The last few years have seen a trend in which technologies embraced by major cloud players, such as Google and, become commercialized and spread to mainstream enterprises. One example of this is HP's (NYSE:HPQ) Moonshot line of servers, which seeks to emulate the stripped-down, power-conscious servers of hyperscale Web companies. Similarly, Hadoop, an open-source technology based on Google's research, is being increasingly championed for enterprise analytics by OEMs such as IBM and EMC (NYSE:EMC).

Now, it seems that something similar might be happening with storage. In particular, a number of companies are offering commercial versions of object-based storage, which has been a key component of cloud platforms such as Amazon's AWS for years. Let's take a look at the object storage market and whether industry giants such as HP and EMC can successfully bring this technology to general enterprise users.

The difference with object-based storage
Object-based storage is an alternative to traditional file-based storage, the kind that can be found on a typical PC or notebook computer. The difference is that object storage does not have a directory hierarchy, which tends to scale badly with huge amounts of data, nor a fixed file format, which limits metadata that can be stored with the actual content.

Instead, objects (which can represent text, images, video, or any other kind of content) are stored on disk along with arbitrary metadata, and can be accessed by a unique identifier. Also, unlike files, objects are not modified in place, but are deleted when a modification needs to be made, and a new, modified version is written with a new identifier.

Object storage is not useful for data that changes frequently, or for imitating a file system, but it offers benefits in cloud-like deployments. In using a simple identifier, rather than a directory hierarchy, it has powerful scale-out capability, so that additional storage nodes can easily be added to increase capacity. Also, by avoiding in-place modifications, multiple copies of an object can easily be maintained in different locations, providing redundancy and faster access.

Lots of big and small players
Several major OEMs are in on object storage. EMC has offered object storage products for a number of years, and the company claims that its Atmos object-storage platform currently has over 300 enterprise customers. A more recent entrant into the market is HP, which introduced its object storage, StoreAll, in 2012. Dell, NetApp, IBM, and Hitachi also offer object-storage solutions.

However, a number of smaller companies are also providing competitive products. IDC released a report on the object-storage market in late 2013, and of the five companies that it marked as "leaders" in the industry, only one, EMC, was a large OEM. The others, such as Cleversafe and Scality, are niche players that focus exclusively on object-based storage.

What this means for investors
IDC forecasts object storage to grow faster than the overall storage market, and to be worth an impressive $22 billion by 2017. However, this figure includes in-house efforts such as those at Google and Amazon. Commercial sales by companies such as HP and EMC are expected to account for a much smaller part.

This is a general problem with selling cloud technologies, as the companies that are most likely to benefit from them are already developing them in-house, or are relying on open-source efforts. Smaller object storage vendors might thrive by catering to niche market segments, and might eventually be acquired by the larger OEMs. However, it seems that, for companies like HP and EMC, the object-storage opportunity is ultimately limited.