Digitally Bereft Without Snapshots?

We all have heard the warnings that follow the blue screen of death. Did you back up?

With storage getting cheaper by the gigabyte, storage makers are making it all too easy for consumers to back up their data with a sophistication once reserved for businesses.

Amid the explosion of digital media — photos, video and music — chewing through a hard drive these days, storage providers see dollar signs. But are consumers ready to buy into the kind of network attached storage once reserved for businesses?

Seagate thinks so. So does HP, NetGear and a slew of online storage providers. They’re just waiting for more home networkers to pony up. And there is plenty to choose from.

Take NetGear’s SC101 backup unit for shareable, fail-safe network storage with automatic, continuous backup, which enjoys solid word of mouth.

Listing for $149 with a street price just under $100, this network attached storage device is powered by proprietary software called Z-SAN, developed by a company called Zetera.

Z-SAN software has much in common with more expensive offerings in the high-end data center class of SAN . Using the standard network protocol IP, Z-SAN packages your data for a trip across your local-area network to the SC101, then back again. This gives a computer the ability to add more storage, and also to MIRROR  disks within the SC101 network device, or across separate SC101 units.

Not only that, multiple computers can access the SC101 at the same time, providing they are using Windows XP or Windows 2000.

Seagate, for example, offers the Maxtor Shared Storage II network-attached system (NAS), which not only comes in a 1TB  capacity. (A terabyte is about 1 trillion bytes; that’s a lot of space.) It also offers single-drive systems providing 320 gigabytes  or 500 GB of space to store and share digital content on a home or small office network.

The Maxtor Fusion combines the Maxtor high-end 500 GB drive with special software from Fabrik. The unit comes with a disk, and a higher price tag too, up to $800 at retail. But it’s more than a simple storage device.

Using a browser to access AJAX  routines, you can populate and surf to this device with music, video, photos and more: sort of like having Rhapsody, YouTube, and Shutterfly combined on your desktop. It also has a built-in Web server that lets you access your photos, videos and music, not only from your local area network, but with the proper settings on your router and a little set up, from anywhere in the world.

The marketing pitch goes something like this: You can wow and amaze your friends with music tracks, video from the wedding and photos of the holidays all from a box that fits in your hands.

Mike Cordano, the CEO and co-founder of Fabrik, said he was trying to create a unified personal storage appliance when he came up with the Maxtor Fusion. “What we really were after is creating a unified personal storage management environment that allows people to manage all of their personal contact of any media type, accomplishing two goals: both storage and sharing.”

Online Backups, and More

Next week, Fabrik is reaching out to more consumers who may be bereft of backup by extending the functionality of the Maxtor Fusion service with a new service called “MyFabrik Lite.” Unlike its “MyFabrik” storage service, this one’s free.

Both allow you to store, share and organize, also to embed personal media into other services, such as MySpace or a blog, for example. If you go with the free version, and submit to advertising, you get up to 1 GB for online storage. The paid version, which provides up to 100GB, is available for 49-cents per month.

“While many users are looking for a place to store and access their files, there are an increasing number of scenarios when people simply need a service to host and deliver content,” said Cordano

Other companies such as Memeo are turbo-charging their network-attached storage offerings for consumers with enhanced security.

Memeo calls it AutoBackup 2.0. It provides users with “hands-free” back-up and secure access to your content zipping across the Internet. The company teamed up with D-Link to integrate 2-Bay Network Storage Enclosure.

Where’s the Demand?

It’s all a bit rich for Stephen Baker, vice president with consumer research firm NPD. He’s not so sure consumers are ready to flock to the growing array of network-attached storage normally built for businesses. “I don’t think they’re that aware of them, or necessarily understand what they’re trying to do.”

Plus, he added, consumers are still cagey abut how secure their stuff is when it’s on somebody else’s servers. “I think there’s always a concern when people put things on devices that they don’t have control over. There are people who forget about it; sometimes those services are known to cancel and delete all your stuff because you didn’t pay.”

But there’s a paradox, too. NPD does surveys galore with consumers about how they take care of their digital media. The firm’s results show a growing concern among users about backing up and maintaining what they’ve accumulated. It’s just that, for now, they’re going with simple, once-in-a-while backups, rather than a sophisticated server system.

“While we see a considerable number of home networks installed, many realize that a USB hard drive that connects to your PC and does the things a NAS would do does the job cheaply and in a way that most consumers would understand,” Baker said.

That helps explain why USB storage devices and external hard drives are outselling the old-fashioned internal hard drives, he added. Plugging in an external hard drive to a USB port, and dragging and dropping stuff — even if it doesn’t have back up software, seems to buy enough peace of mind for many consumers, for now at least.

NPD said networked storage sales are small compared to USB and other external storage devices. External drive sales are at the other end of the extreme. Baker said unit volume for external drives grew 75 percent on a year over year basis.

“That’s not to say we don’t expect NAS to grow in popularity. It’s a very small market right now.” Baker does see a budding interest in bare storage devices from network equipment makers such as Linksys and NetGear, that are not nearly as advanced as the NAS products and don’t do as much.

But all it takes is a meltdown, or a blue screen of death. “Clearly, no one backs up enough. We know people are concerned about it.”

And still the data piles up, while storage costs keep coming down. When consumers are ready, Baker added, the snazzy backup systems are waiting for them. “We know there are plenty of home networks. At some point, [these backup systems] are going to take off.”

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