What is Cloud Object Storage?

Cloud object storage is a format and data storage architecture that simplifies the storage and management of massive amounts of unstructured data.

Cloud object storage is a format and data storage architecture that simplifies the storage and management of massive amounts of unstructured data. Compared with traditional file- and block-based database storage systems, the self-contained nature of each discrete unit of data—or object—in the cloud object storage model makes it more simple, efficient, reliable, and cost effective to track, manage, and leverage unstructured data.

This model for storage is especially well suited to manage the rapidly growing volumes of unstructured data that will soon account for more than 80% of all data, according to IDC. Unstructured data includes all types of raw data originating from myriad sources—from factory sensors, smart cars, mobile devices, search engines, social media, and everywhere else on the web—and all kinds of files such as audio, videos, photos, PDFs, emails, web pages, invoices, and other records like weather data and analytics. Basically, anything that is not intrinsically part of a relational database or structured file system. Unstructured data represents massive quantities of potential value.

How cloud object storage works

Cloud object storage treats discrete units of data as objects that can be stored in their native data format. Self-contained cloud objects contain three components: The data object, its descriptive metadata, and a unique identifier that allows application programming interfaces (APIs) to find and retrieve the stored data.

These objects require no relation to one another, meaning there's no need for the complex data hierarchies, folders, and directories of file-based systems. This approach makes cloud object storage ideal for unstructured data—such as emails, images, audio files, IoT data, and web content that doesn't naturally lend itself to the relational storage requirements of row-and-column databases.

Access to objects is governed by APIs. Using HTTP-based RESTful APIs, objects in the cloud can be accessed anywhere, anytime, and from any device. Common commands such as PUT, POST, GET, and DELETE allow users with the appropriate permissions to easily manage cloud object storage on demand.

While object storage can be used across any IT framework, including local databases, hybrid clouds, and true multicloud environments, the volume and variety of data now created by companies daily often makes cloud storage more cost effective and allows companies to infinitely expand their data storage infrastructure.

File- and block-based storage vs. cloud object storage

File-based storage relies on a relational model that creates hierarchical connections between pieces of structured data, such as spreadsheets or SQL databases. It remains a familiar and functional option for on-premises storage thanks to straightforward application and the ability to quickly identify file relationships or dependencies.

Block-based storage, also called block-level storage, uses cloud-based storage or storage area networks (SANs) to deliver simple and scalable data storage. Data is broken into equally sized blocks, with each block stored separately and assigned a unique identifier. This approach allows stored blocks to be decoupled from specific user environments. Rather, blocks can be stored and accessed from anywhere by using the assigned identifier.

Cloud object storage takes a different approach. Instead of converting data into evenly sized blocks to create a uniform storage space, objects are stored in their native formats regardless of origin, size, or type. While objects come with unique identifiers like those used in block storage, they include descriptive metadata which adds context to stored content. Consider an audio file stored using an object-based system. While its identifier provides a unique path to access the file, its metadata provides context, such as when the file was recorded, who created it, who owns it, and what—if any—copyrights apply.

While object identifiers remain static, metadata can be edited as needed to ensure object descriptions and details remain up to date.

Key benefits of cloud object storage

Composability

Object storage solutions facilitate the shift to composable cloud infrastructure thanks to their self-contained data storage approach. As companies deploy pools of virtualized, composable resources in real –time, objects can be easily accessed, moved, or replicated to improve overall IT performance.

Customization

Cloud object storage allows complete customization of metadata, in turn reducing the time required to identify specific data assets. While block storage relies on knowledge of the correct identifier to locate key data, cloud object storage’s use of descriptive metadata makes it possible to implement keyword-based object search functions.

New object storage solutions also offer open source support to help streamline data management at scale. Instead of relying on proprietary storage architectures that compel companies to select specific providers, open source offerings make it possible to customize storage frameworks so they meet current needs and evolve alongside expanding IT environments.

Continuity

By moving object storage to the cloud, companies gain data continuity predicated on consistent availability and massive scalability. No matter where, when, or how businesses need to access their data, cloud object storage makes it possible. Object storage devices can be easily aggregated into larger pools or duplicated across multiple cloud environments with no loss of fidelity to provide consistent access anywhere, anytime.

Compliance

No matter how or where data is stored—whether onsite, in colocated data centers or in the cloud—companies are responsible for ensuring regulatory compliance. Using onsite file-based storage requires organizations to invest in both local information security (infosec) personnel and the scalable technologies needed to protect expanding data sources.

In partnership with trusted cloud providers, object storage instances can be protected by advanced encryption and aligned with relevant security regulations—such as PCI DSS, HIPAA, FISMA, and GDPR—to streamline storage compliance.

Cost management

Cloud-based object storage services typically leverage pay-per-use pricing models that allow companies to precisely manage storage spend and reduce the risk of sprawl. With no upfront costs for hardware, companies can reduce CapEx spend and instead focus on efficient use of OpEx investments to maximize storage at scale.

Considering use cases for cloud object storage

Potential use cases for cloud object storage include:

Big data analytics

Data analytics now drives actionable insight for organizations, especially as unstructured data volumes increase. With the ability to store and access data of any type in its natural format, cloud object storage underpins unstructured data analytics to help enterprises identify critical data connections and act on time-sensitive trends.

AI applications

Artificial intelligence (AI) tools and machine learning (ML) applications offer the potential of automated processes and reduced error rates but must be trained using massive amounts of structured and unstructured data to deliver consistent outcomes.

Cloud object storage offers the ability to access data sets anywhere, anytime in their native format to help shorten the distance between AI education and effective implementation.

Cloud-based services support

As more companies depend on cloud-based application development and deployment to support IT services at scale, cloud object storage empowers the collection, storage, and use of data for these next-generation apps.

Consider a user-facing mobile application that relies on multiple data sources to personalize interactions and deliver up-to-date recommendations, sales, or service offers. The hierarchical requirements of file-based storage systems limit the amount of relevant data they can provide. Block-based offerings, meanwhile, are better suited to the cloud. But the time required to identify and extract specific blocks often makes this method prohibitive for agile mobile apps. Cloud object storage simplifies and streamlines data access requirements to improve cloud-based services support.

Backup and recovery

Object storage systems can be configured to automatically replicate content to create multiple recovery instances and ensure ongoing data access—even if primary storage solutions fail. In addition, object instances can be easily replicated across multiple cloud and on-premises environments to create redundant storage environments.