A cloud without a data centre

Symform co-founder and president Praerit Garg says there’s something wrong with the way data is being stored in public clouds today, namely that public cloud providers rely on data centres, which are expensive and have inherent security risks.

“A lot of people think data centres offer economies of scale, but in a lot of ways they create diseconomies of scale,” he says. “There’s a significant gap between local and cloud storage costs, and it’s widening. Local storage is getting cheaper and cloud storage price reductions just aren’t keeping pace.”

IaaS provider Symform uses a decentralized network of local storage sites, combined to create a digital public cloud made up of excess local storage capacity of individual customers. Customers who store data in the Symform cloud have an option to contribute back to the Symform cloud and offer their excess storage capacity. Symform has been offering the service since 2010 and now has a public cloud network that spans 46 countries.

When customers choose which data they want to be stored in the Symform cloud, each file is broken into 96 fragments and encrypted using AES 256-bit encryption. The encrypted fragments are then sent out to be stored on the excess capacity of customers who are contributing storage to Symform, effectively creating the virtual cloud. Because the data is fragmented and encrypted, each site where the user’s data is stored has just part of the data, but not enough to re-create the entire file, plus it is encrypted. When the user needs to recall the data from the cloud, the Symform system retrieves the pieces of the data that are in various storage sites around the world and reassembles it, removes the encryption and delivers it to the user. There are also duplicated fragment pieces so if some customer sites go down or are unavailable, the fragments are backed up in the cloud.

“It’s using the power of numbers to store the data,” Garg says. The company is SSAE 16 compliant, which is a security certification from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Customers pay a licensing fee to use the service, which ranges from US$50 to US$100 monthly, based on the type of user. Customers are encouraged to contribute as much storage into the system as they consume, or customers can pay extra on top of the licensing fee to store in the Symform cloud without contributing. The company even encourages end users that don’t have storage to contribute to the cloud to purchase external hard drives, which can be used as a storage device.

“It’s a very innovative approach,” says Nicos Vekiarides, a storage expert who’s started his own cloud service company, TwinStrata , which helps customers manage cloud storage. “There are a lot of businesses that have excess storage capacity and this is a way to put it to use.” TwinStrata works with a variety of public IaaS providers, but not Symform.

The service, Vekiarides says, comes with some concerns related to its maturity. It isn’t seen as one of the big IaaS providers in the market, and would likely be aimed at service providers, SMBs or enterprises to use as a secondary storage tool. “Some customers like to know where their data lives,” he says; with Symform, that’s harder to know.

Symform customers say that hasn’t been a problem for them. Jeremy Treister is president of CMIT Solutions of Chicago, which is a franchised subsidiary of CMIT, a national group of IT consultants. Treister uses Symform at his individual franchise location, but CMIT nationally is not a customer. “We’ve never had customers question the security behind Symform,” he says.

CMIT uses Symform as a secondary backup system for customers to supplement the company’s primary on-site server backups. CMIT has about 3TB of customer data in the Symform cloud, including everything from files on a desktop, to business process applications, like email and financial documents.

Part of the reason Treister says he’s comfortable using Symform for his CMIT customers is because CMIT hosts data from other Symform customers on its own excess servers. “It’s literally bits and bytes of data, it doesn’t mean anything when you look at it,” he says. If a customer ever were to question the security of the system, Treister says he could just show that the Symform data from other customers just looks like a file full of ones and zeros, which are unreadable without the encryption key. Treister says the model of the collaborative cloud, with multiple users contributing to create a public cloud, is a “green” way of creating a cloud of the future.

“Everyone knows there’s a ton of excess capacity in everyone’s offices, so why not use it?” he says.

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