File storage and object storage are two ways to store data, and share large amounts of storage. Both have benefits and drawbacks, so how are they different? Well, the main differences between the two are the access protocol, performance, scalability, and the consistency guarantees they offer. But before we dive deeper into the differences and why they matter, we need to first understand what file storage and object storage really are.
File storage, sometimes referred to as NAS (network attached storage), is exactly what you may think it is. Much like how you store a file on your computer, file storage is where data is stored in a hierarchical folder structure. You can move files and folders around and also set access permissions on a folder for everything inside. In contrast, objects exist in a flat namespace. There are no folders and also no hierarchical access control. Let’s look at the major differences between the two storage types:
File systems are often accessed via NFS (network file system), and other more efficient binary protocols optimized for low latency and binary data transfer. In contrast, object storage is accessed via Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP, making it very easy to access objects through a range of applications, including web browsers. Web browsers can directly access objects on an object store, e.g., downloads or images. To access a file from an NFS or other file system, you need a webserver to serve the data from the file system via HTTP.
The HTTP protocol is text-based, making it slower and more expensive to process than the file system protocols. However, object storage can be great for easy access, but it’s not well suited to high-performance, low latency applications which can be a problem. A truly unified storage system should allow you to access your files/objects via both protocols at the same time. That way, applications, and users can choose the tradeoff that makes sense for them.
Another design goal for object storage was scalability; that is why object storage has a flat namespace, whereas POSIX file systems have a hierarchical folder structure. Modern distributed file systems, however, have overcome the scalability issues of the hierarchical structure. Similarly, Amazon added methods to their S3 object storage standard to mimic file system hierarchies. As it turns out, humans prefer folder structures.
Today, there is hardly any difference in scalability between an object storage system and a modern file distributed file system.
What is a Distributed File System?
What is the Network File System (NFS)?
The Battle is On: SAN vs. NAS vs. Object
Quobyte's Unified Storage
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