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IBM offers data storage alternative

The company announces its technology that lets PCs and servers access computer networking to designate remote disk drives as their primary repository for data.

IBM wants to know: Who needs a hard drive when you've got network storage?

The company announced this week a new storage technology, called iBoot, that lets PCs and servers use computer networking to designate remote disk drives as their primary repository for data, instead of relying on internal hard drives.

Aside from allowing access to greater storage capacity, IBM researchers say using centralized storage instead of internal drives can help companies cut PC maintenance costs, saving on procedures like software upgrades for PCs. And, they say, iBoot could eventually boost server performance by letting manufacturers build thinner, diskless servers that can be stacked more closely together in a rack. iBoot also lets companies remotely boot PCs, without making changes to Windows or Linux software.

Developed by researchers in IBM's Haifa Research Lab in Haifa, Israel, iBoot uses the relatively new iSCSI networking standard, which takes advantage of standard Internet Protocol, to create a link between the PC and the remote disk drive. The PC then uses the remote drive to store all of its data, instead of storing on its own internal drive.

The iBoot technology is similar in philosophy to that used in mainframe computing. But while it centralizes some aspects of a PC, it differs from mainframes or other centralized computers, such as Windows terminals, in several ways, said Kalman Meth, manager of the lab's Network Attached Storage Group.

With iBoot, each PC continues to use its own processor and other hardware, avoiding competition with other machines for shared processing power on a mainframe. iBoot machines are simply assigned storage space on a specific remote disk or shared space on a larger remote drive, allowing people to maintain their own data. The PC's user continues to access or store files as if nothing has changed.

"It's your regular PC. You just have a disk that is physically distant from your PC," Meth said. "The disk looks like it's local."

Companies with typical office environments could use iBoot to save on software upgrades by updating the software on the centrally located drives, instead of fiddling with each PC individually, Meth said. Meanwhile, larger companies, or possibly universities, with call centers could create networks of computer terminals that are pre-programmed to run off of a specific disk that contains selected applications and data.

The technology can be retrofitted to existing PCs for the price of an iSCSI adaptor. Its main components are the adaptor and a software update.

And because the iSCSI standard is backed by several large companies, including Cisco, Hewlett-Packard and IBM, and because it uses the most common computer-networking standard, Internet Protocol, many believe it will eventually become cheaper than current high-speed networking hardware and standards, including the Fibre Channel standard, which uses fiber optic cables.

As a result, adding iBoot wouldn't cost much more than adding a new Ethernet card to a PC.

This, IBM says, along with improvements in computer network performance and the rise of network attached storage, make it a good bet that iBoot will get beyond the research stage and see the light of day.

Over time, iBoot could also influence the design of corporate PCs at IBM.

Manufacturers like IBM could potentially build diskless PCs and diskless severs. By removing the drive, Big Blue could fit more blade servers into a single rack, increasing the computing power in the rack. The company could also potentially create lower-cost, more easily managed PCs.

While it would likely aim at medium-sized businesses to start, IBM sees potential for iBoot in notebooks and consumer PCs.

Eventually, manufacturers could build notebooks with small hard drives used mainly to store temporary files while a user is working remotely, Meth said. Then that user could connect to a disk via a network, once he or she has access to one, in order to update files.

Similarly, consumers might have a small local drive for storage of some data and then connect to a remote storage provider that charged a fee to host their data.

This would reverse some of the trends seen in high-end consumer PCs, which typically come with 80GB to 120GB hard drives to accommodate storing lots of digital photos and music as well as video. With faster networks and technologies like iBoot, consumers could store such data remotely.

IBM would not say if it is working to offer the technology as a standalone product or in future PCs. But iSCSI cards will hit the market shortly.