March 21, 2006 4:00 AM PST
Networked storage heads for homes
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Basic external drives can back up data, but NAS systems offer more abilities.
ReadyNAS NV models from start-up Infrant Technologies have rich feature sets, including USB ports that automatically slurp up digital photos or let printers be shared among many PCs. They accommodate four drives that protect data through RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks)--RAID 1 for two-disk configurations and RAID 5 for three- or four-disk configurations.
With RAID--as opposed to the JBOD "just a bunch of disks" arrangement--all information is preserved even if any single drive crashes. However, using RAID reduces drive capacity, because some goes to data protection.
Infrant's customers are split half-and-half between small businesses and computing enthusiasts, said marketing director Sam Feng. Many technology fans use their systems to stream audio or video to others on the Internet, he said.
All about sharing
Hard-drive makers such as Western Digital and Seagate today have single-drive NAS systems, which are branded products that do more and cost more than bare hard drives. For those companies, the sales pitch is all about sharing.
"My son rips the CDs for us and then stores it on the NAS box. My husband does the editing of all the family photos. He stores on the NAS box so we can all take a look at it. He's paranoid about people being able to access his machine," said Sherri Besser, director of marketing in Western Digital's branded products group.
Western Digital is more cautious than some in predicting home NAS take-up. It initially thought the 2006 holiday spending season would be the time for consumer NAS, but it now thinks mid-2007 is more realistic. One problem is price: "You've got a processor running around in there with lots of memory, so it's a lot more expensive," Besser said. Another is that media-centric technology such as Intel's Viiv PC technology is still in its infancy, she added.
Seagate, another drive maker, dipped its toes into networked waters when it acquired Mirra in September. Its Mirra Personal Server products back up data stored on several PCs, though it's not a full-fledged standalone file server and works only with the Microsoft Windows operating system right now. One key feature: The owner can send an e-mail invitation to another person on the Internet who then is given authenticated access to a section of the Mirra system, said Brian Pridgeon, the marketing manager for Seagate's branded solutions.
Iomega's Williams sees even more potential for NAS's Internet connections. For example, a system could automatically log in to the Flickr photo-sharing site and upload pictures during the night, when it wouldn't burden networks. Or it could automatically copy data to Iomega's online backup service.
Iomega sells single-drive systems only right now but soon will release new models. "We'll be announcing in the March-April time frame both double and quad-series StorCenter units," Williams said. He expects street prices to be $400 and $800, respectively, and the four-drive system should reach 2TB capacity in the third or fourth quarter.
Consumers want their music and video available to many devices, but it will be up to NAS makers to make the technology easy enough to use that its promise is fulfilled, Baker said.
"If all that content is on individual gadgets or PCs, how do I access it when I want it? Consumers don't like to be constrained," he said. "But they want it to be easy and effective. That's the part we're struggling with."
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