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Distributed storage carves niches for enterprise use

Numerous vendors specializing in distributed storage and other distributed services look to expand userbases and find new appeal for enterprise customers.

Decentralized storage offerings from numerous vendors have materialized and matured in recent times, giving enterprise customers fresh options in a crowded market.

These services can range from companies offering storage and applications aimed squarely at competing with the massive cloud storage providers, such as AWS and Azure, to smaller, personal services aimed at backing up just 1 to 2 TB in total.

Aligned closely with modern distributed storage models, however, are the financial incentives for individuals to share their storage with other users across the distributed network, commonly called nodes.

Currently, that incentive model involves blockchain technology to establish transaction ledgers and create cryptocurrencies that reward node operators' uptime and security.

Defenders and detractors of such cryptocurrencies may play favorites, but Bitcoin has emerged as the gold standard for said currencies since its inception in 2009. Others have risen in popularity among distributed storage networks in the decade since to sustain their own respective blockchains, such as Ethereum, which powers many of the tokens issued by these distributed storage networks.

All these features and incentives can potentially combine for a responsive and secure storage network, able to resist ransomware better than keeping data stored on premises or in the cloud whole cloth due to its fractured and replicable nature. But it's a type of storage network which many enterprise-class businesses and organizations may still want to keep at an arm's length from their data.

GigaOm analyst Enrico Signoretti's recently published report "GigaOm Sonar for Decentralized Storage" indicated as such, where he wrote distributed networks are "usually viewed with a lot of skepticism" and as a potential risk among traditional enterprises.

"I don't think we're at the large enterprise level yet," Signoretti said in a follow-up interview. "It's still very nascent technology."

However, alternative markets for open source projects or smaller developers looking to experiment on the cloud may sow future business opportunities for these networks.

A significant litmus test for decentralized storage vendors will come from building trust among users for reliability and sustaining themselves in the business long enough to offer enterprise-caliber applications and support.

"You have to trust the platform because you're putting the data there," Signoretti said. "Everything else in IT is transient. If you lose data, you don't have anything."

Big cloud service at lower cost

Filebase is one such distributed object storage provider, offering S3-compatible storage on blockchain based networks Skynet, Sia and Storj.

The company acts as a middleman service for these distributed networks, and their myriad respective coins, by allowing an individual or business access without the additional setup or logistics. Payment is limited to a monthly pay-as-you-grow subscription plan, priced at $5.99 per TB of data storage and transfer.

Filebase's offering, however, looks to grow and compete with services offered by the major clouds.

The company announced a partnership with Akash Network in July, connecting the open source, decentralized cloud compute stack with Filebase's distributed storage API. Akash Network uses stateless Docker containers and normally requires the user to specify their own storage.

"This is the first time decentralized compute and decentralized storage have been available together," said Joshua Noble, CEO and co-founder of Filebase. "This is a well-rounded solution where someone could build a full application that stores data."

More notably, Filebase's S3 compatibility can allow developers to port their applications from AWS into the "battle-tested" decentralized cloud, according to Noble.

"It allows developers to continue to use the SDKs and tools they already know and love," he said. "It is heavily developer-focused."

Ray Lucchesi of Silverton Consulting said the bundling of features such as compute can make the distributed cloud more appealing, but the question becomes what they can deliver that larger clouds can't.

"Enterprise wants the cloud because it's easy to start with, has all the applications and facilities you could ever want, is available all throughout the world and is a fairly reasonably [priced] service."

Compared to the peer-to-peer distributed storage of the early aughts and prior, however, Lucchesi agreed distributed storage today offers a relatively mature environment with strong security via encryption and sharding.

Those improvements are ensured from node operators by coin incentives offered through the numerous networks, but entering the world of blockchain storage could require a savvy approach larger enterprises may not bother with.

"You have to be fairly sophisticated to use this stuff," he said. "The challenge is what's the right price for [distributed storage] and is it worth my time and effort?"

Still, numerous analysts pointed to potential niche groups that could benefit from a decentralized backup. Both Lucchesi and Signoretti said organizations or individuals who might be the target of oppressive states or regimes, such as journalists, could back up their data outside of networks and clouds that are typically monitored.

Signoretti also noted open source projects could benefit, as decentralized storage would prevent one rogue actor from shuttering the entire operation.

"The security has come a long way and the resilience has come a long way. It's making distributed storage a thing," Lucchesi said. "Now the question is: Who is the market for this thing?"

Security and protection

Facing an uphill battle for enterprise mindshare, these distributed networks are looking to make a case for their use in a major security issue hovering over the minds of most IT admins of late -- ransomware attacks.

Storj, one of Filebase's partner storage networks, recently claimed benefits of decentralized storage over traditional clouds or on-premises products in protecting against ransomware attacks, such as those which hit Colonial Pipeline and Kaseya this year.

Decentralized storage through Storj is resistant against ransomware attacks because the network was built with the assumption that "anyone can be compromised, anyone can be a bad apple," said CEO Ben Golub.

Storj has a number of processes in place to ensure node operators are hosting clean, uncompromised data, such as regular audits that "challenge" nodes to send back the same data that was originally put there. Failing a challenge would drop a node from the "good" pool until the node operator can fix whatever is causing the failure, which could be unauthorized encryption from malware.

Additionally, due to the distributed nature of decentralized storage, bad actors would have to compromise multiple nodes within the network to steal data or hold it hostage. Since none of the nodes have knowledge of each other, that makes it even harder for attackers to know who to target in order to lock down individual files, Golub said.

"An attacker would have to find and compromise 29 different nodes just to be able to reassemble an encrypted file," Golub said. "There's no centralized honeypot."

Storj and other decentralized storage vendors have defenses in place to protect their storage networks from cyber attacks, but end customers themselves are no more or less protected by choosing them over a public cloud, said Marc Staimer, president of Dragon Slayer Consulting.

While hyperscalers are certainly under constant threat, most attackers are going to target the source of the data -- the customers themselves -- because they are much easier to compromise.

Unless the decentralized storage vendor has a way to detect malware as it's being uploaded, customers aren't any safer from ransomware than if they had chosen AWS or Azure, Staimer said.

"Decentralized storage is not ransomware protection. You have to prevent ransomware at the source or at least in the stream," Staimer said.

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