The world has embraced the cloud. What’s not to like? Startups can grow rapidly without investing in racks of computers, companies can back up data easily, consumers can travel light and still have access to their huge photo libraries and other personal files.
Back in October, however, real clouds clashed with metaphorical clouds when Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath took down some key data centers in New York and New Jersey; a serious problem for businesses who had their main servers in New York and their backup servers in nearby New Jersey. Commercial cloud service providers, for the most part, did pretty well; perhaps because some of the largest data centers, like Amazon’s northern Virginia server farm, were not in the disaster zone. But Sandy certainly reminded cloud service providers that redundant files have to be separated by more than a couple of racks, or even a couple of miles.
Startup Symform thinks it can provide better disaster resilience than even data centers hundreds of miles apart. And, says Bassam Tabbara, Symform cofounder and Chief Technical Officer, it can do that in a way that’s extremely cheap—and in some cases free—to its customers.
Tabbara describes Symform’s approach as a “decentralized, distributed, virtual, and crowd-sourced” cloud. Living in the San Francisco Bay area, I can visualize that kind of cloud, however, we don’t call it a cloud here, we call it fog. (I thought I had invented the term Fog Computing, but a quick search proved me wrong.)
Here’s how it works. Most of Symform’s customers act as hosts as well as customers, that is, they allocate some amount of their on-site storage for use by Symform. Pricing depends on just how much storage they make available; if they allow twice as much data to be stored as they are uploading into the Symform fog, then their fog storage is free. (Otherwise, pricing is 15 cents per gigabyte per month.) This approach is similar to the SETI@home effort in which volunteers donate idle computer cycles to analyze radio data as part of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence; Symform asks customers to provide idle storage.
When a Symform customer uploads a file to the fog, Symform’s software replicates it for redundancy, shreds it into tiny pieces, encrypts each piece, and then distributes it to other Symform customers around the continent or multiple continents. The system splits each 64 megabyte block of data into 96 fragments; only 64 of those fragments are necessary to recreate the entire block. This methodology is very secure, Tabbara says: “Picture taking a piece of paper, redacting it by coloring it black, putting it through a shreddder, and spreading it throughout the world. If you find one piece you aren’t likely to be able to make anything of it.”
Symform’s approach has several advantages, says Tabbara. It allows backup files to be widely dispersed geographically, without facing latency issues, since fragments of files go out and come back in parallel from the closest available locations. This means a natural disaster that takes out even a broad region of a country will likely not cause people to lose access to their files.
Indeed, Symform’s fog of virtual storage extended over the Northeast during Sandy and Tabbara said it did just fine, even though it saw about 5 percent of its storage pool go offline during the peak of the Sandy outages.
And it’s environmentally friendly, he says, because it’s using space on disks that are already spinning; the power is already paid for.
For the most part, Symform’s customers to date have been small businesses, with the occasional consumer in the mix. I asked Tabbara how he gets over the “creep” factor involved in letting other people store their stuff on what someone thinks of as a personal computer. “We help people understand that its just small encrypted pieces of data, not files, just inoperable slivers of data,” he says. And, he points out, “ten years ago people felt icky about storing email anywhere besides their computers.”
Tabbara and Symform cofounder Praerit Garg came out of Microsoft to start the company in 2009. Symform currently has more than $11 million in funding. Right now, Tabbara says the company is storing 200 million files from more than 160 countries, he’s not talking about number of customers or terabytes of data involved.
Photo: Rick Hyman/iStockphoto
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 30 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.