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What is Object storage?

Object storage, also known as object-based storage, is a computer data storage architecture designed to handle large amounts of unstructured data. Unlike other architectures, it designates data as distinct units, bundled with metadata and a unique identifier that can be used to locate and access each data unit. 

These units—or objects—can be stored on-premises, but are typically stored in the cloud, making them easily accessible from anywhere. Due to object storage’s scale-out capabilities, there are few limits to its scalability, and it’s less costly to store large data volumes than other options, such as block storage.

Much of today’s data is unstructured: email, media and audio files, web pages, sensor data, and other types of digital content that do not fit easily into traditional databases. As a result, finding efficient and affordable ways to store and manage it has become problematic. Increasingly, object storage has become the preferred method for storing static content, data arches, and backups. 

Learn more about how Cloud Storage is removing the complexity, scalability, and cost barriers that plague traditional hierarchical file systems.

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Object storage defined

Object storage is a data storage architecture for storing unstructured data, which sections data into units—objects—and stores them in a structurally flat data environment. Each object includes the data, metadata, and a unique identifier that applications can use for easy access and retrieval. 

How does object storage work?

With object storage, the data blocks of a file are kept together as an object, together with its relevant metadata and a custom identifier, and placed in a flat data environment known as a storage pool. 

When you want to access data, object storage systems will use the unique identifier and the metadata to find the object you need, such as an image or audio file. You can also customize metadata, allowing you to add more context that is useful for other purposes, such as retrieval for data analytics.  

You can locate and access objects using RESTful APIs, HTTP, and HTTPS to query object metadata. Since objects are stored in a global storage pool, it’s fast and easy to locate the exact data you need. Plus, the flat environment enables you to scale quickly, even for petabyte or exabyte loads. Storage pools can be spread across multiple object storage devices and geographical locations, allowing for unlimited scale. You simply add more storage devices to the pool as your data grows. 

The benefits of object storage, like its elasticity and scalability, have made it an ideal fit for managing unstructured data in cloud infrastructure. So, what is object storage in the cloud? It’s exactly what it sounds like—object-based storage as an on-demand cloud service. In fact, cloud object storage is the primary storage format for most major cloud service providers.

Object storage vs. file storage vs. block storage

Over time, the world’s data storage needs have evolved with the introduction of the internet and an expanding list of data sources and types. Traditional file storage and block storage aren’t well-suited to handle the enormous amount of data being generated, especially unstructured data that is not made to fit into structured data storage methods.  

So, how does object storage compare to file storage and block storage?

File storage

File storage stores and organizes data into folders, similar to the physical files you might store in a paper filing system in an office. If you need information from a file, you’ll need to know what room, cabinet, drawer, and folder contains that specific document. This same hierarchical storage structure is used for file storage, where files are named, tagged with metadata, and then placed in folders. 

To locate a piece of data, you’ll need to know the correct path to find it. Over time, searching and retrieving data files can become time-consuming as the number of files grows. While scalability is more limited, it is a simple way to store small amounts of just about any type of data and make it accessible to multiple users at once. 

Block storage

Block storage improves on the performance of file storage, breaking files into separate blocks and storing them separately. A block-storage system will assign a unique identifier to each chunk of raw data, which can then be used to reassemble them into the complete file when you need to access it. Block storage doesn’t require a single path to data, so you can store it wherever is most convenient and still retrieve it quickly when needed. 

Block storage works well for organizations that work with large amounts of transactional data or mission-critical applications that need minimal delay and consistent performance. However, it can be expensive, offers no metadata capabilities, and requires an operating system to access blocks. 

Object storage

Object storage, as discussed earlier, saves files in a flat data environment, or storage pool, as a self-contained object that contains all the data, a unique identifier, and detailed metadata that contains information about the data, permissions, policies, and other contingencies. Object storage works best for static storage, especially for unstructured data, where you write data once but may need to read it many times. 

While object storage eliminates the need for directories, folders, and other complex hierarchical organization, it’s not a good solution for dynamic data that is changing constantly as you’ll need to rewrite the entire object to modify it. In some cases, file storage and block storage may still suit your needs depending on your speed and performance requirements.  

What are the benefits of object storage?

Massive scalability

You can easily scale out the flat architecture of object storage without suffering from the same limitations as file or block storage. Object storage size is essentially limitless, so data can scale to exabytes by simply adding new devices. 

Reduced complexity

Object storage has no folders or directories, removing much of the complexity that comes with hierarchical systems. The lack of complex trees or partitions makes retrieving files easier as you don’t need to know the exact location.   

Searchability

Metadata is part of objects, making it easy to search through and navigate without the need of a separate application. It’s also far more flexible and customizable. You can tag objects with attributes and information, such as consumption, cost, and policies for automated deletion, retention, and tiering. 

Resiliency

Object storage can automatically replicate data and store it across multiple devices and geographical locations. This can help protect against outages, safeguard against data loss, and help support disaster recovery strategies. 

Cost efficiency

Object storage was created with cost in mind, providing storage for large amounts of data at a lower price than file- and block-based systems. With object storage, you only pay for the capacity you need, allowing you to control costs even for large amounts of data. 

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Object storage use cases and examples

Object storage offers a range of solutions that can benefit an organization. Here are some common examples and use cases for cloud object storage.

Cloud-native applications

Use Google Cloud object storage as a persistent data store for building or migrating to cloud-native applications.

Big data analytics

Store large amounts of any data type. Query this data to perform big data analytics and gain valuable insight into customers, operations, or markets.

Internet of Things

Manage machine-to-machine data efficiently and cost-effectively while supporting artificial intelligence and advanced analytics to make sense of it.

Rich media storage and delivery

Reduce your costs for storing and globally distributing rich media, such as music, video, and images.

Backup and archiving

Cut the cost of backups and archives while still retaining immediate access to all of your data.