A Guide to Clouds: Object, File, and Block

Editor’s Note

This post has been updated since it was originally published in 2020.

What is Cloud Storage?

At this point, most people would be able to capably explain what cloud storage is, more or less. But ask anyone to list and define the different types of cloud storage, and you’re likely to get some blank looks. Understanding the different types of cloud storage is essential to deciding which solution is right for your business.

Maybe you need to share content with a number of contributors, producers, or editors based around the world. Or possibly you have a huge, complex database of sales metrics you need to process or manipulate that is stressing your on-site capabilities. Or you might simply have data you need to archive.

Despite being a relatively simple concept, information about The Cloud (capital T, capital C) is often overrun with frustratingly unclear jargon. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at the three primary types of cloud storage. Below, you’ll find a quick and easy-to-use field guide to the three basic types of cloud storage being used today: object, file, and block storage.

Answers to Big Questions

This article is part of a series of posts aimed at business leaders and entrepreneurs interested in using the cloud to scale their business without wasting millions of capital on infrastructure. Check out the other posts in the series:

The Three Types of Cloud Storage

Object Storage

In cloud storage, the definition of an “object” is pretty simple. Object storage is literally some assemblage of data with one unique identifier and an infinite amount of metadata.

Simple, right? Yeah, we thought not. Let’s break it down into its components to try to make it clearer.

The Data

The data that makes up an object could be anything—an advertising jingle’s audio file, the photo album from your company party, a 300-page software manual, or simply a related grouping of bits and bytes.

The Identifier

When data is added to object storage, it typically receives an identifier that is referred to as a Universally Unique Identifier (UUID) or a Globally Unique Identifier (GUID). These identifiers are 128-bit integers. In layman’s terms, this means that the identifier—the “name” of the object—is a complex number, of sorts. The identifier is so complex, in fact, that it allows for each identifier to be considered unique.

The Metadata

The third and final component of an object is its metadata—literally “the data about the data”—which can be any information that is used to classify or characterize the data in a particular object. In describing the contents of the data, it makes it more easily searchable. This metadata could be the jingle’s name, a collection of the geographical coordinates where a set of digital pictures were taken, or the name of the author who wrote the user manual.

The Advantages of Object Storage

The primary advantages of object storage—and the reason it’s used by the majority of cloud storage providers—is that it enables the storage of massive amounts of unstructured data while still maintaining easy data accessibility. It achieves this capability thanks to its flat structure—by using GUIDs instead of the hierarchies characteristic of file storage or block storage, object storage allows for infinite scalability. In other words, by doing away with structure, there’s more room for data.

The higher level of accessibility is largely thanks to the metadata, which is infinitely customizable. Think of the metadata as a set of labels for your data. Because this metadata can be refined and rewritten and expanded infinitely, the objects in object storage can easily be reorganized and scaled, based on different metadata criteria.

This last point is what makes object storage so popular for backup and archiving functions. Metadata’s unrestricted nature allows storage administrators to easily implement their own policies for data preservation, retention, and deletion, making it easier to reinforce data and create better disaster recovery strategies.

The Primary Uses of Object Storage

The main use cases for object storage include:

  • Storage of unstructured data
  • Storage of large data sets
  • Storage of large quantities of media assets like video footage as an archive in place of local tape drives

The prime use cases for object storage generally include storing large amounts of data. For instance, if your business does a lot of production work in any medium, you probably need a lot of space to store your finished projects after their useful life is complete, but you probably also need access to the files in case you or a client need them again in the future.

Object storage is perfect for use cases that need a lot of space but also relatively fast access because the data doesn’t need to be highly structured. For example, Kanopy, a Netflix-like service for libraries, uses object storage to store 25,000+ videos that users can access on demand. Object storage serves as their application store for serving out videos via a content delivery network.

Object storage works great as an active archive as well. KLRU, the Austin Public Television station responsible for broadcasting the famous “Austin City Limits,” opted to migrate their 40+ year archive of footage into cloud storage. Object storage provided a cheap, but reliable, archive for all of their work. And their ability to organize the content with metadata meant they could easily distribute it to their network of licensees (or anyone else interested in using the content).

The scalability and flexibility of object storage has made it the go-to choice for many businesses who are transitioning to cloud solutions. That said, the relative complexity of the naming schema for the objects—that 128-bit identifier isn’t exactly user-friendly for most of us—and the metadata management approach can prove to be too complex or ill suited for certain use-cases.

