Pieces of you

Pieces of you

With personal data being created and tucked away across a myriad of devices, what kind of storage solutions will be in homes of the future? And will resellers be needed to pull it all together.

There are little bits of you and about you spread across just about every digital device in your home, office and on your person. From your email inbox and the memory stick floating about in the bottom of your briefcase to the hard drive on your printer and the black box on top of your TV.

A photo here, document there, an MP3 play-list elsewhere, it's all adding up to a 40 per cent compound growth rate for the creation of digital data, according to IT industry research group, Forrester.

At the same time as we're busily generating demand for digital storage, the combined efforts of boffins throughout the world during the past decade has seen data density storage capacities on readily-obtainable media multiplied by 75.

Increased data density means we can store more on less - which is why your average mobile phone offers more digital storage than NASA had access to for all of its data when sending Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969.

The upshot of such increases in data density is that digital storage is now readily available, and easy to integrate into just about any device. And when it comes to devices, sales are booming in just about every sector.

According to retail tracking outfit, GfK, Australians spent $7 billion on 40-50 million digital devices for the home and office. Whether we're talking cameras, game consoles, mobile phones or PDAs, internal storage has been a key driving force behind the improved functionality which has made these gadgets so desirable.

But once the memory stick is packed, and the internal storage stuffed - consumers will be filing into their computer shops, asking for new and innovative storage solutions.

Here today, gone tomorrow General manager of Brisbane-based Computer Alliance, Adam Oswald, envisages a distant future where personal data is stored throughout the world thanks to solid encryption and advanced distributed systems. But he is quick to point out where personal storage is in terms of current sales.

"The old floppy is gone, and we are selling tons of USB drives, but there is no fundamental shift in terms of the way people are looking at storage," he said. "Some people are starting to get used to the idea of a slightly distributed style of storage if they have a home LAN set up, and are accessing data from different computers, but there's no real change in the market yet."

Storage analyst for IT research group IDC, Graham Penn, said the current market for consumer storage is playing into the hands of companies like Seagate and Western Digital. Those companies have found a whole new market in creating internal storage options for emerging devices.

As for the channel, he said opportunities existed for those who manage to create easy-to-use indexing systems which enabled consumers to access data stored across a range of devices via home networking.

"Some people are adopting these sorts of management systems already, but there is always a lag between the early adopters and the average consumer," he said. "The biggest challenge at this stage is that sharing storage across a LAN still has to be set up manually. Simplification is going to be required before it is really going to take off."

And he seems to be right.

At one end of the personal storage market sit shops like Computer Alliance that know, more or less, how to share data from disparate devices over a home LAN. However, Oswald is of the opinion that until someone comes up with a widely accepted operating system which integrates data from disparate devices, it is probably more work than it is worth.

At the top end of the market, IT integrators and home automation specialists, OMC Austral, offer a fully integrated digital home, connecting a range of audiovisual, games, and computing devices, thanks in part to internally developed data management software.

But the technology has come at a cost and sells for a premium.

"People are spending $100,000 with us to put these systems into the houses they are building, so the main hurdle is still probably the price," business administrator, Paul Harrison, said. "We have spent a lot of money developing the technology ourselves, and it is not easy to create a system which has access to a lot of different technologies and brands. A lot of people are out there trying and getting it wrong. That just throws a spanner in the works."

Ultimately, Harrison claims the digital home will be adopted along the same lines as the integrations currently carried out by OMC Austral, whereby data stored across multiple devices are connected and centrally controlled.

"If you've got the home network up and running you have the option to copy all your files to a central server, but really there's no reason to if you can get access to them anyway," he said.

But wait there's still more And while the distributed, networked vision for personal storage seems popular, hardware vendors are covering their bases by moving small business solutions into the home space.

In August last year, HP hit the market with a Personal Media Drive designed to be used in conjunction with the HP Media Center PC. Offering 160GB of additional storage, the drive was marketed to store 2600 hours of high-quality digital music recording, up to 180,000 digital photos or up to 160 hours of standard-quality TV. Networking vendor, Netgear, is about to release the SC101 Network Attached Storage appliance designed specifically for the home network.

