What is Object Storage? Everything You Need to Know

Blog, Cloud Storage Solutions
March 9, 2021

Organizations in 2021 are leveraging sophisticated data storage architectures to securely store, access, and share data in the cloud. Object storage, file storage, and block storage are among the most popular enterprise options – but which type of data storage architecture is the best, and how should you decide which option is most suitable for your business?

The first option to consider is object storage, a data storage architecture that’s optimized for storing and retaining large amounts of unstructured data.

In this blog post, we’re taking a deep dive into the benefits, drawbacks, and utility of object storage. You’ll learn all about object storage, how it differs from two other types of cloud storage (file storage and block storage), the difference between structured and unstructured data, and how organizations can leverage object storage as part of a multi-cloud data solution.

What is Object Storage?

Object storage is a data storage architecture used by organizations of all sizes and across industries to store and access large amounts of unstructured data in a highly scalable and cost-effective way.

Objects in the cloud are stored in a “flat” hierarchy with no folders or directories, a feature that allows for consistent, low-latency data access. Object storage systems on multiple devices (servers) can be aggregated to form a single object storage cluster. A storage cluster can be scaled horizontally by adding more servers that may be distributed across multiple locations. As a result, object storage can be scaled almost infinitely to support server, application, or back-up requirements.

What is an Object?

In a traditional file storage system, data lives in files that are stored in folders and directories. In an object storage system, the data in files is broken into pieces called objects. Each object acts as a self-contained data repository with three components:

  1. Data from the source file.
  2. Rich metadata that can be customized based on the type of data and its intended use.
  3. A unique identifying number that enables API access to the object.

What is Unstructured Data?

We’ve already mentioned that object storage is ideal for storing large amounts of unstructured data – but what exactly is unstructured data?

 

Broadly speaking, data can be categorized as either structured or unstructured.

Structured data is “organized into specific fields as part of a schema, with each field having a defined purpose” (HIMSS). Structured data is usually quantitative data stored in a table format or a relational database. Examples of structural data in healthcare include things like patient demographic data, lab values, and accounts receivable data.

Unlike structured data, unstructured data is not organized in any predefined manner. Instead, the data is stored in its native format and can include text files, images, audio recordings, video surveillance records, and more. Using the healthcare industry as an example, some notable types of unstructured data could include diagnostic medical imaging files (PACS data), medical video data, biosignal data from patient monitoring devices, electronic health records (EHR), and even social media data.

Due to its qualitative nature and the absence of a predefined data model, unstructured data usually can’t be analyzed using conventional quantitative or statistical methods (data clustering, linear regression, etc.). Analyzing and extracting insights from unstructured data requires teams to leverage more sophisticated AI-driven applications.

Industry analysts estimate that unstructured data accounts for roughly 80% of the total data in cloud storage, while structured data accounts for just 20% (Dell).

Object Storage vs. File Storage vs. Block Storage

In addition to object storage, there are two other types of cloud data storage: file storage and block storage. Each of these storage options has its own unique architecture, deployment model, and optimal use cases.

What is File Storage?

File storage systems are the most familiar form of data storage for most people since they’re used in common operating systems made by Apple and Microsoft. 

In the cloud, file storage services can be leveraged to enable data access, sharing, and collaboration between team members. Cloud file storage is frequently supported by a network-attached server (NAS), a dedicated file storage device that makes its contents available to all users on the network. 

Data in a file storage system is organized in a hierarchical system of folders, directories, and sub-directories. Files have limited metadata attached to them – usually just the basic file attributes, such as name, date of creation, and date last modified. Each file has a unique file path that functions as its address within the storage system. 

File storage is a simple and familiar solution for small-scale data storage, file sharing, collaboration, and disaster recovery. Common applications for file storage in the cloud include content or document management systems, recordkeeping, and digital libraries.

What is Block Storage?

Block storage is a data storage methodology that uses Storage Area Networks (SANs) to decouple data from user environments, allowing for rapid data access and ultra low-latency data retrieval in the cloud. 

