What would a world with infinite, free cloud storage look like?

Cloud storage just keeps getting bigger and cheaper. What happens when it gets to free and infinite?

businessman field cloud sun open arms
Credit: Iakov Kalinin

In an interview last week with The Information, Box CEO Aaron Levie predicted "a future where storage is free and infinite." That may be a trifle optimistic for a real-world time frame, but the there’s no question that Levie is right about the direction in which the industry is trending. And while we might not get all the way to infinite and free anytime soon, we’re getting closer all the time.

How do you compete with free?

So, what does that mean for the world of IT? Most of the analyses I’ve seen on the topic of increasingly cheaper storage focuses on the effects on storage vendors—Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Box, Dropbox, and their myriad competitors. The idea is that these companies will need to identify, create, and sell associated services along with storage, because while their costs will be low, they won’t be able to charge enough for storage alone to stay in business, much less grow and thrive.

We’re already seeing this. When you buy cloud-based productivity apps from Microsoft, Google, or others, for example, storage comes along free. Other vendors sell collaboration or vertical market expertise or computing power (which is undergoing a similar race to the bottom) or… you get the picture.

What’s in it for storage users?

How that all plays out will have a huge effect on which vendors survive and which don’t. But I’m actually more interested in the effect this phenomenon will have on storage users—from individuals to enterprises.

Essentially free and unlimited cloud storage would likely spur a migration of storage resources, expertise, and ultimately control from IT operations to cloud vendors. It might also lead to even more shadow IT solutions; business users and departments could spin up alternative storage solutions without having to authorize any expenditures at all. And as we all know, it’s very hard to compete with free.

At the same time, however, free cloud storage could create a “flight to quality” for users who need extra security, stability, or portability for their data.

New pressure on bandwidth

Either way, unlimited free cloud storage will inevitably reduce local storage, which will still require some investment to create and manage. That will be true across the entire spectrum, from mobile devices and the Internet of Things to giant corporate data centers.

The more storage moves to the cloud, of course, the more pressure that puts on connectivity and bandwidth. If connectivity can’t keep up, there’s not much point in using cloud storage even if it’s free. That’s the only really critical gating factor for this transition—and the current controversy over net neutrality will become even more important.

In the long run, unlimited free cloud storage could help lay a foundation for new apps and services leveraging that storage. It’s too soon to know exactly what they’ll turn out to be, but you can bet plenty of entrepreneurs and big tech players are already working on it—from add-on features tailored to specific industries to new apps that work with large amounts of customer data.

If you’ve got ideas on what to do with all that free storage, please feel free to share in the comments.

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