud Governance to give back control to IT whilst still enabling users to use tooling that makes them productive.

This is just one of the many things we’ve built into our cross Cloud File Server, the ability to govern and control Cloud Sprawl:

 

The ability for IT to take back control  means that they can more effectively control data compliance issue challenges presented by Cloud Services, as well as those more broadly presented by e-compliance. Widespread use of digital communication technology has led to companies facing a new types of challenge with regards to the management of privacy, consumer protection, Intellectual Property, and content governance.

Compliance issues are of course not the only issue companies face when it comes to distribution of digital informtion across Cloud Services. Information visibility is required across all these services when, for example, doing something as simple as a document search.

The SMEStorage Cloud File Server can be used as either a SaaS service or an onsite Cloud Appliance to address these issues. Firstly any Clouds or SaaS services added to the File Server have information indexed and recorded, and made available from a single unified explorer view. As users create anew content and upload it to any of the Cloud and SaaS services that have been added to the Cloud File Server, each service’s API is used to securely capture, store and index the files. Note that no content needs to be copied. All this is stored and accessed from the original repository.

File event logging can be set at a micro or macro level to record any file event from any user with related IP addresses and GEO Location information. This information provided an audit trail that can be filtered and stored:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also The Cloud File Server Admin can control which ‘private’ individual user clouds can be used or added within the Organisation. For example the Admin may decide to enable each user to add a Google Apps Docs Account and restrict all others, or may also enable users to  add personal DropBox accounts also. Any personal user Clouds that are added in this way can also be indexed, audited and file events recorded:


 
 
In addition to this any file uploaded has the GEO location recorded as to where it was uploaded from and where it was uploaded to, again for audit and compliance purposes. The integration of geolocation technology can also helps organizations restrict access to files or SaaS applications appropriately dependant on any data privacy or e-compliance law that differs or is required to be supported on a cross border basis.

The ability to index and record information from different Cloud Stores as described above also results in a powerful cross-cloud search capability, in which searches for content are made against all the Clouds that have been added, with results returned instantly.

In summary, unmanaged usage by company staff can not only lead to security issues for IT, such as incomplete or lost data, but can also lead to  potential breaches of corporate governance and regional data legislation rules. In addition it prevents companies from fully leveraging the cost savings that are associated with cloud computing, and ultimately can undermine such infrastructure adoption  by IT departments.

The SMEStorage Cloud File Server provides features that enable IT to:

  • Capture and Index SaaS and File Cloud Services

 

  • Provide event auditing with downloadable audit trail across all services added

 

  • Provide GEO restriction monitoring and filtering

 

  • Search across Clouds and Services for e-discovery needs and to promote information visibility and access

 

  • Use CloudSafe to backup content repositories to another Cloud for retention or backup purposes
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