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Files on a home computer could soon be accessible from anywhere, even when the computer holding them is switched off, thanks to a prototype file-synching system developed at Microsoft’s research labs.

The system is designed to demonstrate an alternative to a growing array of cloud services. “One of our underlying principles is that you don’t always want to put all of your data in the cloud and give it to Google or some other corporation,” said Michelle Mazurek, of Carnegie Mellon University, presenting the technology at the Usenix File and Storage Technology conference in San Jose, California, last week.

Cloud systems can synchronize data between computers to provide access from anywhere, but users have to plan in advance which data they want to sync, and they have to trust a third party with their files.

Mazurek and researchers at Microsoft’s labs in Cambridge, U.K., built an alternative in the form of a simple application that makes all the data on one of a person’s computers visible and accessible from any of their others. The user’s devices act as personal cloud servers, and the software, called ZZFS, uses a novel hardware trick to wake up desktop and laptop computers that are in standby or sleep mode. This means that a file left on a closed laptop sitting on the couch at home can be retrieved from work.

A user can use the Windows Explorer file browser to see all the files and folders on other computers with ZZFS installed. Applications like Microsoft Office and iTunes can open those files normally, once they have been retrieved over the Internet.

A piece of hardware called Somniloquy is the reason this system works. The USB device, which acts like a smarter version of an ordinary network card that connects a computer to the Internet, can wake a sleeping computer and retrieve data from it before powering it back down. It has its own low-power processor and a few gigabytes of storage to cache files sent its way while a computer wakes up.

Mazurek believes that the overall design of ZZFS can be more accommodating of the spontaneous—some might say disorganized—way most people manage data spread across many devices. “Users don’t always know or plan what they need to have ahead of time,” she said, alluding to the fact that cloud services cannot sync all of a person’s data, so users must choose what is backed up.

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Tagged: Computing, Web, cloud computing, data storage, Microsoft Research

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