Memory Box splits up backup headaches

South Australian distributed backup start-up Memory Box splits up users' data and spreads it in encrypted form across many customers' PCs. But can the company build trust amongst customers who could be worried about their data being stored on other people's hard drives?
Written by Brad Howarth, Contributor

Online backup services have become popular over the last few years, as people realise the sense in having their backup residing in a different physical location to its source.


(Credit: Memory Box Backup)

But history has shown that trusting your data to the hands of a single service provider still may not ensure its safety, especially in the event of a cataclysmic failure. The apparent collapse of online storage company Omnidrive last year is a good example of the potential for problems.

So what if you could store your data in a hundred different locations at once? That is what South Australian start-up Memory Box Backup is proposing with its soon-to-be-launched service.

Memory Box is a distributed backup solution — meaning that rather than data being stored in one location, files are broken into a hundred different pieces and stored in a hundred different locations. It is the brainchild of a team of five former software engineers from Motorola's South Australian software engineering lab, led by current managing director Trevor Glen, who have been working on the technology for five years.

A user selects the files they want to protect on their own drive. The Memory Box service then splits them up, encrypts and compresses them, and the resultant bits of files are distributed for storage on the hard drives of other users. Each user donates the equivalent space on their own hard drive to host data from other users, and also pays an as-yet undetermined monthly fee.

Additional redundant information is added to the data to ensure it can be reassembled — even if some of the devices that it is being stored on are switched off. Glen likens the technology, known as Reed-Solomon error correction, to a way that a CD can be played even if the surface has been scratched. He says Memory Box could lose 30 per cent of its network and still be able to recover 99.96 per cent of its backups.

"On a nationwide network, that's the equivalent to someone wiping out NSW completely, and we'd still be able to recover over 99 per cent of people's backups," Glen says.

And because the data is encrypted and compressed at the time it leaves the customer's hard drive, Glen says even his team cannot see its content. Also, unlike storage services such as Gmail or Windows Live Storage, the Memory Box service will automate the backup process for nominated files on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.

To date the company has been self-funded, with revenue coming from contract software engineering work under the company name Sarugo, and has been helped by a COMET grant from AusIndustry and some training assistance from the South Australian Government. Unlike other storage services companies, Glen says Memory Box has also benefited from not having to invest in a datacentre of its own.

Now, however, he is looking for between $200,000 and $500,000 to help the company through its commercialisation phase.

Memory Box is currently going through beta testing of its new user interface, and Glen hopes that the service might be live by the end of July. He has also been talking to ISPs about reselling the service, and hopes to complete a deal before the end of September. For the moment the website has a form where interested potential users can leave their details.

Timing may work in Memory Box's favour, with ISPs more willing to un-meter specific services on their network to get an edge over competitors, and with networks reaching speeds necessary to make online backup efficient. The NBN will further boost Memory Box's cause, depending on how quickly it is built.

The company got a boost recently when it was awarded the AIIA's iAward for the best start-up of the year.

But regardless of the quality of the technology or the appeal of the service, Memory Box faces one significant potential problem — human nature. To succeed, the company has to ensure that consumers feel comfortable with their data being resident on the hard drives of strangers.

Glen is confident of Memory Box's 128-bit encryption, and points out that only a fraction of each file is sent to any individual hard drive — making it essentially impossible to reconstruct anything meaningful. But he is aware of the potential for mistrust that may sit with consumers.

He acknowledges that there is still a lot of thought that needs to go into the marketing. But that realisation in mind — and the low operating costs for the business — means they may just have a shot at making this work.

bootstrappr opinion: BOOM

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