There are a ton of cloud file share products out there, but there are lots of uses too

It’s hard to think of  a market segment that is as frenetic as cloud-based file share and sync. There is the consumer favorite — billion-dollar baby Dropbox — trying to break into business accounts. There are built-from-the-start business players like Accellion, Box, Egnyte, ownCloud and many more. There are also legacy powers that make money from other stuff — Google(s goog) and Microsoft(s msft)– but are now in this fray as well. And then there are companies like Nasuni and Panzura that focus on putting massive data-rich files (as opposed to Word docs and photos) into cloud and then promising fast access to those files.

A score card would be helpful.

But there’s file sharing and then there’s file sharing, and many companies will end up mixing-and-matching file share and storage solutions based on their own divergent needs.

Take Perkins + Will, for example. One of the largest architecture firms in the U.S., it employs about 1,600 people across 25 offices. And those people generate and share huge documents, more than 100 TB worth in all: enormous BIM (building information modeling) files that contain 3-D modeling information, schematics, blueprints, you name it.

Each of those documents can weigh in at 100MB to 300MB, and those files have to be synced up so that people across the country can be assured they’re working off the most recent iteration.  If an architect in one office uses a different version from the rest of her team, it could be an expensive mistake. All those team members also need their documents to be available at LAN speed, said Murali Selvaraj, CIO of the Chicago-based company.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user getinet.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user getinet.

“We had a team working on a huge hospital — some in London, others in New York and still others in Chicago. Our typical model relied on EMC(s emc) SANs for backup, but the cost of the backup ended up being more than the primary copy. We wanted a different model,” Selvaraj said in an interview.  Deciding which cloud storage and file sharing service (or services) is just one check box on a modern-day CIO’s to-do list and it’s something we’ll discuss with IT buyers at Gigaom’s Structure event coming up June 18-19

Flexible terms are important

The old way of buying equipment on three-year terms wasn’t feasible, given the amount of change the company deals with. Depending on workloads and clients, the team in one office may shrink while the others grow. Perkins + Will needed flexibility to move its stuff around without being bound by contract terms.

So Selvaraj started shopping around. He looked at Panzura and found the technology impressive, but that vendor still required that Perkins + Will acquire hardware it didn’t want to buy. Murali ended up going with Nasuni which it is now deploying company-wide.

Nasuni puts the “gold” copy of the data in the cloud — typically Amazon’s(s AMZN) cloud — but each location runs a caching appliance that stores the most frequently used files. Changes to those files are synced back to the cloud and disseminated to other locations’ cache. Nasuni’s claim: this is all invisible to the architects — the files appear to be on just another file on the server and are available at the aforementioned LAN speeds. Nasuni’s service provides primary storage, global file sync and automated back-up and disaster recovery.

And, importantly, Perkins + Will is able to lease the appliances that sit in its various locations.

Selvaraj is sold on the service for the company’s gigantic documents and its need to collaborate on them. But he also thinks Nasuni is complementary, rather than competitive, with document file sync for smaller documents. “Box and Dropbox, for example, seem to flourish where fast access to data isn’t a deal breaker,” he said.

Speedy access is key to far-flung workgroups

“In our industry LAN speed is critical — latency is not an option — hence the need for local caching devices like those provided by Nasuni and Panzura. I can see using Box or Dropbox for user documents like office Office files, but Nasuni or Panzura for critical design drawings.”

Other big organizations agree. CERN, the European laboratory for nuclear research uses ownCloud to let it’s far-flung employees collaborate on documents. But for its massive data archiving needs, it relies on in-house technology including  CASTOR (for Cern Advanced Storage manager) to handle long-term data preservation and its 30-PB EOS disk farm, said Massimo Lamanna, section leader for file systems and disk operations (FDO) for CERN’s Data Storage Service group.

So, when a company says it uses Brand X cloud file sharing service,  make sure to ask what others it is also running.

Feature photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Richard Peterson