I’m sure you've seen those "U-Store-It" sheds on the sides of highways and on the outskirts of town. For a fee you can get a little extra room in your life. If you have a sudden need for some extra space, want to get that little-used stuff out of the basement, or just have too much stuff to store, you can rent some storage space by the side of the road.

That idea is coming to enterprise networks.

Disk space today -- measured by any sensible metric -- is cheap; yet organizations devote an ever-increasing proportion of their IT budget to storage systems. The reason is that although disks are a bargain, managing security, reliability, and availability for storage systems is still too complicated. Vendors have been trying to address this problem. With the emergence of flexible networked attached storage (NAS) devices, it was only a matter of time before someone thought about moving storage off the server, and even off the network.

Enter the storage service provider (SSP).

Instead of managing all of your own storage, it’s now possible to use a strategic application of outsourcing. An SSP offers managed storage for applications and services that an organization cannot or chooses not to manage itself. Some companies have even found that putting storage at an SSP can be more cost-effective than managing storage in-house.

This isn’t a radical concept: Sharing files over the Internet has been with us forever. Whether it’s the common Internet file system (CIFS) or the network file system (NFS), we’ve had shared remote storage for some time. What is new is the ability to use a third-party storage provider for business-critical storage applications.

Imagine huge storage centers co-located with large ISPs. The SSP provides a complete, managed storage solution; the ISP provides access -- perhaps through high-bandwidth fiber optic -- to the end customer.

It’s happening. A small, privately-held company called StorageNetworks Inc. is partnering with hosting and ISP companies to build Storage Points of Presence throughout North America. Hewlett-Packard and the telecommunications giant Quest are also partnering to deliver SSP services to customers.

One problem with SSPs is performance. Today’s server-based storage architectures run at speeds starting at 10 Mbps up to hundreds of megabytes per second. That’s substantially faster than most organizations can run external network connections. The cost of an OC-3 connection running at 155 Mbps is too high to justify use in delivering storage services. In response, some companies are experimenting with proprietary fiber optic connections to their SSPs. Others are using quality of service (QoS) capabilities in their existing networks to deliver adequate performance.

Another, less obvious, problem is latency. When an SSP provides access to the same files via a variety of distributed sites concurrently, some sort of file locking is needed. This is true even if the two workstations accessing the data are right next to each other. If the clients are in a distributed, far-flung network, the need is even greater for effective file locking system.

Despite these concerns, it’s possible that the tiny marketplace for SSNs will grow into a smorgasbord of storage-as-a-utility concepts. If that happens, the networking-as-a-utility ISP business may join with the applications-as-a-utility applications service providers (ASPs) to engineer an entirely new market. Our application and infrastructure needs may be met by a new breed of company that combines the services of an ASP with storage services to help limit the costs of supporting and maintaining that infrastructure.

The optimum result would be standards-based storage software that integrates with an organization’s existing file system. If, for strategic reasons, some of an organization’s data is on local storage and some is served up by an SSP, it should all appear seamless. If we use an SSP for secondary or tertiary storage services, such as backup or replicating databases from one site to another, we shouldn’t need proprietary client software or special purpose gateways. Clients should see the SSP storage as just one more resource is the pool of an organization’s storage capabilities.

Can the new companies becoming SSPs actually deliver on the promise? It looks like storage equipment vendors are beginning to see the light and help emerging SSPs deliver. If critical mass were reached -- and a few technical hurdles overcome -- storage service might become as much of a commodity as Internet access. Storage service providers might then be as common as the "U-Store-It" yards that dot the edges of every highway and byway. --Mark McFadden is a consultant and is communications director for the Commercial Internet eXchange (Washington). Contact him at mcfadden@cix.org.