Its director of service providers and partnerships, Ryan Parker, believes reseller opportunities lie among the thousands of Australians looking for easy and safe ways to store and share digital media files.

"People want to get access to their photos and music across the network - and if they have ever lost any data they will also want to make sure their information is safe," Parker said. "In the longer term, this data security aspect will drive more centralisation because it allows for redundancies and for the other hard drives on the network to be mirrored onto the storage unit."

However, like others in the industry, Parker concedes the key to home storage is to make data management and access feel simple and seamless.

"The whole idea is for the box to be invisible to rest of the network, so the end-user doesn't have to think about where the music they are playing is located on the network," he said. "It just runs as though it were on the attached device. Then all the data is centralised, and can be backed up across a broadband connection if necessary."

Iomega country manager, Scott Dillon, is also casting a cursory glance at the personal storage market. He said home users would be increasingly interested in data security, especially as people gathered increasingly precious data like photos and home movies digitally.

"It's no longer just data, it's memories," he said. "They need to be easily retrieved and they can't be replaced."

Unlike the centralisation naysayers, Dillon believes a market for centralised systems will develop among home users looking to easily back up their precious data.

Rewritable CD and DVD technology, the favoured home archiving option at this stage, is fraught with poor quality media and general ignorance concerning appropriate storage requirements. Based on data captured by miniscule pockmarks burnt into photosensitive dye, even the most precious, and carefully stored, memories will have faded beyond retrieval within a decade.

Dillon said resellers need to understand the applications and limitations of different sorts of storage technologies in order to create the best bundle for customers.

"Astute resellers will be proactively asking customers what they want storage for when they approach the counter," Dillon said. "Then they have the opportunity to tailor a storage and backup solution, which the customer probably hadn't even considered."

Taking a collaborative approach, Iomega is looking at integrating Foldershare software into its home storage products.

This will enable end-users to specify who gets access to what data on the home network, and even offer Web-based access to information.

"Personal storage is not just about hardware, it's about software as well," Dillon said. "We will offer a network attached storage device. It will look pretty for the home market and it will have Foldershare software as well, which gives the user touch-free backups and enables them to decide who can and can't access that data either via the home network, or through the Internet."

Managing expectations While the fully networked digital lifestyle is still a long way off for most consumers, there are a series of factors combining to bring it into fruition in fits and starts. IDC's Penn characterises the home storage environment as a series of separate stories, referring to the diversification of devices which offer storage of personal data and info. However, there are also developments going on outside the home, which will enable not only increased delivery of digital material, but also improved access to offsite storage options.

CEOS managing director, Jonathon Spring, said providing communications infrastructure in new developments was increasingly the norm.

"In reality, there are greenfield development sites all around the country where optical fibre is installed in the construction phase," Spring said. "These will provide quality high-speed Internet right into the home."

Moreover, Spring predicted improved communications will lead to an increased use of eLearning and digital media services. This in turn should drive the need for personal storage.

"Consumers don't care about infrastructure, they care about the services they can get access to," Spring said.

However, director of managed storage provider, DYO Backup, Carmelo San Gil, said there were already opportunities for resellers to boost sales by providing offsite personal storage solutions. Selling predominantly into the SOHO environment, San Gil claims the DYO approach could also do well in the home space so long as personal storage is sold on the same grounds as antivirus software.

"We protect our customers against loosing material to viruses, but don't protect against hardware failure," he said. "If people are backing up at all, it's onto an old PC, or optical media that is likely to fail. We're talking about photos and music, but we are also talking about a lot of important financial and personal information, or school projects that might have taken months of work."

Luckily, resellers don't need to make a specific decision to integrate devices, centralise storage or resell managed services.

According to Forrester's, the sheer bulk of the data we are compiling will open up opportunities for a range of different solutions in the home space during 2005.

While the bulked up appliance approach is predicted to remain dominant for some time, Forrester believes appliance-based systems will prove slow and complex when compared to the centralised approach it claims will ultimately win out.

But whichever way you look at it, there is money to be made.

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