By: IBM Cloud Education

What is file storage, and when is it most useful? This guide will define file storage, explain its benefits, and look at some typical use cases.

What is file storage?

File storage—also called file-level or file-based storage—is a hierarchical storage methodology used to organize and store data on a computer hard drive or on network-attached storage (NAS) device. In file storage, data is stored in files, the files are organized in folders, and the folders are organized under a hierarchy of directories and subdirectories. To locate a file, all you or your computer system need is the path—from directory to subdirectory to folder to file.

Hierarchical file storage works well with easily organized amounts of structured data. But, as the number of files grows, the file retrieval process can become cumbersome and time-consuming. Scaling requires adding more hardware devices or continually replacing these with higher-capacity devices, both of which can get expensive.

To some extent, you can mitigate these scaling and performance issues with cloud-based file storage services. These services allow multiple users to access and share the same file data located in off-site data centers (the cloud). You simply pay a monthly subscription fee to store your file data in the cloud, and you can easily scale-up capacity and specify your data performance and protection criteria. Moreover, you eliminate the expense of maintaining your own on-site hardware since this infrastructure is managed and maintained by the cloud service provider (CSP) in its data center. This is also known as Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS).

File storage vs. block storage vs. object storage

File storage has been a popular storage technique for decades—it’s familiar to virtually every computer user, and it’s well-suited to storing and organizing transactional data or manageable structured data volumes that can be neatly stored in a database in a disk drive on a server.

However, many organizations are now struggling to manage mounting volumes of web-based digital content or unstructured data. If you need to store very large or unstructured data volumes, you should consider block-based or object-based storage that organizes and accesses data differently. Depending on the various speed and performance requirements of your IT operations and various applications, you might require a combination of these approaches.

Block storage

Block storage offers greater storage efficiency (more efficient use of available storage hardware) and faster performance than file storage. Block storage breaks a file into equally-sized chunks (or blocks) of data and stores each block separately under a unique address.

Rather than conforming to a rigid directory/subdirectory/folder structure, blocks can be stored anywhere in the system. To access any file, the server's operating system uses the unique address to pull the blocks back together into the file, which takes less time than navigating through directories and file hierarchies to access a file. Block storage works well for critical business applications, transactional databases, and virtual machines that require low-latency (minimal delay). It also gives you more granular access to data and consistent performance.

In the following video, Amy Blea breaks down the differences between block storage and file storage:

Object Storage

Object-based storage has emerged as a preferred method for data archiving and backing-up today’s digital communications—unstructured media and web content like email, videos, image files, web pages, and sensor data produced by the Internet of Things (IoT). It’s also ideal for archiving data that does not change frequently (static files), such as large volumes of pharmaceutical data or music, image, and video files.

Objects are discrete units of data that are stored in a structurally flat data environment. Again, there are no folders, directories, or complex hierarchies; instead, each object is a simple, self-contained repository that includes the data, metadata (descriptive information associated with an object), and a unique identifying ID number. This information enables an application to locate and access the object.

You can aggregate object storage devices into larger storage pools and distribute these storage pools across locations. This allows for unlimited scale and improved data resiliency and disaster recovery. Objects can be stored locally, but most often reside on cloud servers, with accessibility from anywhere in the world.

In “What is Object Storage?”, Anirup Dutta goes through the architecture, benefits, and use cases: 

Benefits

If your organization requires a centralized, easily accessible, and affordable way to store files and folders, file-level storage is a good approach. The benefits of file storage include the following:

  • Simplicity: File storage is the simplest, most familiar, and most straightforward approach to organizing files and folder on a computer’s hard drive or NAS device. You simply name files, tag them with metadata, and store them in folders under a hierarchy of directories and subdirectories. It is not necessary to write applications or code to access your data.
  • File sharing: File storage is ideal for centralizing and sharing files on a Local Area Network (LAN). Files stored on a NAS device are easily accessible by any computer on the network that has the appropriate permission rights.
  • Common protocols: File storage uses common file-level protocols such as Server Message Block (SMB), Common Internet File System (CIFS), or Network File System (NFS). If you utilize a Windows or Linux operating system (or both), standard protocols like SMB/CIFS and NFS will allow you to read and write files to a Windows-based or Linux-based server over your Local Area Network (LAN).
  • Data protection: Storing files on a separate, LAN-connected storage device offers you a level of data protection should your network computer experience a failure. Cloud-based file storage services provide additional data protection and disaster recovery by replicating data files across multiple, geographically-dispersed data centers.
  • Affordability: File storage using a NAS device allows you to move files off of expensive computing hardware and onto a more affordable LAN-connected storage device. Moreover, if you choose to subscribe to a cloud file-storage service, you eliminate the expense of on-site hardware upgrades and the associated ongoing maintenance and operation costs.

Use cases

File storage is a good solution for a wide variety of data needs, including the following:

  • Local file sharing: If your data storage needs are generally consistent and straightforward, such as storing and sharing files with team members in the office, consider the simplicity of file-level storage.
  • Centralized file collaboration: If you upload, store, and share files in a centralized library—located on-site, off-site, or in the cloud—you can easily collaborate on files with internal and external users or with invited guests outside of your network.
  • Archiving/storage: You can cost-effectively archive files on NAS devices in a small data center environment or subscribe to a cloud-based file storage service to store and archive your data.
  • Backup/disaster recovery: You can store backups securely on separate, LAN-connected storage devices. Or you can subscribe to a cloud-based file storage service to replicate your data files across multiple, geographically-dispersed data centers and gain the additional data protection of distance and redundancy.

Cloud-based file storage (or file storage hosting)

Today’s communications are rapidly moving to the cloud to gain the benefits of a shared storage approach that inherently optimizes scale and costs. You can reduce your organization’s on-site IT infrastructure by using low-cost cloud storage while keeping your data accessible when you need it.

Similar to an on-site file storage system, cloud-based file storage—also called file storage hosting—allows multiple users to share the same file data. But instead of storing data files locally on a NAS device, you can store these files off-site in data centers (the cloud) and access them via the internet.

With cloud-based file storage, you no longer need to refresh your storage hardware every three to five years or to budget for the installation, maintenance, and personnel you need to manage it. Instead you simply subscribe to a cloud storage service for a predictable monthly or annual fee. You can reduce your IT personnel or re-assign these technical resources to more revenue-producing areas of your business.

Storing file data in the cloud also enables you to scale up capacity as needed and on demand. Cloud-based file storage services typically offer simple, pre-defined tiers with varying levels of storage capacity and workload performance requirements (total number of input/output operations per second, or IOPS), as well as data protection and replication to other data centers for business continuity—all for a predictable monthly fee. Or you can increase or decrease IOPS and expand data volumes dynamically, paying only for what you use.

There are strategic benefits to subscription-based cloud storage services, particularly for multi-site and larger organizations. These include ease of sharing across a network of locations, disaster recovery, and the ease of adding innovations and technologies that emerge in the future.

File storage and IBM Cloud

IBM Cloud File Storage solutions are durable, fast and flexible. You will gain protection against data loss during maintenance or failures with at-rest data encryption, along with volume duplication and snapshots and replication. With IBM data centers located around the world, you are assured of high-level data protection, replication, and disaster recovery.

IBM Cloud offers four, pre-defined Endurance tiers with per-gigabyte (GB) pricing that locks in your costs, ensuring predictable hourly or monthly billing for your short-term or long-term data storage needs. File Storage Endurance tiers support performance up to 10,000 (10K) IOPS/GB and can meet the needs of most workloads, whether you require low-intensity, general purpose, or high-intensity performance.

With IBM File Storage, you’ll be able to increase or decrease your IOPS and expand existing volumes on the fly. And you can further protect your data by subscribing to IBM’s Snapshot feature, which creates read-only images of your file storage volume at particular points, from which you can easily restore your data in case of accidental loss or damage.

Learn more about IBM’s File Storage Endurance tiers and performance options.

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