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The digital age has given us access to vast amounts of data, available through a multitude of online devices. We use dozens of different services on a daily basis, reaping the benefits of near-instantaneous data availability. However, making these services constantly and promptly available is becoming more challenging by the minute. Deployment of new apps and features requires ever-increasing storage space for the massive data they rely on. Correspondingly, the nature of usage and development of these digital services seems to be aggressively favoring cloud-based solutions. Thus, a new debate emerges: should you use Amazon S3 or local storage, and what to look out for? Here we cover the pros and cons of both options to help you make your storage choice, but first…

What is object storage?

Essentially, object storage is a type of computer data storage that allows you to store huge amounts of unstructured data. It differs from other storage architectures such as file systems and block storage, and its use is becoming more widespread. Stored objects almost universally include the data itself, followed by metadata and a globally unique identifier. This translates quite well into services requiring large amounts of images, videos, audio clips, or shared files. Think Facebook, Spotify, and Dropbox. Now, object storage is done locally or via cloud-like saving a photo on your phone versus on iCloud. However, note that all the corporations mentioned above need to serve millions of users simultaneously… and lightning-fast. On the other hand, there are businesses that don’t require such a huge scale, and they can opt for local storage. 

Let’s see what these two storage options have to offer, and which types of users would benefit from them.

Amazon S3 – anywhere, anytime

Amazon S3 (Simple Storage Service) is a cloud-based service whose main strengths are time-saving, security, and ease of use. Developers and IT teams like to use it because it’s intuitive, accessible, and allows for quick manipulation and deployment of objects. S3 comes with a rather elegant web service interface, which adds another layer of practicality in everyday use. The users simply select the appropriate location for storing their data. Immediately after, they create a storage bucket and deposit their objects inside, with the ability to access them anytime. 

Amazon S3 Pros

  • Scalability – Often enough, file transfer servers are highly dependent on physical (hard) drives, which limits their space by default. For this reason, server admins tend to impose quotas or mandate regular archiving to save space. If a server maxes out on data, you need to add more hardware and this can result in downtime. Amazon offers virtually unlimited storage, and you won’t have to worry about guessing how much space you’ll need. For stuff you won’t likely use anytime soon, there’s the Amazon Glacier low-cost archive storage option.
  • Availability – Local storage brings an ever-present fear that the hard disk you’re storing your files on could crash. Not only that, but your server could also crash and you won’t be able to access your files. Amazon S3 meets the availability threshold upwards of 99.9%, which virtually guarantees timely access to data.
  • Backup options – Linking to the trait above, Amazon S3 offers easy backup options compared to local storage. It’s fully automated and allows you to access various older versions of your objects.
  • Pay-as-you-store – Amazon’s service is designed in such a way that it doesn’t limit your storage. Instead, you simply pay based on how much storage you use at any given point in time. Regardless of your needs, you’d likely be much better off in terms of cash flow optimization. There would be no need to pay large upfront costs right away if you expect to require large storage consumption. Conversely, if you’re starting small, you can generate great cost savings early on and then increase your storage proportionately as you grow.
  • Regulatory compliance – In case you have specific data protection and storage requirements (such as geographical limitations, for example), Amazon allows you to create regional buckets where you can store your data and be fully compliant within minutes.

Finally, Amazon S3 is quite secure. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean you can’t make your local storage highly secure. However, it does mean that you gain a well-resourced partner in building your security system.

S3 Cons

Using Amazon S3 will result in additional latency compared to local storage. You’ll have to go through the internet every time to retrieve and use them. This latency can increase even more with geographical location distance. Even if your server is running on Amazon EC2, you will experience higher latency compared to physically attached local storage.

Some companies simply do not feel comfortable storing sensitive data outside their organization. Whatever the reasoning, the primary alternative is to use local storage.

Local storage – close to home

Storing your objects locally gives you two major advantages that counter the shortcomings of Amazon S3 mentioned above. You’ll get unparalleled low latency if you hook directly into your local storage infrastructure. Also, your privacy is yours to manage, so you can customize it to meet all your demands and requirements.

Keep in mind that this comes with quite a few costs, of which the greatest is time. You’ll have to deal with all of this directly and there’s no other option. Additionally, local storage does bring a few other downsides with it:

  • Server processing load and size – In some cases, you can’t really anticipate the server load and storage size. Unfortunately, local storage will force you to “guess” this. If your guess is off, you risk running out of capacity at the worst possible time.
  • Accessibility – If your local storage works, everything is great. However, if it fails or experiences downtime, the cause is likely going to be more serious. Resolving this takes precious time.
  • Backup – Organizing backups is not a big deal in and of itself, but you’ll definitely require storage capacity for backup images. More costs, more work.

The verdict – Amazon S3 or local storage?

The Amazon S3 versus local storage debate will continue for the next couple of years. In the end, the needs of your organization will likely dictate which option you’ll choose. Undeniably, business processes and consumer trends are favoring the cloud, and Amazon S3 is the leading choice. So, if you’re just getting started, or you’re expecting to grow rapidly, Amazon S3 would still be your best bet.