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The shrinking cost of data storage

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The IBM PC was introduced 25 years ago in August. It came with one or two 160 kilobyte floppy drives for data storage. Two years later, IBM released the PC XT, with a then jaw-dropping 10 megabyte hard drive. At that time owners couldn't even contemplate what to possibly do with all that storage capacity.

Since then, Moore's Law (which says that processor density will double every 24 months) has held for microprocessors as they steadily increased in power. But an equally important and possibly even greater advance in technology can be found in hard disk drives. Today, you can purchase 1 terabyte (TB) of storage for under $500. A terabyte is equal to 1 million megabytes, that's 100,000 times more storage capacity than the original XT. In 1983, each megabyte of disk space cost close to $100. By 1995 that had dropped to $1;  today it costs a fraction of a cent.

And a darn good thing, too—whether you're a home or business user, your file storage requirements have exploded at nearly the same rate. If you're considering what kind of additional storage to purchase, the time has come to look at network-attached-storage (NAS). A NAS device is different from traditional file servers and also from external hard drives. It's an appliance with a bare-bones operating system and multiple drives that's specifically configured for data storage management and sits on your network.

The whole point of the NAS device is allowing you to centralize your data and protect it. Much like a file server, it enables you to take your mission critical data buried on individual computers and instead keep it all in one place for everyone. The NAS also provides a range of RAID options. Without getting too technical, RAID is a standard that provides different levels of automatic data redundancy. For example, RAID level 1 is disk mirroring, which writes everything you save to two different hard drives at the same time. RAID level 5 writes the same data more efficiently over multiple drives along with control information, allowing you to reconstruct the contents of any drive were it to fail.

As a standalone device on your network, the NAS can be accessed by any PC or device on the network if you've assigned them permission. Compared to files servers, a NAS is easier to manage, control and keep secure. And with 1 terabyte models (with four 250GB drives) available for under $1,000, it's not just the most practical solution for many, but also the most cost effective.

Small-business and home users will most likely be interested in models for about $1,000, such as the Infrant ReadyNAS, Buffalo Terastation, and Linksys EtherFast NAS. These and most others provide flexible security options for individual users and groups, but it pays to check the capabilities. Some also allow secure remote access over the Internet as well as print server capability. Home users that plan on piping music and video around the house may want to consider looking at models that are DLNA-compliant, which is a new standard aimed at making it easier to connect and use home multi-media devices. Offices with 20 to 100 employees will most likely need more storage space and additional technical features, but can still find great options for under $5,000.

But having a NAS device doesn't excuse you from the need for backups. While a RAID configuration can provide superior protection against drive faults, with all your files centralized it's even more important to have a robust backup process. But it's easier now, with all your critical data gathered in one place, you can efficiently backup to tape, DVD or even another NAS.

I recently installed one in my home office serving the half-dozen or so PCs I have sprinkled around the place. I found it reasonably straightforward and encountered no significant issues. Now my burgeoning music and photo file collections are easily accessed from any location, and all my business data files are secure in a central spot.

There's an old saying that you can never be too rich, too thin or have too much hair. If we add never having too much storage, then with my new 1 TB NAS at least I'm thumbs up on one out of four.

Roman Lubynsky is a technology consultant based in Boston. A frequent speaker and writer on technology topics, he has an MS in Management of Technology from MIT.

Roman can be reached at roman@lubynsky.com

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