Need for a personal server? iServe?

Posted on February 18, 2008. Filed under: Apache, Leopard, OSX, Servers, Software | Tags: , , , , |


Consumers are increasingly investing in three forms of digital content (content that lives primarily on hard drives):1) commercial content, such as music, TV shows, and now movies; 2) personal content, such as photos and home video; and 3) hybrid content, commercial or public content that consumers have recorded or downloaded, such as TV shows saved on personal video recording (PVR) devices like Tivo and content downloaded from Internet sites like Google Video.

For consumers embracing commercial, personal, and hybrid content, two challenges are rapidly emerging:

  • Massive storage needs. For some content, such as music, each song file is relatively small (perhaps 3 or 4 megabtes (MBs)), but a collection can take up many gigabytes (GBs) of storage. For other content, such as movies, files can each be multiple gigabytes (e.g., the file for the movie Pirates of the Caribbean from Apple Computer’s iTunes Store (iTS) is 1.6 GB; a recent episode of the TV show Battlestar Galactica from iTS is over 480 MBs; the movie Superman Returns from Amazon.com’s Unbox download store in “DVD quality” is 2.9 GBs). And as high-definition content becomes the norm, the file sizes will only increase.
  • The use, management, and distribution of content. Many households have multiples PCs (we use the term PC to mean a computer running Windows, Mac OS, Linux, or any other user operating system), and many consumers also bring home notebooks and other portable computers supplied by their employer. Each of these devices may be purchasing and storing digital content, and many of the downloaded files are locked down by various digital rights management (DRM) technologies, such as Apple’s FairPlay, that set the rules for how the content can be used and distributed. Added to the mix is the the growing personal content, such as multi-gigabyte photo databases and video repositories. In households with adults and kids, these issues will become critical very quickly.

Media center PCs and external hard drives won’t cut it; a home server is needed

The storage issue is the first challenge most consumers face as they embrace digital content. Even those with modest music and photo collections can quickly find their primary PC unable to cope with the gigabytes of content. Unfortunately, many consumers may also experience the downside of unprotected digital content if that central PC has a hard drive failure or files are corrupted. And as consumers experience the ease of buying and using digital downloads (e.g., quick delivery and instant access without fumbling with physical media), they will also face the issues around DRM and device authorization limitations.

These experiences have or will lead consumers to look at two potential solutions:

  • Media management and distribution on media-centric PCs. Both Microsoft and Apple market products aimed at the consumer interested in a media-centric PC. Microsoft currently sells Widows XP Media Center Edition 2005 software (soon to be upstaged by various flavors of its next-generation operating systems, Vista) that includes technology for recording TV shows, displaying photos and videos on TVs, and linking with other devices, such as the company’s Xbox 360 game console, using Media Center Extender technology. All of Apple’s consumer-oriented products, such as the iMac, Mac mini, and MacBook offer somewhat similar technology for remote display of content (notably, Apple does not offer its own PVR software). In addition, Apple recently announced plans to deliver “ITV” (a code name), a set-top box that connects to TVs and plays digital content wirelessly streamed from Apple software. ITV is expected sometime in Q1 of 2007 (see this Engadget article).

  • More storage by buying high-capacity hard drives as part of new PCs or in external packages. Hard drives are relatively cheap these days. It is not uncommon to see home PCs with 250 GB drives, and external hard drives that rely on USB or FireWire connections are also relatively inexpensive (a 500 GB external hard drive may cost anywhere from $200-300). They are also simple to use — just plug them into most PCs and the storage is available.

The problem is that neither one of these solutions address the storage and media management challenges effectively. Media-centric PCs are about making one PC the center of the household media experience. They don’t provide a way to easily distribute and manage content, playlists, and related databases among consumer devices. And larger, single hard drives most likely won’t provide enough storage for the household, they are tied to a PC, and they don’t have any “brains” — i.e., they lack software and tools for managing content. They are just big, dumb filing cabinets. And as many home PC users know, relying on a single drive with no backup plan — which is the case for most consumers — is a disaster waiting to happen.
Some technophiles have invested in network attached storage (NAS) devices, essentially high-capacity, multiple drive appliances that adds storage to any network. Others have bought multi-hard drive disk arrays that plug into a single PC. Again, while these solutions offer plenty of storage, they aren’t designed to overcome the challenges of consumer content management.
Instead of media center PCs or larger hard drives, we think the most sensible solution is a dedicated home media server that combines lots of storage with the required software brains to intelligently and seamlessly manage consumer content of all types.

