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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.

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."