Five key benefits of AWS, Azure and Google Cloud file storage

by Joseph K. Clark

File-based cloud storage is now a standard offering from Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform, and Microsoft Azure. Although the cloud giants’ offerings are most often associated with object storage, all three, along with suppliers such as IBM and NetApp, have developed offerings that allow businesses to use familiar hierarchical file storage in the cloud.

File-level storage in the cloud is either a native offering built into the hyper scalers technology stack, a partnership with a specialist supplier such as Azure NetApp Files, or what analyst IDC describes as “overlay” file services. These use software to present the hyper scalers block or object storage as a file system, usually SMB or NFS. Examples include Elastifile, now part of Google, and NetApp Cloud Volumes ONTAP.

Cloud file storage

Each approach brings benefits and allows IT teams to fine-tune cloud storage according to their use cases, business requirements, and budgets. But, although all three cloud giants now support file-level storage, some differences make some options more suitable for some use cases than others.

The big three cloud providers’ core storage infrastructure is based around object storage technology. Meanwhile, however, most on-premise storage is either block or file, either direct-attached to servers or in SAN or NAS shared storage (although more suppliers offer on-premise object storage nowadays).

The hyperscalers favor object storage because it meets their business needs. For now, customers that need the specific features of object storage are most likely to use it in the cloud. Only a minority can justify on-premise object storage.

Instead, most businesses continue to run file storage on-premise, often in NAS environments. And so, operating a consistent, file-based environment locally and in the cloud will cut management overheads and reduce the need to build new skillsets.

The ease of management should not be underestimated. Integrating cloud-based storage adds complexity to IT architecture, so using familiar, file-based storage helps. A consistent file structure makes it easier to move workloads to or from the cloud, even if the organization stops short of complete hybrid working.

Cloud file storage pros: Application compatibility

Most enterprise applications are not – yet – fully compatible with object storage. Support for S3 and the RESTful API is growing, but file-based storage will work out of the box.

With file storage, organizations should migrate workloads to the cloud and back again without the need to rewrite software. This lift-and-shift approach is only really possible if the underlying file structure is the same.

Potentially, it makes disaster recovery more accessible, too. An application can be stood up using cloud-based backup data without the need to use object-storage protocols or go through an overlay service, with its potential compatibility and performance issues.

Using file storage also makes sharing data between applications or custom processes that expect a hierarchical file structure easier.

Cloud file storage pros: Support for hybrid environments

Object storage will work in hybrid cloud environments, and suppliers invest in on-premise object technologies that make it easier. Software-defined storage is also often object-based.

Even so, using this technology requires expertise and investment. Businesses are most likely to use hybrid cloud object storage environments to hold or process massive datasets or replicate data across geographies.

A hybrid environment based on a file structure, usually NFS or SMB, allows the business to extend its NAS capacity into the cloud and buy power on demand. Local volumes deliver performance, while the cloud adds additional, low-cost ability.

NAS technology suppliers increasingly support tiering to the cloud and use cases that include backup and archiving. However, the advantage of a file-based hybrid environment is that no unique technology is needed on the end-user side. It should just work, with apps – and users – able to access data on-premise and remotely. AWS, Azure, and Google all offer native cloud NAS support and volumes based on NetApp technology.

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