Object storage vs block storage vs file storage | Full comparison
Any person working with computers in any way doesn’t need to be told about the importance of storage. Data is essential to any organization as one of its most valued assets, which is why its protection and security are a must-have for everybody. The most tiresome thing about configuring a storage solution is that quite often, as the database grows and requires expanding, existing storage has to be either adjusted or completely replaced. Moreover, storage solutions themselves are not set in stone and develop constantly, making finding the most appropriate and efficient storage solution for your environment a quest so challenging it may seem like a Sisyphean task. As of now, there are three primary formats you can save, organize, and protect pieces of data: object storage, block storage, and file storage.
Each has its own advantages and disadvantages that attract customers with corresponding requirements. Considering the fact that storage technology doesn’t stand still, no wonder that within time those differences in approach, performance, and security only became more diverse. It will hardly be fair to state that one is better than the other as each may serve perfectly according to specific needs.
What is Object Storage?
As its name suggests, object storage implies sorting out and designating each particular piece of data as a separate object. In practice, that means that all data is structured as self-contained units that are furthermore stored as objects at the same level in a flat environment. Simply put, data is kept in separate storehouses without any files and folders, and every single piece of data contains associated metadata and a unique identifier to form a storage pool. A user can either set the value for fixed-key metadata or they can create both the key and value for metadata associated with each separate object.
Moreover, each object storage volume works as a self-contained repository that owns the data with a unique identifier applied that makes it possible to find an object in the distributed system. Metadata contained within each object is of extreme importance concerning storing process itself because it preserves valuable information such as age, privacies/securities, or access contingencies. What does this mean in practice? Imagine being able to access every bit of information however specific it is. Object storage technology uses the metadata and identifiers to find any details you may ever need. In order to access and manage objects within the storage repository, you’ll need an HTTP application programming interface (API), which may sound like an unnecessary piece of work but is in fact quite simple and easy to use in every language.
Pros & Cons of Object Storage
As any other technology, object storage naturally has a traditional list of pros and cons. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Probably the greatest thing about object storage systems is that the amount of unstructured data they can potentially handle is virtually unlimited. What sets object storage technology apart from file or block storage is that its approach to storing and managing data applies the hierarchical model in organizing information. Practically, when you are expanding a block or file storage system, you expect at one moment or the other to encounter certain limitations. The growing environment gets cumbersome and the system is simply unable to handle large amounts of unstructured data without dropping a ball in terms of performance. Within a flat hardware environment with equal access to all units held, storing large volumes of unstructured data becomes infinitely easier to do, which has already proven to be an invaluable asset in such fields as artificial intelligence or machine learning.
Easy to Afford
Thanks to the scale-out approach inherent and integral to any object storage, you can pay for the storage space needed at the moment, and nothing more.
Every organization meets this challenge upon facing an inevitable need for more storage space. Thing is, in an object storage environment, you are able to easily add new hardware and configure it to keep up with your growing requirements. When the storage runs out of space, all you need to do is merely add another array, and that’s it, problem solved. You can add as much additional storage as you need — the sky’s the limit. Same goes for cloud object storage which is simple to add to existing infrastructure.
Object-based storage manages and manipulates data storage as distinct units kept in a single storehouse. Instead of ingraining data in files inside other folders and building a hierarchical structure, object storage adds all metadata relevant to the file to separate pieces of data this file consists of, with a custom identifier attached. Comprehensive metadata enables us to store everything in a flat storage pool.
Simple to Use
That metadata is what makes it so convenient for the users to gain value from data and retrieve anything they need without any setbacks. Every single piece of data has a unique identifier attached to associated metadata. That does not only mean the data is easy to access, but it also means you can find every bit of information you may need, however obscure it is.
No Built-in Locking
Object storage usually cannot lock files. In AWS S3, you can lock buckets in read-only mode. To access the cloud, you’ll need a secret key. However, if the users have access to the device, they can access any data stored there.
In most standard configurations, the object storage system cannot rival the other storage types’ performances. Object-based storage needs more processing time than block and file storage, suffering from unavoidable increased latency.
The uniqueness of the object storage architecture has its downsides too. For example, you can do whatever you want with the metadata, but not with the objects as they are. Once it is created, there is no room for adjustments. The only way to get around that is to either replicate or overwrite the object itself.
