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Challenging the cloud oligarchy: a Q&A with Backblaze

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The days of backing up important files and documents on multiple hard drives for redundancy are a thing of the past as cloud backup has become increasingly affordable. However, choosing a cloud storage and backup provider can often be daunting for users who are unsure of whether they want to sync, store or backup their files. 

For too long, the cloud storage market has been dominated by tech giants whose solutions are often expensive, opaque and complicated. Started back in 2007 with the aim of backing up friends and family’s computers, Backblaze has emerged as a viable competitor in the space by delivering easy, low-cost backup services to businesses and consumers for years. 

TechRadar Pro spoke with the company’s co-founder and CEO Gleb Budman to learn more about its infrastructure and services along with its recently announced S3 compatible APIs.

How does Backblaze stack up against its much larger competitors in the cloud storage market?

Backblaze B2 is 1/4th the price of the other cloud storage offerings, and is dramatically simpler to use. We see two types of customers coming to us: those who have wanted to use cloud for a while but hadn’t, and those who have been using one of the other cloud providers and want to switch. In both cases they typically come because using Backblaze will save them a lot of money, and is just easier to work with.

With our new S3-compatibility layer, customers can simply enter their Backblaze B2 credentials into almost any product they use and instantly switch with no work or downtime. And for those with data in one of the cloud providers, we can also help them move the data directly - again, affordably and from the comfort of their couch.

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How do you explain the difference between sync, storage and backup to your customers?

Storage is where you put files. Sync lets you have the same files in multiple places. Backup ensures you don’t lose those files if you make a mistake, get ransomware, or have a computer lost or stolen. All of these are typically built on top of an object-based cloud storage solution such as Backblaze B2 Cloud Storage.

Do you think that 16TB HDDs are indeed the sweet spot?

 

Good question. As you saw in our Q1 2020 report, we’re only just starting to bring 16TB drives into the data center, so we’re still in the testing phase. The bigger an individual drive is, the longer it takes to rebuild and the more data is lost when that drive dies. Our Backblaze Vault architecture accounts for all of this, of course, to ensure durability of all the data. At this point, we continue to be excited about bigger drives and intend to continue optimizing our cloud storage file system to take advantage of the density and handle the tradeoffs.

Can you tell us a bit more about Backblaze’s Hard Drive Stats, Q1 2020 Snapshot?

It’s definitely been an interesting first quarter in terms of the company and our “new normal”, but we’re happy to see the annualized failure rate of hard drives at its lowest since we started keeping track—that’s certainly encouraging and helps ease the burden on our data center teams. Also, having just crossed an exabyte of data stored, it provides us the scale to provide really meaningful data.

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Why doesn’t your company use Linear Tape Open (LTO) technology?

Would you consider B2 as an LTO replacement?

Tape is fine for data you never want to access, but if you’ll never access it, why keep it at all? The typical answer is, “Tape is inexpensive and I might need the data someday.” But dealing with tape is cumbersome: swapping tapes, managing tape robots, migrating periodically from old tape as formats change. B2 Cloud Storage is less expensive than tape in many situations, far more durable and instantly accessible. We’ve had many customers switch from tape to B2 to simplify their life, be able to use their data, and often save money.  

How can Backblaze offer unlimited storage, what’s the catch?

How can you offer storage at a fraction of the cost of S3?

There’s no catch. When we started out we couldn’t afford S3, so we built a storage server that was a tenth the cost of other systems, and wrote a hyper-efficient cloud storage filesystem. We’ve built Backblaze cost-efficiently and passed the savings on to our customers.  

When do you envision having a majority of your storage on SSDs?

Andy Klein, our Drive Stats expert and Ariel Ellis, our Director of Supply Chain, get this question a lot. We look at SSD periodically, but the economics simply haven’t made sense yet. At best, they’re three times the price of conventional hard drives per terabyte. That simply doesn’t work for us. We do use them in some cases as boot drives or log collection devices, however, but that’s only a few thousand of our approximately 130,000 drives.

Why did hybrid SSD never become a thing for the cloud storage industry?

Similarly to your previous SSD question, it was a matter of economics. They were a bit more expensive than traditional HDDs with little benefit in terms of performance. If you’re building caching or delivery services you want the fastest hardware available; if you’re building the storage layer, you go for less expensive but more dense.

Have you considered experimenting with computational storage?

We have actually done a lot in this space. Our cloud backup service does client-side dedup and intelligent file-type-specific compression. We also cut up large files, package up small files, and pursue other paths to optimize both storage and speed of data transfer.

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Why doesn’t Backblaze offer glacier-type content like Amazon?

Backblaze B2 is Amazon S3-style storage at Glacier pricing. We provide the best part of both. Similar answer as to your question about LTO: We don’t believe that cold storage archives are very useful for business. If something is valuable enough to store, it’s valuable enough that you’re going to need to access it at some point. But if it takes days and significant amounts of money to access it: How does that work for your business? We have a number of customers who started using Glacier for the perceived price, only to realize that when they needed the data it was extremely slow and expensive to access, and then they migrated to B2 Cloud Storage.

What impact will Covid-19 have on the backup/cloud storage business?

We don’t expect Covid-19 to affect the low prices and unlimited storage we offer our customers. The main effect we expect from Covid-19 will be that people who were on the fence about instituting cloud backup and cloud-enabled workflows will finally opt in as they realize the importance of data protection and availability when we’re forced to work remotely. When a customer is considering their storage needs today, will they choose to spend thousands of dollars up-front to deploy a server that won’t be fully-utilized, in a business they may not be able to access - or will they choose to pay $0.005/GB/mo for just the storage they need and let us take care of it for them?

What are your views on the SMR mini-debacle?

We don’t really have much of a take. SMR drives have not been a fit for our use case so far. We try to be as transparent as possible at Backblaze and are glad to see others heading in that direction as well.

Why no 20TB HDD yet and no HAMR/MAMR?

What are your thoughts?

The precision that went into making 1TB drives still feels like science fiction. Everything going on inside of a 16TB drive is astounding. So the fact that 20TB or HAMR/MAMR drives aren’t quite viable yet feels perfectly reasonable to me. I imagine the drive manufacturers want that technology to be ready as much as anyone and are working hard on it. We’ll get there one day soon. But you probably want to ask a drive manufacturer the how and why on that one…

Does Backblaze plan to release any lifetime storage packages?

I mean, I suspect, a lot of your customers wouldn't mind paying $999 for unlimited lifetime storage.

That's a good question! We've definitely been asked, but we feel that, given the fact that we offer our computer backup customers unlimited data for just $5/month (if they pay on our annual plan), it's a better deal for them to pay that amount than to commit to 17 years’ worth of our service ($999/$60 per year price) not knowing what their needs might be some 20 years down the road... And of course, for B2 Cloud Storage, this question doesn't apply as we charge by the GB for object storage (.005/GB/month). We've seen a lot of companies try to offer "Unlimited Storage for Life", but you'll notice that many of them aren't around anymore or have had to pivot to a tiered pricing approach. We've been simple and sustainable from the get-go.