Finding room for photos and songs

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Digital photos, MP3 and iTunes music, video clips, e-mail, downloaded bank statements. You might already have a terabyte (1,024 gigabytes) of data at home, scattered across different hard drives, DVD backups and memory cards – and you’ll have more soon.

YouGov, the pollster, calculates there are 2.5bn photos, 2bn songs and more than 20m home movies stored on home PCs across the UK alone. In addition, those working from home will have business information to keep safe; if not, they have irreplaceable digital memories to organise and protect. Digital cameras with more megapixels, IPTV services and HD content mean demand for storage will keep increasing.

According to Paul Talbutt, chairman of Storage Networking Industry Association Europe, the issues are almost exactly the same for businesses. “Whether you talk to a consumer or a big business, they talk in the same way. How do I protect my data – because it has value to me. Managing information as storage grows, data protection, availability of information at all times and security; these aspects apply equally whether you are a major corporation or a home user. It’s just a question of scale.”

The sensible solution is often the same: networked storage.

Hard drives get bigger and cheaper every year but upgrading to a larger drive or plugging in an external drive keeps data locked on to one PC. Switching to network attached storage (NAS) makes it easier to share files, whether that is collaborating on a spreadsheet with work colleagues or listening to MP3 and viewing photos from different PCs around the house. It keeps content private; more sophisticated devices such as Iomega’s StorCenter give users individual accounts and passwords so they can choose to separate or share files.

When data is in one place it is easier to back up and most NAS devices use multiple drives for reliability. It reduces the storage available by a quarter (750GB rather than a full terabyte), but it uses that space to duplicate information so if a drive fails files are not lost.

As well as the convenience of network storage, NAS devices are ideal for backing up existing PC drives. Even next-generation DVD drives such as HD-DVD will only offer 50GB per disc.

Online back-up services protect you from fire or flood, but free services have limited capacity. Services such as Diino (www.diino.co.uk) offer more storage, but charge about £40 a month to store 100GB. And although it does not replace back-up, PC World’s new hard drive recovery service is a lot cheaper than most specialists; all stores now have Data Recovery labs that charge from £99 to retrieve files from a crashed hard drive.

NAS is common in business networks but has not appealed to many home users in the past. Seagate’s Rob Pait believes that is partly because of higher prices and partly because it has been seen as a high-end business solution. “People understand what a personal video recorder is, they understand what a PC is; they have less of a concept of what a home server is.”

Falling prices, rising disk capacity, the continued growth of home networking and the increase in digital content are changing attitudes. Research from Diffusion Group predicts the market for home network storage will more than double this year and again next year. Although larger capacities are available, 1TB is proving the most appealing size and several 1TB NAS devices designed for the home are now available, mostly priced under £600.

Iomega’s StorCenter can be treated as a 1TB hard drive that can be connected by Ethernet or using the built-in Wi-Fi, and comes with back-up software for copying information from PCs.

But it is also a media server that can be used with any media adapter that uses UPnP to play music, videos and photos on TV or hi-fi. Plug in a USB printer and it becomes a print server. It is a file transfer (FTP) server, and so can access files when you are away from home. Product manager Joseph Saroukhanian expects to add the option to stream media over the internet, so users could see their photographs on a friend’s TV screen or listen to their own music from work.

The Home Server version of Buffalo’s TeraStation can also stream media within the home, to any device meeting the DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) standards Intel is building into VIIV media centre PCs. It is an FTP and printer server too. For business users who do not need the media and printer server options, the TeraStation Pro is slightly cheaper and uses SATA hard drives which offer higher performance.

For anyone looking for more space, Buffalo has 2TB versions of both TeraStation models. Intel’s SS4000-E Entry Storage System is similar to the TeraStation Pro and also offers up to 2TB.

Seagate’s Mirra Sync and Share Personal Server includes automatic backup from PCs, secure remote access via Seagate’s own website and guaranteed recovery of data if a hard drive fails. The company also offers the largest capacity for an external hard drive – 750GB in a vertically mounted case that takes up very little space.

The budget option, for those prepared to do a little more work, is to buy a bare-bones NAS device and fit their own hard drives. Netgear’s £70 Storage Central can take two drives, giving the choice or more storage or duplicating the data for security; D-LINK offers the similar Wireless Network Storage Enclosure for a single drive, although they can be extended with external USB drives and it is also a Wi-Fi access point.

NAS devices are flexible and convenient, but more services will make them even more useful. Although files stored on a NAS drive can be indexed with a desktop search tool it will duplicate the index on every PC that connects to the NAS drive. Iomega is working on content management software that would work with Mac OS, Windows or other search tools to help locate networked files more efficiently. A NAS device centralises your files; in the future it might help you organise them too.

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