Comprehensive storage

2008-02-17

in Economics, Geek stuff, Internet matters, Security

Your average active computer user has more and more data. The first computer I effectively administered had 170 megabytes of hard disk space. Difficult choices had to be made about the relative merits of Doom versus Simcity. Now, just my primary email account has 1500 megabytes of data in it. I have 15 gigabytes worth of photos I have taken (all since 2005) and 20 gigabytes of music.

All this has been made possible by dramatically falling storage prices, combined with the spread of broadband internet. Soon, I expect that this combination will reach its logical conclusion. Right now, people are constrained by the size of their smallest hard drive, as well as by the difficulty of accessing larger remote drives. Eventually, I expect that most people will have a multi-terabyte disk connected to the internet at high speed and securely accessible from virtually any device in the world over the internet. The biggest question is whether this will be an ‘answering machine’ or a ‘voicemail’ solution.

The answering machine option is a big disk purchased by an individual consumer (perhaps a rack of disks, so that cheaper bigger ones can be added to the array as they become available). A company that made three things easy would have a license to print money. The first is integrated ease of use. iTunes music on the big disk should be immediately accessible from a person’s laptop or iPhone, provided they have internet access. The same should be true for saved television shows, photos, etc. The second is effortless backup. It is perfectly feasible to have a disk that is big enough to ensure that the failure of any one component does not lead to any loss of data. The third is security. The big disk should be secure enough against outside attack for use in storing commercially sensitive materials; likewise, the connection between outside devices and the disks should be secure. Probably, this means different levels of access for different sorts of devices, managed through a good user interface.

The voicemail option is to leave all the kit to someone else and just buy a service. Lots of companies are moving towards this model. In many ways, it’s a lot more efficient. Maintaining adequate but not excessive space for a million users is easier than doing the same thing for one; there are also economies of scale, since you can have specialists do all the technical work. The downsides of this model are mostly security related. You need to trust the service provider to keep your data safe. You also need to trust them not to apply arbitrary constraints on how you can use it, as Apple has sometimes done.

I predict that most people will use the second model exclusively, and will pay little or nothing to do so. More technically savvy people will run their own drives, but will probably use external services for (free) unencrypted or (subscription based) encrypted backup. Personally, I can’t wait. External hard drives have the feel of a 1980s solution, rather than one that is aware of the potential of the internet.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

tlaing February 17, 2008 at 5:55 pm

I think external harddrives are wonderful. I realize that in practice it is difficult to store essential data off board, but I think this is a temporary problem. On the other hand, laptops like ours which do not allow easy hard drive replacement are becoming a thing of the past. I don’t think I will buy another primary computer on which I could not change the hard drive myself.

I would much rather be reliant on hardware at my house, than on shoddy internet connections. Also, with data somewhere else it is less private than it is here on a harddrive, by default. It is easy to destroy data on an external hard drive, very difficult on a server somewhere in michigan.

Milan February 17, 2008 at 6:06 pm

Also, with data somewhere else it is less private than it is here on a harddrive, by default. It is easy to destroy data on an external hard drive, very difficult on a server somewhere in Michigan.

For generic mp3s and video files, I’d rather have them on the computer in Michigan, especially since I might not notice that one is corrupted or missing for months.

The potential need to destroy data only really pertains to a small subset of highly sensitive stuff, which most people could probably fit on a USB stick.

R.K. February 18, 2008 at 9:59 am

Copyright is one potential spanner in the works here. Hard drives that can be accessed over the internet may be attacked by copyright holders looking to see if their work is being stored in an unlicensed form. In the ‘voicemail’ scenario, you can bet that movie studios and music production firms will be serving legal papers to the people running the server farms.

tristan February 18, 2008 at 4:45 pm

I don’t know if anyone else cares about this – but I like the idea that my data will still be here if the internet disappears. Recent outages in far away lands have made it clear that the internet can, in fact, go down. I don’t have a backup generator, I admit.

On that topic – does anyone know if there exists a backup generator that doesn’t require petrol? I’m thinking of something like a car battery, an inverter, and an exercise cycle for charging.

tristan February 18, 2008 at 4:47 pm

A cycle is perhaps overly complex and large – a hand crank would be more appropriate.

There is the “one laptop per child” program – which has such a charger built into the computer. I’m beginning to think that since laptops have their own batteries, there is likely no requirement for a heavy car battery – only a hand crank charger that can be attached to your power adapter.

Milan February 18, 2008 at 4:57 pm

There is the “one laptop per child” program – which has such a charger built into the computer.

The original design of the OLPC provided a hand crank for charging the battery, but this was not included in the final version. The production design has a nominal 12 volt power socket (usable range of 10-15 volts) that functions with any power generation system that can charge a 12 volt car battery.

Milan February 18, 2008 at 5:36 pm

Power from the people

Feb 7th 2008
From The Economist print edition
Now you can recharge things just by walking around

“On the face of it, that sounds like a recipe for making walking difficult. Surprisingly, it is not. Although the leg muscles perform “positive” work when they accelerate the leg forward to begin a step, when the leg straightens at the end of the step they perform “negative” work as they slow the leg down. If the generator in the harvester were connected during the accelerating phase the process would, indeed, be expected to increase the load on the muscles. But if it were connected only during the decelerating phase it would impose no load. It might even make things easier.

To test this idea, Dr Donelan recruited six volunteers, attached harvesters to their knees and put them on a treadmill. With the generators in the harvesters engaged all the time, walking produced seven watts of power. When the generators were engaged only during deceleration, however, they produced almost five watts (enough to power ten mobile phones simultaneously). Moreover, in that second case, the amount of extra energy used by walkers wearing the harvesters was insignificant, since the harvesters were absorbing energy that would otherwise be dissipated as heat—which is exactly the principle used by regenerative braking in a petrol-electric hybrid car. “

. February 27, 2008 at 11:16 am
. September 4, 2008 at 6:01 pm

Two racks, each the size of a modest refrigerator, each holding north of a petabyte’s worth of information. These are the PetaBoxes, the Internet Archive’s web-in-a-box systems. Designed as a shippable backup for every freely shareable file anyone cares to upload and hundreds of copies of everything else, too, they betray the archive’s US origins in the strip of American-style electric outlets running down one strut, a column of surprised clown-faces Fed-Exed from across the ocean. A couple of other things set them apart. Each rack draws 12 kilowatts, whereas a normal rack at the facility draws 4.5 kilowatts; the drive-housings are covered in a rather handsome fire-engine-red enamel. Apart from that, the PetaBoxes are just another pair of racks.

Yet housed in these machines are hundreds of copies of the web — every splenetic message-board thrash; every dry e-government document; every scientific paper; every pornographic ramble; every libel; every copyright infringement; every chunk of source code (for sufficiently large values of ‘every’, of course).

They have the elegant, explosive compactness of plutonium.

. September 4, 2008 at 6:03 pm

A supercomputer on every desk

At the same time, technology is sometimes a great equalizer. For instance, the world wide web lets virtually anyone with literacy and moderate wealth speak to a worldwide audience. The range of capabilities is also narrowing in other areas. For example, Wal-Mart supposedly has about 583 terabytes of sales and inventory data stored at its headquarters. That sounds impressive until I remember the 1 terabyte drive sitting on my desk. It cost about three days worth of after-tax pay and serves the major purpose of protecting my data from the failure of the disk in my main computer. At a moderate personal expense, I have 0.17% of Wal-Mart’s storage capacity.

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