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Intelligent Machines

How to Make Your Hard Drive Infinite

A startup makes your computer’s storage capacity seem bottomless by connecting it to the cloud.

Hard drives are constantly getting bigger, but it seems we fill them up with data just as quickly anyway. The solution may be a small piece of software from a startup called Bitcasa; when you install it, the capacity of your computer’s hard drive becomes, essentially, infinite.

“Look at the bottom of my finder [file browser] window,” says Tony Gauda, one of the cofounders of the company, a finalist in a competition for new startups at the Disrupt conference in San Francisco this week. “It says 18 terabytes available, because Apple’s operating system doesn’t understand numbers any bigger, but I can actually save infinite data if I want to.”

Bitcasa is currently in a limited beta; users pay $10 a month for unlimited storage. The software only works on Apple computers, but a Windows version is in development, and mobile apps for smart phones and tablets are planned, too. “We want you to be able to have one infinitely large store of your files and data that you can access from any device,” says Gauda. “We will be the last storage device or service you ever buy.”

Bitcasa creates the illusion that data stored on distant cloud servers is actually kept on the physical hard drive inside a machine. When that computer’s user opens a file browser window, all files and folders appear to be stored locally.

As a file stored in Bitcasa’s cloud is opened, it is downloaded to the computer as quickly as possible. “The network is good enough that it can be your hard drive now,” says Gauda. “It performs well enough that you won’t notice that we’re streaming a movie to you rather than playing it off your hard drive.”

Bitcasa’s software shuffles a user’s data around to ensure that the most-used files are stored locally, on a computer’s built-in hard drive, to minimize the effects of slow or missing connections. “We analyze how you use your data by looking at things like how old a file is, or when you last used it, to decide what gets put into the cloud, but you can also specify folders that should always be stored locally,” Gauda explains. Holiday snaps from a couple of years ago, for example, would reside on Bitcasa’s servers. A document created last week is more likely to be stored on the computer’s hard drive.

No matter how well Bitcasa guesses what you need, some files must be fetched from the cloud before they can be accessed. Because not everyone has a perfect connection, some users might not get a seamless experience. And if a computer is offline, some files will simply be unavailable.

Inviting people to store “infinite” data requires Bitcasa to provide a lot of storage space. The company plans to keep the expense of all that storage to a minimum by tracking if a file it needs to store for one user is an exact copy of something already being stored in the cloud for someone else—a popular music track, for example. In such situations, Bitcasa needs to store only one copy, Gauda says.

The notion of cloud storage seamlessly extending a computer’s hard drive has already gained considerable popularity in the form of Dropbox. A Dropbox folder on a user’s computer is always mirrored in the cloud, as well as on a user’s other computers. The company provides two gigabytes of storage for free, and 50 gigabytes of storage for $10 a month. Bitcasa says it will offer unlimited amounts for the same price, but the new company might need to introduce premium options, perhaps for businesses, if users chew up large amounts of capacity. Cloud backup service Mozy had to withdraw its “unlimited” storage option earlier this year because it cost too much to maintain.

After seeing Bitcasa’s demonstration at the Disrupt event, venture capitalist Roelhof Botha of Sequoia Capital, which has invested in Dropbox, noted that storing and transporting so much data would be a challenge. “It’s going to be expensive to stream all that data,” he said.

Angel investor Ron Conway said he expected the startup to face stiff competition from Dropbox, now valued at over $1 billion. Conway was one of Dropbox’s early stage investors. Conway added, however, that Bitcasa has already shown off technology that could set it apart. “The thing that caught my eye was the streaming video,” he said. “That seems really difficult for other services to do.”

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