Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Preserving personal data

4-slot Drobo
I've just started using the first product from the latest company of someone for whom I have great respect, serial entrepreneur Geoff Barrall. His previous company was Data Robotics, now Drobo after their product. I made a small investment in the company and have been using Drobos ever since the initial beta program. Geoff's team managed the all-too-rare feat in the industry of packaging up complex technology, in this case RAID, in a form that is both highly effective and very easy to use. Drobos are a wonderful way of protecting your data against disk failures - over the years the three original 4-slot Drobos in my home rack have handled disks filling up and failing with complete composure. They are now max-ed out with 2TB drives for a total of nearly 18TB of usable space; when this fills up I'll finally have to buy more units. Follow me below the fold for details on Geoff's new product.

Geoff and his team at Connected Data have again managed to package complex technology in an easy-to-use form. This time they address the next requirement for protecting your data, off-site copies. The technology is peer-to-peer file systems, and the product is the Transporter. The idea is to allow, for example, an extended family to build the equivalent of a private cloud storage provider by attaching these Coke-can sized appliances to the home networks at several of their houses. Each acts as a file server and synchronizer on the local network, and each can ensure that folders it contains are replicated to one or more remote Transporters. Folders can be private, or shared with authorized users at other locations, or even accessed from elsewhere on the Web.

Because you own the hardware, the data remains in your custody; there are none of the awkward legal issues about transferring confidential or copyright content to a cloud provider. Because you own the hardware, there are no on-going costs (except for about 3W/unit of power), and thus no risk of sudden price rises.

Although the data transfer between Transporters happens in a peer-to-peer network, the peers depend on a central rendezvous service to locate each other and manage the network. In the light of the current Google Reader fiasco, I asked Geoff what happens if Connected Data goes away or loses interest in the Transporter, so this service stops working. He replied that in that case they could open-source their central service software, so a replacement for Connected Data's service could be provided.

I'm initially using my pair of Transporters from Linux, so I haven't yet used their desktop software, which is for Windows and Mac. It makes things even easier by transparently sync-ing local copies of files and folders with the Transporter. Despite this, it only took me a couple of hours to unbox, load disks into, bring up, set up accounts for, and start using my two-node network. One of my Ubuntu machines mounts one Transporter via SMB/CIFS and various cron jobs use rsync to ensure that new or modified data gets there. That Transporter syncs automatically to the other; I will shortly move it to a remote location so as to provide off-site backup.

I could, of course, have hand-crafted something like this using small Linux boxes such as the Raspberry Pi, the same disks, and a cobbled-together Web interface to manage it. I might have saved a little money, but it would have taken me a long time and it wouldn't have worked as well. Especially not for the other family members who will host my off-site Transporter, in return for my hosting their off-site backup copies.

The Register has an informative pod-cast interview with Geoff, including how they used Kickstarter, but he only starts to speak after 14 minutes of self-indulgent BS among the hosts, which you should definitely skip.