Object Storage Use Cases
Due to its inherent benefits, object storage finds use in various concepts. The use cases are numerous, but here are some of the most popular
In the modern world, you are surrounded by security cameras wherever you go. Such widespread use implies increased demand for highly scalable storage with easily accessed data to store all that footage. Obviously, the combination of a surveillance system with an endlessly scalable object-based storage is a match made in heaven.
Backup & Recovery
Despite the evident disadvantage of the object storage technology performance-wise, it remains a popular solution in use cases where performance is not a top-tier priority. Many organizations prefer to use the traditional object storage configuration as secondary storage in order to preserve data for an unspecified amount of time, be it months or years.
Media & Entertainment
Rich metadata allows extracting any specific details in almost no time, which admittedly makes working with media assets a walk in the park. Whether you want to find out who are the people featured in a video clip or what is actually going on there, thanks to compelling metadata, you are a few clicks away from finding all you may need.
What is Block Storage?
Block storage is a storage format that treats each separate volume as a separate hard drive. Its configuration is the responsibility of the storage admin. That is why it is called “block”: it organizes and structures the data as blocks with a fixed size. Each block is assigned with metadata serving as its unique address. What is interesting about block storage is that it isn’t limited to one environment: you can store several blocks in one environment, and the rest in another.
Block storage is operated and managed via unique software which is separated from storage media. This program basically controls the way blocks are allocated and organized on disk space. The retrieving option is also a part of its functionality, as this soft uses unique identifiers to locate the required blocks and sort them into files in whatever way the user requires. The most traditional way to operate and control such management programs is by using a server operating system to format block devices with a file system. Users can access block storage volumes through protocols such as NVMe-oF, NVMe over TCP, Fiber Channel over Ethernet (FCoE), or iSCSI. Moreover, directly attached storage, drives, and server RAID are also block storage.
Pros & Cons of Block Storage
Today block storage is quite a popular solution for a lot of environments. This is not surprising, considering some of its advantages. Naturally, it has setbacks as well.
Access to block storage using high-performance protocols is a perfect fit for high-performance mission-critical apps. Practically, it guarantees high I/O performance with low latency as the cherry on the cake. Its most popular applied use is a high-performance alternative to file storage, used predominantly in SAN environments.
Block storage generally has a low failure rate since blocks of data are stored in self-contained units. An organization can restore data from backup media real fast in case of failure.
One of the most useful things about block storage in practical terms is that it is easy to modify. Within a block storage environment files can be altered without the necessity to remove existing data, as would have happened in the case of a files storage system. Accordingly, blocks can be subjected to any kind of operations, including replacing, deleting, or inserting them. In other words, if you want to change a block, there’s no need to make a new one. Just create another version.
The block storage system is usually bound to the server which makes it impossible to access it from other servers simultaneously. You can put some software that solves it on top, of course. Unfortunately, it does not remove inconveniences at all as it is additional pressure on the system overall, which can and will affect performance.
Unlike file or object storage, block storage volumes have almost no metadata. It isn’t hard to imagine how poorly this may reflect on operations where the use of metadata is critical, such as search and retrieval. In order to identify the storage location correctly, an app would need meaningful metadata that is lacking. In a block storage environment, an application has to go through a lot of blocks to succeed in the search, although certain file systems such as ZFS or Btrfs can provide metadata capabilities to increase data integrity.
Hard to Afford
Block storage is indeed performative and reliable, but it needs SANs, and those are expensive. Such a storage array requires some real financial expenses, let alone professional and regular maintenance. Even a large enterprise may find that supporting and maintaining block storage isn’t that easy to afford.
Block Storage Use Cases
Fast and performative, block storage finds a lot of appreciation. Here are some possible use cases:
Speed, performance, and reliability. These are the reasons that make block storage superb in use for databases and as good support for enterprise apps. Blocks of data are also extremely easy to modify, which makes this such a good match for frequently updated files.
Block storage systems distribute data across multiple volumes. A block-based storage volume is simple to create and format. It is perfect to run as a backend storage for a virtualized system. You can create multiple VMs by simply attaching a bare-metal server to that very block. For example, a lot of enterprises often use block storage for deploying VMFS volumes across the whole enterprise.
Organizations often choose generally highly performative and reliable block storage technology as a standard option to store emails.
What is File Storage?
