Hey, the way gas prices are going up and NAS prices are coming down, this isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. Gartner Dataquest notes that the smallest segment of the NAS market, systems that cost less than $500, has exploded over the past two years, and more than 500,000 such microstorage systems–nearly 90,000 TB of data storage–are forecast for 2006. These are largely one or two drive systems, no data redundancy, so no self-respecting storage geek would trust their MP3 collection to one, but 90 Petabytes?!? Amazing.

Regular readers know that one of my enduring interests is the expected commoditization of storage the way every other aspect of computing has over the last 10 years. Call it a bottom-up revolution (Google is the best hope for a top-down revolution — more on that in a few days). Besides the volumes (500,000+ this year!) in the microstorage market there are other signs that a tornado is beginning.

  1. Management interfaces have standardized, in that they all offer similar functionality and ease of use. As this review on sub $5000 NAS servers notes:

    The process of setting up the file system on each test NAS system varied little, and each system came preconfigured with all four hard drives set up as a parity-protected RAID 5 array. The rest of the process involved logging in to the Web management interface, setting up a static IP address, creating folders on the system’s root directory, enabling CIFS and/or NFS protocols and setting up user access permissions. . . . [A]ll five test units used surprisingly similar management interfaces–with help screens and setup wizards for inexperienced users.

    Obviously the technogack would give Ms Joan Q. Public hives. But with a little more programming these ugly wrinkles can get smoothed out, much like WiFi set-up.

  2. The surprising range of low-cost flash drives and small disk drives (see The Limits of Flash) have created a cognitive bridge from the hidden disk drives in PCs and laptops to the visible disk enclosures of NAS boxes.
  3. Digital multimedia in the home and digital communications in the SOHO are creating a “need” for massive amounts of data storage. I have 30GB of MP3 and less than a quarter of my CD collection digitized. Small businesses need simple backup and small network file servers, both of which small NAS servers could provide.
  4. And finally, chip performance has reached the point where even cheap NIC/server combos offer adequate performance. As they noted in the Network Computing review quoted above:

    Our test scenario simulated 12 systems hitting the NAS at the same time. That’s a heavier load than you’d expect in a typical office, where network data access is much more sporadic, but it was large enough to see some differences in how the systems handled the stress.

    As Innovator’s Dilemma noted, capabilities that overshoot the market are a signal that a disruptive technology could undercut the current leaders.

These facts point up the extent to which NAS boxes are poised to move into the OfficeMax type retail channel.

But who is going to put it there? Most of the current leaders like Buffalo and Snap are too small and lack the consumer brand mojo to put it across. Dell won’t for obvious reasons. EMC and Sun lack the consumer credibility. IBM has bailed on retail. That leaves HP as the logical candidate to do for branded network storage what they did for printers, especially network printers.

HPs server and PC market share is dropping. Dell is currently eating their lunch in low-end storage with the Dell/EMC and PowerVault products. But HP has the distribution and the consumer brand clout to put NAS into every store that sells printers today. Getting setup and tech support right won’t be easy, but the win would be huge.

They’d have to draw marketing talent out of Boise instead of Colorado Springs or Houston, since the printer folks get the consumer market and the storage folks don’t. But with a family of external NAS servers ranging from $100 to $800, HP could do very well.

Maybe they’d even do a gas station promo.