Networked storage heads for homes

Storage companies are betting that a technology once reserved for businesses will appeal to consumers juggling many PCs and shared files.

Storage companies are betting a technology once reserved for businesses will appeal to consumers dealing with large files shared by multiple PCs and a need for data protection.

Get ready for network-attached storage for consumers. With NAS, standalone disk storage systems are accessed by a PC over a network rather than being plugged directly into a computer's USB port or internal drive bay.

Seagate Technology, Infrant Technologies, Western Digital, Iomega, Intel and others have begun selling networked storage devices that cost between $200 and $2,300 and include as much as 2 terabytes of capacity--roughly eight times that of a high-end PC. Advocates acknowledge that right now, the devices are best suited for technically savvy folks, but they're speculating that a larger market of less-sophisticated buyers will follow in coming months.

"I do think it's going to break out of the early adopter niche, and the timing is going to surprise people. In this holiday season coming up, you're going to see some movement in these products," said Lee Williams, Iomega's vice president of product generation. "Where we originally anticipated being in single-digit thousands, we're now looking at double- and triple-digit thousands for the year."

Growing needs for storage space, data protection and file sharing bode well for consumer NAS. Digital photos, video and music gobble up gigabytes of storage space. That data is increasingly valuable--think irreplaceable wedding photos--which makes backup important. And sharing information makes sense, as home networks with multiple PCs today expand to include stereo and video electronics.

NAS for consumers

But there's also a big problem. NAS isn't simple. Home system and network administrators could be forced to contend with storage jargon, too, such as RAID 5 or JBOD, which refer to ways to configure multiple drives.

"When do we get to a point when everything backs up easily and connects into the network easily?" NPD Group analyst Stephen Baker asked. "We're not at that point with basic computer hardware. To expect to connect this (storage equipment) on an easy basis is tough."

Other challenges for consumer NAS include competition with simpler external drives connected by USB and with Internet backup services. The systems also can come with price tags that far exceed the cost of an entire higher-end PC.

A tough sell
Take David Looby, a San Franciscan who works for CNET sister site GameSpot. When 400GB worth of his audio and video vanished in a hard-drive crash, he became a prime candidate for NAS vendors singing the praises of data preservation. But Looby isn't convinced.

"I'm probably just going to stick with an extra drive to back up my big drive," he said. Another alternative would just take time. "There's no reason why I can't take a few hours and burn some DVD backups," he said.

External hard drives are simple, increasingly popular and a much bigger market than consumer-oriented NAS products, Baker said. In 2005, retail sales of NAS products totaled just $10 million, compared with $357 million for external USB hard drives.

Consumer NAS advocates recognize the challenges but have faith that the market will develop.

For example, at the Intel Developer Forum in March, Intel announced its SS4000-E, also code-named "Baxter Creek." The NAS product is offered to Intel's business partners to sell under their own brands. The four-drive product is best suited to small businesses, but Intel decided to aim for a broader market.

"This initially wasn't even intended to be a consumer product," said Hans Geyer, the general manager of Intel's storage group, but discussions with individuals and product resellers convinced the company to change course. "This is an early starting point, but it's definitely something very appealing for the higher-end, more-sophisticated home users that have several PCs on a network and in many cases have connected that network to their home entertainment equipment."

Typically, NAS systems can readily communicate with Windows, Mac OS X and Linux computers, and new Universal Plug-and-Play standards could help NAS work hand-in-hand with consumer electronics equipment.

The price of NAS will be easer to swallow when consumers realize the cost of data loss, Geyer said.

"Say I've taken pictures of my newborn baby. Three years later, my hard drive crashes, and I've lost the pictures of my newborn baby. Or you have purchased songs from Apple (Computer) iTunes at 99 cents. Once you've downloaded 1,000 songs, you've spent $1,000. Your hard drive crashes, and you've lost $1,000," Geyer said.

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