Cheap Cloud storage co-op launched

A start-up company founded by former Microsoft and Amazon engineers is launching a distributed cloud storage service that uses the spare disk drive capacity in the back offices of small and medium-size businesses to create a collective pool of storage shared by all participants.

Symform Inc.’s Cooperative Storage Cloud service is being touted mainly as a technology for resellers, who will pay $15 a month for unlimited capacity and can then offer it to customers as an off-site disaster recovery backup service.

Customers in the network contribute unused server space equal to the amount they consume in the storage cloud. Symform handles the day-to-day management of network security and administration of the storage cloud. Users can keep using their favorite local backup software and Symform automatically adds off-site storage and disaster recovery to their backup files.

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The concept of a distributed and disparate storage cloud is not new. For example, the University of California’s OceanStore project  was based on the concept that information could be broken down into many parts, assigned a unique metadata identification tag, encrypted and then randomly stored on systems throughout the world. MIT has a similar project, called Chord, in beta.

What is different about Symform’s concept is the business model — using small and midsize companies’ spare capacity to keep the costs down — and the fact that there are no other services offering a disparate, yet cooperative, data storage cloud today.

Symform’s vice president of sales and marketing, Kevin Brown, pointed out that a terabyte of storage capacity is relatively cheap today, less than $100 on average. Backing up data securely, either in an off-site data center or through an off-site hosted-storage service, costs about 20 times more than local direct-attached storage. “While a terabyte is a lot of storage for just about any application, when you go to back it up, it costs you 50 cents or more a gigabyte. That’s $500 a month for a terabyte, and it’s a subscription service that never goes away,” Brown said.

Symform’s business model reduces the cost of backups dramatically, according to Brown, so that a business currently paying $500 a month to back up a terabyte of data would only pay about $50. “That’s a pretty attractive business model.”

According to most IT research firms, businesses only utilize, at most, about 40% of their disk drive capacity. Overallocating storage for applications is common. “A business’s Internet service is always on. They have power on usually on 24/7. They pay for the real estate to house this unused storage and have all this excess capacity,” Brown said. “At night and weekends, all that capacity is still being paid for.”

Seattle-based Symform has 200 resellers as beta customers, according to Brown. The beta customers are mostly IT service providers who sell the capacity as part of their offerings.

Brown believes pricing for unlimited capacity from resellers will likely be in the $30-to-$50-per-month range for a server and $5-to-$8-per-month for a desktop, but resellers are free to set their own prices.

Mark Crall, CEO of Charlotte Tech Care Team, a managed IT services provider in Charlotte, N.C., said he has been testing Symform’s Cooperative Storage Cloud for about two months with a handful of customers.

Crall said he’s excited about the concept and architecture of the storage cloud collective because it would enable him to offer his customers a backup solution at a far lower price than the 70 cents he now charges per gigabyte of data he stores on local arrays.

“It’s more about filling a gap in the market that’s really needed,” Crall said. “If we have customers who can’t justify the cost of 70 cents a gigabyte for off-site backup, and we can do it in a cost-effective manner, we don’t care if we make money off of it. If our customer goes out of business, we go out of business. And if my customers’ data is better protected, we win.”

While the architecture and business concept behind the Cooperative Storage Cloud is sound — perhaps even “revolutionary” — there are still some bugs to be worked out, Crall said. Although he has had success with about half of the customers who are beta-testing the service, he’s having a difficult time getting data from others into the cloud.

“We’re really excited about the architectural concept of it, but the devil’s in the details,” Crall said. “But I think those details will work themselves out.”
How it works

Symform’s cloud storage technology is a basically a software service. Symform installs an appliance (node) on a participating company’s site and then creates a contribution folder available to the whole cooperative. Each node monitors the set of folders being used to store disparate data blocks for the cooperative for changes or additions. As files get created or changed, the Symform software moves them in the distributed cloud.

The Symform software uses a RAID 96 scheme for data redundancy. When it takes a file, it breaks it up into 64MB blocks and encrypts it. For every 64MB block, 32 parity fragments are created to ensure the data can be retrieved — even if dozens of nodes in the cloud are down or offline.

The distributed cloud is managed through Symform servers located on leased space on the campus of Inc. “Our servers manage all access control, permissions and billing, and it knows where all data is worldwide,” Brown said.

“If you go to a pot luck dinner, you bring the equivalent of what you’ll eat or drink. Same concept,” Brown said. “Eventually there will be millions of nodes worldwide, we hope.”

Small businesses have their own firewalls to protect them against intrusion, and the node can use any port number the company chooses. “We do not force a static port number,” Brown said. The Symform node’s IP address and its port number are only known behind the firewall. A network address translation tool manages the public-facing IP address — and that is all that Symform sees.

“We create HTTP ‘puts’ and ‘gets,’ which is the standard practice for Web applications,” Brown said. “In short, we do not increase nor decrease the probability for port scanning.”

Brown argued that the Symform model is far more secure than a central data center because of the distributed nature of the data. From a reliability standpoint, Symform’s software monitors every computer and its uptime in the network. If a node doesn’t call home three times in a specified window, Symform’s software automatically decommissions the node and redistributes the data fragments to active nodes. When it comes back online, it will be brought back into the cloud.

Symform’s Cooperative Storage Cloud works through an appliance that takes specified files on servers or storage arrays, encrypts them using a 256-bit AES algorithm and divides the data into redundant fragments using industry standard Reed-Solomon encoding. All files get mirrored into Symform’s storage cloud.

Data fragments are randomly distributed to multiple destination nodes in the network to ensure that no single node holds all the data. The data can be retrieved and restored at any time, and it is sent and retrieved in parallel to maximize the speed of backups and restores, Brown said.

“The redundancy and the randomness of its architecture, to me, makes it secure and reliable in my mind,” Crall said.

Symform plans to sell its service to resellers for a flat fee, regardless of how much storage they use for their own clients. Symform is targeting businesses with 100 PCs or less, saying that businesses that have larger infrastructures tend to build out their own storage options.

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