As you already know, file storage technology implies the use of a hierarchical method to organize and store information on a hard drive or on a NAS device. Speaking in plain terms, you can store data in files, then you can organize them in folders, and then you manage the latter with directories and subdirectories. If you are using file storage, the typical file location process goes from directory to subdirectory, from subdirectory to folder, and from folder to file.
This approach to organizing data is both an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time. Admittedly, such a method is extremely easy to organize and structure data, which makes it so widespread. On the other hand, as the database grows, managing it in a sane manner becomes harder and harder. Folders, directories and subdirectories are mounted upon each other until the whole system is too overwhelmed. At some point, it becomes impossible to deal with both in terms of time and usability.
Pros & Cons of File Storage
If what you need is a centralized, easy to access, and affordable way to store files, file storage is a way to go. However, it is not without downsides. The pros and cons are as follows.
Easy & Familiar
What makes file storage so famous and recognizable is that this is usually the storage option for end users. Most people can use it even without their expertise exceeding basic computer skills, which makes file storage the most familiar and simple storage format by far for the majority of users. Such a storage system is intuitively self-explanatory because all you need to do is name a file, attach metadata, and organize it according to a straightforward hierarchical model. You don’t need to write apps or code to access your data.
In order to operate, the file storage technology applies common file-level protocols such as, for example, Network File System (NFS), Common Internet File System (CIFS), or Server Message Block (SMB). The average user usually operates a Windows or Linux OS. Thanks to protocols like SMB/CIFS and NFS, it is possible to read files and write them over LAN to a Windows or Linux based server.
It’s hard to stress enough just how user-friendly file storage is for an average customer. Users can manage, create, and delete their own files however they choose. You can just set a file as write, read-only, or locked (specific users cannot access the file even as read-only). That way a user can decide whether the users can make changes in files, just view them, or even not be able to access data at all. Moreover, you can also manage access by setting up password protection for files.
Difficulty in Accessing Data
As it has been already said, hierarchical storage is a blessing and a curse: while it works great for separate users who don’t operate that much data at all, accessing and managing data within a file storage array becomes a hell of an inconvenience as the volume grows. The more files, folders, and directories there are, the more time you will spend to find and access a piece of information required. If we are talking about organizations, sooner or later, file storage becomes a major waste of time.
Although it is technically possible to store some unstructured data within a file storage environment, it is generally not considered the best solution for large volumes of it.
File storage has numerous benefits that make it so popular amongst different users. It is convenient, easy to operate, and fairly fast. However, the only way file storage scales out is by buying new storage systems, which may get pretty expensive.
File Storage Use Cases
The most familiar, popular, and recognizable storage format ever, file storage remains a genuinely efficient solution for numerous data needs. Here are some:
Nothing beats file storage on a small scale. In a lot of cases, all that is needed is locating, managing, sharing, and accessing files spread across a limited environment. Whether it is an office team or any small organization, file storage remains to be simple, efficient, and easy to use. It is still a number one choice for the majority of end users.
File sharing document collaboration is something that is necessary for group work since it requires making changes and comments in real-time. Online file sharing also helps you Keep files and comments in one organized unit leaves tiresome grinding through endless emails and folders in the past. All you need to do is upload, store, and share files across one centralized library. The location doesn’t matter because in every scenario, be it cloud or on-site, it makes it possible to collaborate on files with internal and external users or with guests outside the network.
Backup & Disaster Recovery
Backups can be easily and securely stored on a separate storage device connected to LAN. Furthermore, a cloud-based file storage service subscription gives you a chance to replicate data files across geographically-dispersed data centers to gain the additional data protection of distance and redundancy, which is in high demand. Most cloud backup and external backup devices ordinarily utilize the file storage technology in order to create copies of the latest versions of files.
Each format has its perks. Each has drawbacks. Block storage is reliable and performative, so it is a good choice to work with high volumes of data, but it may be too pricey. File storage is much more familiar and recognizable, has a simple interface, easy to use, and is quite searchable due to metadata. However, the bigger the storage array gets, the harder it is to manage (not to mention the prices).
Object storage has a lot of advantages, such as rich metadata and unlimited scalability. Also, it is much more affordable than its competitors. The only major setback keeping it on the bench is that its traditional configurations lose in comparison when we are talking about performance. It is rarely used as a primary backup. However, this technology is constantly developing and it may very well become the future of storage.
In general, object, file, and block storage models are each suitable for a specific set of requirements and specific environments. The most optimal way to pick your best option is to have a precise understanding of what it is.