Here's a new saying I'm trying to popularize: "Storage is like arugula—you can never have too much of it!". With so many of us committing our personal memories—photos, home movies, and music— and large amounts of home- and work-related data to hard disks these days, data storage has never been more essential to the healthy home-computing environment. Not surprisingly, hardware makers have responded over the past year with a dizzying array of storage products that meet every need and price point. In 2007, storage might very well surpass wireless networking, broadband Internet access, and email as the most important technology we access in the home.
A Forthcoming Solution
Not surprisingly, Microsoft is pointing the way with a Windows Home Server (WHS) product that won't debut until late in the year. WHS is revolutionary and will probably be a huge hit with the type of people who read Connected Home Express. What's most fascinating about WHS is that it's focused not on digital media sharing, as you might expect (although it does, of course, offer that kind of functionality), but rather on storage.
You can read all about WHS in my Windows Home Server Preview on the SuperSite for Windows, but suffice it to say, the product provides a number of useful features. First, it provides automated backups of every PC in the house (Windows XP Service Pack 2—SP2—or later), using a new patented image-based backup format that will let you resuscitate the entire system, specific drives only, or even individual files, all through an extremely simple UI. You can even navigate into point-in-time backups and pull out individual files, through a standard Windows Explorer window. Second, WHS offers an almost infinitely expandable pool of storage, thanks to a unique configuration that does away with drive letters on the server: All storage that you add to the system—be it internal (e.g., ATA, SATA) or external (e.g., USB 2.0, FireWire hard drives)—is simply added to the pool of available storage. Third, WHS will offer remote access to the server and all your connected PCs (XP Professional SP2 or later) through a simple Web-based interface and a custom Windows Live domain name that Microsoft will supply.
WHS offers numerous other features, including network-wide PC health monitoring, the aforementioned digital media sharing through Windows Media Connect, and a "headless" design that removes the need (or even the option) of using a keyboard, mouse, and display with the server. Best of all, enthusiasts will be able to purchase WHS as a software package that they can install on their own hardware or as a complete server package from major PC makers such as Dell.
The downside, of course, is that WHS isn't available now, and it won't be for many months. And that's a shame, because WHS's revolutionary backup functionality should remove the primary problem facing most connected homes today: Although we rely on hard disks to store our personal and professional data, few people are making regular backups to ensure against hardware disasters or other calamities. The time for action is now.
What You Can Do Now
In late 2004, I purchased two 1TB Lacie Bigger Disks, which utilize 800Mbps FireWire 800 connections for speedy transfers. I still use these hefty disks (which are really four 250MB drives in a single housing that appear to the system as one 1TB disk) for weekly backups, and I keep an offsite version at my parents' house to avoid data loss in the event of any kind of fire, theft, or other disaster. I've been pretty good about this weekly backup regimen, although I sometimes let it go as infrequently as every two or three weeks. And yeah, I do have almost a terabyte of data to back up, thanks to the many videos I have and almost a decade's worth of work-related backups.
I'm guessing your data needs aren't as dramatic as mine. And—lucky for you—smaller, less expensive options are now available. When I purchased the Bigger Disks over two years ago, they were $1000 each. Today, Lacie offers a similar product (with more connection types) and the same 1TB of storage for about half that price. But if you don't need a terabyte, you can save even more. Western Digital's My Book line of external hard-drive solutions are surprisingly inexpensive and cover a wide range of storage sizes. Just be sure to get two, perform regular backups, and swap the drives out into two physically disparate locations. Ideally, you can keep one outside of your house. (Several years ago, I would give my wife backup CDs to bring to work, for example.)
Of course, backing up is drudgery, and your best bet is to get a solution that performs the task automatically. For a number of reasons, I recommend Microsoft's Windows Live OneCare, which is inexpensive ($30 or less), can be legally installed on as many as three PCs, and includes a number of useful PC security features. However, its backup module is particularly excellent, and it supports external hard disks, CDs, DVDs, and—in the latest update—network storage.
Windows Vista users can also take advantage of that OS's excellent backup features, which include an image-based backup (similar to that offered by WHS) that backs up the entire system, letting you resuscitate the PC if anything goes wrong. However, Vista won't be available until the end of the month.
Incidentally, if you're looking to duplicate other WHS features, you could of course use Microsoft's excellent Windows Media Player (WMP) 11 to share digital media from any PC in your house. Or, if you're an Apple iTunes fan, that application can also share media, such as music and video, although iTunes has to be running for sharing to work. With WMP 11, sharing is a system-level service and is always enabled. Also, WMP 11 works nicely with the Xbox 360, so you can stream music from your PC to the video game console, which is likely connected to a nice TV set and your home stereo.
There are also good remote-control solutions for PCs, such as GoToMyPC and Log Me In. I use Log Me In Pro and recommend it, but it's pretty expensive (about $70 per year for a single PC). I suspect I'll be switching to WHS when that ships, but Log Me In has gotten me out of jams when I've been on the road and have needed a certain file from my home PC. Hey, it's better than calling the wife and walking her through the file transfer over the phone.
Finally, you might also look into remote-storage solutions, in which you lease storage on an Internet server and back up to it. Some examples include Zdrive, iBackup, and Xdrive. Most offer free 5GB accounts, as well as larger storage allotments with monthly or yearly fees. Microsoft and Google are reportedly going to come online with solutions this year as well.