This will often lead to the use of third party software like Media Asset Managers (MAM) and Digital Asset Managers (DAM) that layer organizational schema over the top of the object store.

File Storage

For administrators in need of a friendly user interface but smaller storage requirements—think millions of files, instead of billions—file storage might be the answer.

So what is file storage? Much like how files are stored on your computer, files in this schema are organized in folders, which are then arranged into directories and subdirectories in a hierarchical fashion. To access a file, users or machines only need the path from directory to subdirectory to folder to file.

Because all the data stored in such a system is already organized in a hierarchical directory tree, it’s easy to name, delete, or otherwise manipulate files without any additional interface. If you have used practically any operating system (whether Windows or Apple iOS, or whatever else), then you’re likely already familiar with these types of file and folder trees and are more than capable of working within them.

The Advantages of File Storage

The approachability of file storage is often seen as its primary advantage. But, using file storage in the cloud adds one key element: sharing. In cloud file storage, like on an individual computer, an administrator can easily set access as well as editing permissions across files and trees so that security and version control are far easier to manage. This allows for easy access, sharing, and collaboration.

The disadvantage of file storage systems, however, is that if you plan for your data to grow, there is a certain point at which the hierarchy and permissions will become complex enough to slow the system significantly.

The Use Cases for File Storage

Common use cases for file storage are:

  • Storage of files for an office or directory in a content repository
  • Storage of files in a small development or data center environment that is a cost effective option for local archiving
  • Storage of data that requires data protection and easy deployment

Generally speaking, discrete amounts of structured data work well in file storage systems. If this describes your organization’s data profile, and you need robust sharing, cloud file storage could be right for you. Specific examples would include businesses that require web-based applications where multiple users would need to manipulate files at the same time. In this case, a file storage system would allow them the access they need, while also clearly delineating who can make changes. Another example is data analytics operations, which often require multiple servers to modify multiple files at the same time. These requirements make file storage systems a good solution for that use case as well.

Now that you have a better idea of the differences between object and file storage, let’s take a look at block storage and its special use cases.

Block Storage

A lot of cloud-based enterprise workloads use block storage. In this type of system, data is broken up into pieces called blocks, and then stored across a system that can be physically distributed to maximize efficiency. Each block receives a unique identifier, which allows the storage system to put the blocks back together when the data they contain are needed.

The Advantages of Block Storage

A block storage system in the cloud is used in scenarios where it’s important to be able to quickly retrieve and manipulate data, with an operating system accessing these data points directly across block volumes.

Block storage also decouples data from user environments, allowing that data to be spread across multiple environments. This creates multiple paths to the data and allows the user to retrieve it quickly. When a user or application requests data from a block storage system, the underlying storage system reassembles the data blocks and presents the data to the user or application.

The primary disadvantages of block storage are its lack of metadata, which limits organizational flexibility, and its higher price and complexity—as compared to the other solutions we’ve discussed.

The Use Cases for Block Storage

Primary use cases for block storage are:

  • Storage of databases
  • Storage for RAID volumes
  • Storage of data for critical systems that impact business operations
  • Storage of data as file systems for operating systems for virtualization software vendors

The relatively fast, reliable performance of block storage systems make them the preferred technology for databases. For the same reason block storage works well for databases, it also provides good support for enterprise applications: for transaction-based business applications, block storage ensures users are serviced quickly and reliably. Virtual machine file systems (VMFS) like VMware also tend to use block storage because of the way data is distributed across multiple volumes.

Making a Choice Between Different Types of Cloud Storage

So which cloud storage system is right for you? If you have a lot of data that members of a team need to access and manipulate regularly, block or file storage could be useful. Block storage works well for an organized collection of data that you can access quickly like a database. File storage is easy to manipulate directly without a custom-built interface. But if you need highly scalable storage for relatively unstructured data, that is where object storage shines. Whatever path you decide, now you have a sense of the use cases, advantages, and disadvantages of different storage types to guide your next step into the cloud storage ecosystem.


About Patrick Thomas

Patrick Thomas is the head of Publishing at Backblaze. He has managed all aspects of content development and strategy across a number of industries, including literary publishing, gaming, and tech. He has developed and edited New York Times bestsellers and Wall Street Journal books of the year, and written for National Geographic and the San Francisco Chronicle. He loves nothing more than learning, and Backblaze’s steady beat of innovation feeds that love every day. LinkedIn: Patrick Thomas.