Amazon's Glacier storage service could give tape a run for its money

Cloud-based archival storage option could also threaten traditional archiving solutions. But are enterprises ready to put all their eggs in the cloud basket?

Amazon Web Services is no stranger to being a first-mover in offering new cloud-based services, which analysts says it has done by introducing Glacier, a long-term cloud-based archival service that is meant to be an inexpensive way to dump data into technology's equivalent of cold storage.

In doing so, the company has opened up a market for archival storage in the clouds, analysts say, one that others have tried but gave up on -- including Iron Mountain -- and that others may look to get into -- such as Rackspace, SunGard, or any other of the bevy of security or cloud companies that offer storage or data backup services.

But perhaps the biggest competitor to Amazon's new service will be what many enterprises are already using today for storage -- tape.

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It's cheap to upload data into Amazon Glacier, with prices starting at $0.01 per gigabyte per month, depending on which region you're uploading to. The service isn't meant to spit the data back out with any speed though -- Amazon notes that retrieval can take several hours. Retrieval costs start at $0.12 per gigabyte for the first 10TB, plus some discount for daily free allowances, which is 5% of your total information held in AWS's cold storage servers. Amazon automatically stores the data encrypted at rest, and provides an average annual durability of 99.999999999% (that's 11 9's) by synching the data across multiple facilities.

"It's cheap to park it, then relatively expensive to get it back," says Andrew Reichman, a Forrester enterprise storage analyst, who notes that companies could run into some high costs if they make too many requests to get information back too frequently, running up their bill.

The service fits in nicely with Amazon's other storage offerings, most notably its Simple Storage Service (S3), which is meant for more immediate access but has a higher price point, or its Elastic Block Storage (EBS), which is the storage aspect for its virtual machine instances, Elastic Cloud Compute (EC2). But Carl Brooks, an analyst with the 451 Research Group, says Glacier is Amazon branching out into a new sector of long-term data archiving. "This isn't cloud storage, its cold storage," Brooks says.

Others have tried this, including Iron Mountain, which then rolled back its cloud services. EMC and SGI attempt to optimize data storage, but have yet to offer a cloud-based offering. Still, Reichman says the biggest completion for Glacier may just be on-premise storage by enterprises.

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Some businesses store their data on CDs, DVDs or on external servers, which have continued to drop in price. And then of course there's tape. Reichman says many organizations that have tape libraries are good at storing their archived data and Glacier may not provide enough of a market alternative to justify making the switch. "If you're good at doing tape and you have a dedicated environment for it, you can still get good results," he says.

For organizations that don't have a legacy tape environment though, Amazon seems to offer a compelling service. The idea of archived data is that you don't need it frequently, but you may need it down the road. That may be five, 10 or 15 years from now and you want to know that your provider will be around during that time. "Here's a big company with good financial stability that you're more comfortable committing long term with compared to just any startup," Reichman says.

It's not easy, or inexpensive, to set up a long-term storage infrastructure, such as a tape library, and maintaining it can incur expenses as well. With Glacier, Amazon will have to deal with the headaches of making sure this data is available all of the time each year, Reichman notes. "What you're paying for is for Amazon to figure out how to keep these data accessible into the future," he says.

Amazon is an early mover in bringing this technology to the cloud, and now Reichman says he'll be interested to see how other players follow up and if business latch on to the service. It's not out of the realm of possibilities for AWS competitors, such as Rackspace or one of the other tech stalwarts that are attempting to grab some of Amazon's market share to launch their own "me-too" service. IBM, Dell or HP could potentially do it.

As for market adoption, AWS already has a customer exploring it in Lee Miller, a software engineer at Gravit-e, a custom application development shop. Miller, who's a photographer on the side, says he's going to trial the service for his personal use, uploading multiple terabytes of photos he has onto the system. The company already uses S3 for bursting out for excess capacity when a customer needs to host some back-end data for a short period of time, such as during a product launch or during a promotion.

Soon he hopes to throw his own business' audit logs up into Glacier as well though. "We do most of it in-house now, but as the data gets bigger, it'll be nice to have some place to park it," he says. The key, he says, is just using it for information that he knows he won't need immediately. "It's not for something you need this afternoon, it's definitely more for something I'm running a report on next week," he says.

Network World staff writer Brandon Butler covers cloud computing and social collaboration. He can be reached at and found on Twitter at @BButlerNWW.

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