File virtualization, also known as a global file system, allows multiple network shares to be addressed singularly. Your users typically see only a single mount point. The file virtualization software manages the physical aspects of the storage infrastructure behind the scenes. Think of it as a DNS server for files. Most of us don't get to a web site via its IP address, we use the URL. In similar fashion file virtualization abstracts the actual location of a file from a user. Once in place this enables a multitude of capabilities and one of the largest is transparent movement of data.
The transparent movement of data is typically used to move inactive data off of primary storage and onto second or third tier forms of storage. For example you could clear out your expensive tier 1 NAS storage of inactive data and put it on a system that had power managed storage like Nexsan's AutoMaid or on to capacity optimized storage like Permabit or Data Domain. Depending on your needs, all of these devices are viable secondary tiers. Cloud storage can potentially be one of those tiers or even an additional tier for even longer term retention. File virtualization software would manage the network share that the cloud gateway presents as it would any other share.
Going further, the file virtualization server or appliance could also act as the cloud gateway. Combining these into one solution eliminates the need for a device in your data center and it provides you with some flexibility. For example you could send data to two different cloud providers for redundancy. You could also send different data types to different cloud suppliers based on their expertise. For example some cloud providers may specialize in the retention of medical images and offer retention and compliance management as part of their value add.
Cloud storage's biggest role may not be in backup but in archive. Unstructured data is an ever-growing problem and file virtualization may be the best way to get there.
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George Crump is lead analyst of Storage Switzerland, an IT analyst firm focused on the storage and virtualization segments. Find Storage Switzerland's disclosure statement here.