What a home media server needs to do

A home media server is a lightweight server designed to store, stream, sync, and manage a household’s complex portfolio of digital assets. It is not meant to be used as a computer. It will be tucked away in a utility closet or hidden behind closed cabinet doors in the living room media center. Ripping CDs, buying TV shows online, and editing photos will be handled by other household devices. The home server will:

  • Store content by auto-syncing with and backing up other devices. On the surface, the primary job of the home media server is to simply store files. But manual storage or rudimentary backup plans are not enough. The server’s software needs to be tied into the media applications on other household devices. When a PC in a kid’s room buys a show, a copy of the file will be copied to the server’s hard drives. Periodically, the server will run a backup program that culls connected devices to discover new files, such as family photos, that need to be archived. In other cases, a consumer may choose to ensure that all files of a certain type are only on the server. Either way, the media server becomes the central repository of the household’s digital horde.
  • Distribute content using streams or file transfers. Some content needs to be on a device, such as a notebook computer (a consumer may want to watch a TV show or listen to certain music while traveling), while other devices only need to access a content stream from the server. A home server would enable consumers to choose whether to move large media files and collections to devices, leave most files on the server, or make those decisions based on the capacity of each device.
  • Manage content –including DRM files — on devices and by accounts. In the two previous bullets, we talked about examples where consumers would determine how content was stored and accessed. This management function of the server will also be critical in terms of DRM content. If the music industry, for example, insists on keeping the 5-device limit on audio file use, the server software could be used to easily authorize or deauthroize devices. Also, the server could be configured so that some content, while household owned (by the “super” or Admin account), is restricted to certain users. In addition, it could manage multiple user accounts, each with their own authorization, so that siblings’ content was managed, but kept separate.

How Apple could do it: The “iServ” concept

Two companies are likely to lead the home server charge: Apple and Microsoft. However, since Apple dominates the digital download market for audio today, and since they have direct control over their PC and server hardware products, we will focus on what it could deliver. Also, Apple is continually looking to innovate with its consumers offerings, and the idea of an “iServ” media server seems very reasonable given the company’s history.

Image of Apple iServ concept

Inside the iServ

The server would be built around these concepts:

  • User upgradeable storage. The iServ would offer bays of hot swappable hard drives, perhaps up to 1.5 terabytes in a three-drive configuration. The large storage would provide a central repository for content as well as enable household backup of data on various other Mac, PCs, and digital devices. The iServ could ship with a single 250 GB drive; consumers would got to the Apple Store or order additional drives online.
  • Automatic syncing of household digital content. Any device on the network that buys a song, TV show, or movie from the iTS will inform the server of its purchase; a specialized iTunes iServ app will make a copy of all content purchased on authorized household systems. This copy will serve as both an archive, as well as a source for streaming or copying the file to other authorized devices.
  • Streaming access to content. Besides enabling simple backup and transfers, iServ would be hard wired or use wireless connections to directly stream content to other computers or the forthcoming ITV set-top box. For example, when a mom purchases a copy of the Office on her laptop, the device will notify and transfer a copy of the file to the iTunes server app on the iServ. Without any extra effort, the family can then access the show from the FrontRow interface on the ITV box.
  • Remote management of the iServ. The home server could be used in a headless fashion — controlled by a remote Mac — or with a local monitor. The iServ Remote software would enable the household administrator to set policies on content access, such as restricting streams or transfers of explicit content. From this remote console, a consumer could authorize and deauthorize household devices and otherwise manage FairPlay digital rights management issues.
  • Additional household software. Just as Apple offers complementary — but secondary — applications for its iPods, such as games, the iServ could offer its own complementary software, such as a server-based family calendaring solution. In addition, an iPhoto server app could archive, backup, and enable local distribution of family photos.

Could Apple really do it? Is it a realistic product? Yes, because:

  • Consumers might want it today, but they will need it tomorrow … Consumers will bump into a wall as they buy more and more digital content. Managing DRM files and swapping them to various devices will become increasingly frustrating, as will authorizing and deauthorizing systems. Losing content to a hard drive failure will make any consumer interested in a seamless backup solution. Overall, the iServ would make digital content ownership much easier.
  • … and Apple already has most of the pieces. The box itself could be basically a Mac mini with drive bays. The hot-swappable bays are technology Apple is familiar with in its Xserve and Xserve RAID offerings (the vendor calls them Apple Drive Modules). The iCal Server is already being developed for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard Server. The core technology for remote manage already exists in Remote Desktop, and Backup and iSync technology have already been built.Apple could leverage its Core Animation development technology to create easy-to-use but powerful iServ management tools and apps. Other OS X Server features that could be utilized include Software Update Server, allowing a household to stay on top of Security Updates and other patches. Non-needed server features could be hidden, such as Open Directory and Xgrid. The most work would come from creating an iTunes and iPhoto server app.

Finally, what about price? An interesting Apple product that costs too much can fail (e.g., the Cube). While this note is not the result of detailed research on component pricing or likely acceptable consumer price points, we can make some assumptions based on current Apple, competitive, and peripheral products:

  • iServ with one 250 GB drive, Mac OS X Server (iServ Edition) and iServ apps – $999
  • Additional drives – 250 GB for $150; $500 GB for $300

With budding demand and the technical capability, we just have to wait and see how long it takes Apple to build and sell an iServ.

By: Tom Rhinelander, NRG Analyst

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