In a block storage system, data in files are separated into uniformly-sized chunks known as blocks. Each block is stored separately, along with a unique identifier code that allows it to be located within the storage system. When a file is requested from block storage, all of the blocks that comprise the file are accessed from their separate storage locations and reassembled before being presented to the application or user. 

Compared to other forms of cloud data storage, block storage in the cloud offers the lowest possible latency. It is considered the best data storage option for high-performance applications that require consistent, low-latency data retrieval. These applications include relational databases like SQL Server or Oracle and ERP solutions like SAP.

What are the Benefits of Object Storage?

The rapid growth of unstructured data is driving the adoption of cloud object storage in the healthcare industry. Below, we list some of the benefits that organizations are realizing with cloud object storage.

Managing Unstructured Data at Scale

When it comes to storing and organizing unstructured data at scale, there’s no better option than cloud object storage. As file storage systems increase in size, file paths get more complex and data retrieval performance may decline, but object storage avoids this with its flat storage architecture.

Unlimited horizontal scalability is also a key benefit, with organizations more willing to invest in data storage solutions that can expand to meet their needs in the future.

Cost-Effective Data Storage

Most of the unstructured data in the cloud lives in cloud object storage services like Amazon S3. Cloud object storage doesn’t just perform well at scale, it’s also cost-effective with different storage tiers available based on how frequently the data is accessed and how quickly it may need to be recovered.

Customizable Metadata

Objects in cloud storage can be configured with customizable metadata. Metadata describes the data in the object file, enhances its searchability in cloud object storage, and may reveal new insights if the data is processed by a machine learning algorithm or predictive analytics engine.

 

For example, in healthcare applications, If a patient’s imaging or endoscopy results were sent to cloud object storage, the data file might include metadata such as the patient’s first and last name, account number, and the date they were admitted to the hospital. Applications or users could retrieve the results using the object’s unique identifier code or by searching for the object metadata with an API query. 

A predictive analytics engine could analyze large amounts of imaging results, using metadata to cross-reference the data with patient files and revealing new insights with the potential to drive innovation in treatment and diagnostics.

Customizable metadata allows organizations to maximize the value of unstructured cloud-based data in new and exciting ways.

What are Object Storage Use Cases?

Object storage is the ideal architecture for storing large amounts of unstructured data and performing data analysis operations with sophisticated software tools. 

Use cases for object storage are extremely diverse, ranging from digital streaming businesses that serve millions of videos from object storage each day to law enforcement agencies that use object storage to archive digital evidence.

We’re also seeing object storage used to support big data analysis in the healthcare industry. Here’s how healthcare organizations are combining object storage with powerful analytics to enhance patient care:

Predictive Analytics for Faster Diagnosis

Image files stored in the cloud by PACS can be saved in object storage and processed using artificial intelligence, machine learning, and pattern recognition algorithms. Analyzing medical images at scale in this way can reveal hidden insights that could be used to diagnose illnesses at an earlier stage and accelerate treatment to improve patient care outcomes.

Leveraging Big Data from Social Media

Another incredible application for object storage in healthcare is big data analysis of data from social media. Healthcare data professionals have used big data analytics to monitor how frequently specific keywords are mentioned on popular social networks or on Google Search, successfully predicting outbreaks of communicable diseases like cholera and influenza. 

The early detection of these outbreaks gives public health organizations the opportunity to orchestrate a rapid response that mitigates negative impact in the community and may even save lives.

Faction Object Storage-as-a-Service Solutions

Unstructured content repositories containing data such as images and videos are often stored in high-cost storage systems making it impossible for businesses to cost-effectively manage massive data growth. Faction’s Object Storage-as-a–Service offer enables the consolidation of multiple storage systems into a single, globally accessible, and efficient content repository.

Our solution powers critical use cases such as line-of-business applications, websites, mobile apps, IoT data stores, analytics initiatives, archives, and much more.

Want to learn more about how Faction can help you maximize the value of your data in the cloud?

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