Strategies for the Future of Digital Content Storage

1Executive Summary

Storage demand for digital content has exploded in recent years, what with consumers collecting and creating it in unprecedented amounts. Digital cameras, for instance, now produce five or more pictures per second at three, four or more MB each; HD camcorders capture video at 720p or better.

Much of this content is currently stored on the PC hard disk or a USB/Firewire-attached external storage device. Tech-savvy consumers might also utilize a multi-terabyte network-attached storage (NAS) device, such as those from Netgear, HP and Buffalo, though this device has yet to hit the mass market.

Separated from this user-generated content are recorded TV shows, movies and other offerings from cable and satellite service operators. The de facto means of storage here is the personal video recorder (PVR). But there is no way to use PVR storage for anything but movies and recorded TV. Conversely, there is no way for other digital content storage, such as a NAS, to be utilized for recording and storing TV shows.

Storage Inefficiency: Idle Gigabytes

The above examples represent how inefficient storage today is, but the list continues. Video service providers can only make use of the hard disks embedded into set-top boxes. They do not — or can not — take advantage of the countless gigabytes of otherwise idle storage in the PC. Instead they are literally giving away a hard disk for every TV in your house in order to sell their digital commercial content wares. Similarly, maintaining storage in the PC is equally inefficient, since “expansion” means throwing a device out and replacing it with something that has more capacity.

But the real elephant in the room is backup. By and large, people don’t back their files up. For those that do, the most common means of doing so is to buy another hard disk and use some backup software. Once again, the inherent redundancy that is possible when multiple storage volumes are available is not leveraged to put those idle gigabytes to work, and the user experience is not what it could be.

These inefficiency and usability gaps are becoming apparent to the businesses that rely on consumer-grade storage for work, and the issues at hand represent an opportunity for companies in a position to improve storage capabilities. Inertia alone is what is keeping the status quo.

Repurposing Storage for Convenience, Security

Today’s storage is directly connected to PC, TV or video service provider infrastructure. But in the future, storage will be connected to the network and the Internet. Conceptually this describes an environment where each NAS device is embedded in an infrastructure utilizing all available storage to create a single storage space. Think of search agents aggregating results as though the Internet were one contiguous space, then apply that idea to a consumer’s private stash of content. Consumers will, in the future, organize their content in a virtual space not defined or constrained by individual storage volumes.

Examples of such dynamically scalable and redundant storage exist right now in enterprise. One is the 3par “Inspire Architecture.” Another is the Drobo line of products (pictured) from Data Robotics, Inc. Those products have embedded flexible storage capabilities in a disk crate that is transparent, dynamically expandable and redundant. Disk crates can also accommodate a number of randomly sized storage devices. Intelligence in the Drobo crate stitches, or re-stitches, the available hard disks into a single volume.

One distinguishing feature of this approach is that there will not be a single storage device dedicated to a single appliance or application. Video services that provide PVR capability, for example, will do so using the available storage in the home or the cloud — from USB drives to solid-state drives to spinning storage — without sacrificing convenience or content security. Convenience is achieved by allowing consumers to organize their content as they see fit and having it available wherever and whenever they want it; how and where it’s stored will not be of any concern. Security is achieved through robust protection at the file level, not the data transport level. Losing control of a file does not result in losing any secrets.

Redundancy will exist by virtue of there being more than one storage device and by utilizing future versions of technologies — such as that of 3PAR and Data Robotics — to manage the distribution of data across all visible storage elements. The presupposition is that any one of these elements may disappear (e.g., a USB thumb-drive may get unplugged), but since no one disconnect leads to data loss, all visible storage elements can be used. An example of this is unplugging a drive from a Drobo box. Nothing happens to the data, but the box immediately reweaves the stored data across the remaining drives so that a second removal does not result in any data loss. The idea of such technology isn’t such a bold prediction. It is merely a repurposing of existing technology to consumer applications, which has been happening since the Apple II was introduced.

Home Storage is Here to Stay

There is the ongoing question about in-home versus cloud-based storage, but the reality is that the future holds both; home storage isn’t going anywhere. CE devices like cameras, smartphones and portable music/video players are shipping with 16GB or more now. Moving a couple of 15GB HD movies into your portable video player, for example, will always be faster when done through a gigabit home-network than from the cloud, so storage in the home is here to stay.

Business Drivers for Consumer Mass Storage

I posit the above scenario is inevitable, but the business drivers are not apparent yet. They include a number of factors:

  • Efficiencies in storage (i.e., making all of a consumer’s storage available for any and all applications that need it) will lead to cost reductions to the service provider and the consumer.
  • Photo archiving and sharing, VoD from Internet streaming and download sites and home-music libraries will continue to extend their reach across the mass market. This will increase demand for new and replacement storage devices and services.
  • Data loss, something that today consumers only find out about if it happens to them, will cease to be a concern.

The missing pieces needed to move toward scalable, efficient, redundant and secure consumer storage are big. They include substantially greater integration of hardware, software and services across vendors. And while this is no small feat, history is beginning to tally levels of cooperation and integration not previously seen. One example is text messaging. At one time cellcos considered texting to be a lock on customers when they restricted texting to only those having the same service provider. But when texting across services became available, the technology as a business exploded, making a bigger pie for all. Phone number portability is another example. In this case, government regulation mandated that consumers be able to keep their number when they switched services. Accomplishing this took years of effort and cooperation, but now you can move any number between any two carriers, including landline-to-cell phone transfers. For content and service providers to leverage available storage for their business advantage, similar levels of cooperation will be needed.

Working against the ideal are increasingly “good enough” solutions that make consumers feel their needs are met. A great example of this is Apple’s Time Machine and Time Capsule. Compared with the alternatives, these products are easy to set up and use and they allay the consumer fear of data loss. Similar offerings will appear in the near-term, but the current landscape forces consumers to choose a specific proprietary solution, such as Apple’s, and buy into it. These investments are lost if the consumer chooses to jump ship to some alternative storage management and backup ecosystem, proprietary or not.

Because storage is so important to consumers and the businesses that sell and deliver digital content, search, accessibility and backup capabilities will be “built in” to a broader range of devices. There will eventually have to be a consolidation, which will result in a consumer storage ecosystem such as I describe above.

If consumer storage is invisible, expandable, accessible, searchable, secure and safe, then it will truly hit the mass market. Companies who deliver anything that stores, such as hard disks, or anything that needs to be stored, such as commercial movies, will benefit from this ubiquity. Commonality and consistency of consumer experience will mean that consumers will know how to easily support themselves or each other. Support for making this will be far less necessary than it is now. The business drivers are below the radar now, but they are there, and the consumer storage industry is headed towards its inevitable conclusion. It’s just a question of how long that will take.

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