Pogoplug: Your data, wherever you are
When word about the Pogoplug hit TUAW central, we debated to see who would luck out and and cover the device. Apart from a few cuts and bruises, nearly all of which will mend in a matter of weeks if the doctors are to be believed, I won. The past few days, I've had the pleasure of road testing a unit. And it's awesome.
The Pogoplug offers a USB NAS adapter, i.e. a network-attached storage system, that gives you network access to your data from home and on the road. With NAS you can use common protocols like AFP and SMB to connect to a remote disk. And you can do so easily. That's a big win, because choosing and setting up these remote devices has been a deal killer for many otherwise interested people. As Brad Dietrich, Pogoplug's CTO, told TUAW, "[Until now], the state of home networking has been too complicated and geeky for most people." Pogoplug provides a simple solution.
What Pogoplug brings to the party is a remarkable ease of use that crosses past any issues of firewalls and port setup and delivers remote storage to normal (i.e. read "non-geek") humans. It transforms remote file access into a consumer device. And best of all, it provides this for just $99.
What is Pogoplug
The Pogoplug is a large white brick, about the size of three iPhones stacked on top of each other. At one end is a power plug, at the other are two connectors: a USB port and a wired Ethernet port. You connect the power, the Ethernet, and attach a USB storage device. You then authorize the device at the Pogoplug website by providing your e-mail address and a password. And that's pretty much it. You're ready to start sharing data.
Pogoplug, through the device and the service that powers it, offers built-in sharing technology, but it is up to you to bring the actual storage to the table. Each plug contains a single USB connector for you to attach any spare USB drive. Your $99 cost remains the same. Want a bigger drive? Attach a monster 1.5 TB unit. Don't need that much room? Supported drives includes thumb drives as well as normal hard drives.
The Pogoplug provides secure access to your drive no matter where you are: at home or on the road. That's because outside your home, you don't access the drive directly. Whether working on your laptop or your iPhone, you connect to the Pogoplug service that negotiates your access. "[Your data] is secure from outside your network," Dietrich explained. "But your Pogoplug trusts you from inside it." This duality provides the best tradeoff for speed and security.
As mentioned, the first generation of Pogoplug uses a wired Ethernet connection and you'll need to attach an actual cable to your router. This provides for greater security and won't allow casual access to your files. Pogoplug customers have, however, asked for WiFi access in the next revision. Dietrich says Pogoplug is considering that option so long as they can deliver it securely and not suffer from configuration complexity.
All Pogoplug connections start from inside your home network. The plug creates a secure outgoing call to the Pogoplug central server. Because that call is sent rather than received, you don't have to configure your routers or your modems to allow this traffic. It works just like your browser does when you connect to a secured site like Amazon commerce. By starting from your home network and making outbound calls, you don't have to fuss around with firewalls. It just works.
All external requests for data pass through the central Pogoplug server. The server handles authorization, allowing or denying access to that data. It's up to you to create invitations that allow users to share files or folders. Invitees are sent a web address and when they open that page, your data is there for them to browse or download.
You can create work related folders, family folders, and so forth. Your invitations limit requests to specific locations and you can revoke that access any time you want.
In addition to the web client, OS X, Windows and iPhone systems can contact Pogoplug directly using a proprietary API. That API is open and fully published; Pogoplug encourages developers to take advantage of its features. If you'd rather not write a client from scratch, and nearly all of us would rather forgo that, Pogoplug offers free software that adds a virtual Pogoplug drive to your desktop. The software works with FUSE (Filesystem in Userspace), letting you mount a virtual NAS-based Pogoplug drive. In testing, the drive was no creakier than any other MacFUSE drive, which is to say you could see the rough edges but that it operated well enough for day to day use.
The big win for this, obviously, is remote access. Having a drive on your laptop desktop that easily connects to data at home means you can edit documents and work on projects without having to sync or otherwise copy data. Of course, that's true for any network drive. What Pogoplug adds is cloud support. It pushes that data access into the real world, away from your desk and throughout the internet. You extend your local networking way beyond your local network.
As iPhones do not support general disk access, the iPhone client provides more general browsing than the mounted drive available to PCs. The Pogoplug app lets you view files, and includes audio and video playback directly from the iPhone. That's really great if you've got enough bandwidth going and you've automated your TV tuner to save a compressed iPhone-compatible version of your favorite shows on your Pogoplug drive. You can watch your movies and listen to your audio on the road.
The client also allows you to copy files from the Pogoplug to local storage, but not much more than that. The iPhone software is pretty bare bones at the moment. Specifically, it's missing the sharing capabilities that Air Sharing and other file-based iPhone utilities bring to the table. If you're out on the road with only the iPhone and you need to share a brochure, business card, or product manual, the current client cannot service that request. And that's a big shame because it would be so easy to integrate iPhone to iPhone sharing, FTP access, or even just mailing out an invitation to share data.
With a $99 cost, the Pogoplug seems like an outright bargain. The problem, though, is that it requires the central Pogoplug server in order to operate. Should Pogoplug go out of business, your unit will no longer work. In other words, you're buying into a service, not just into a device. So will the service be there for the long run?
When I talked to Pogoplug's Dietrich, he assured me that the service costs have been amortized into the purchase price. "Bandwidth is our real cost and we've made conservative assumptions about providing enough room in our margins to accommodate those costs. We know our margins and we know our costs." He assured me that Pogoplug's business plans include enticing new customers into the fold as well as targeting upsales to existing customers. "We have a feature set that keeps expanding."
As for partnering with other companies like media capture specialists Elgato, Dietrich said they've spoken to many of these companies but could not share specific details at this time. "Our business is infinite media at your fingertips and there's currently a big sharing solution hole in the marketplace. Pogoplug helps fill that hole."
So what should happen should Pogoplug go out of business? On their website, they've promised to open-source their proprietary server back-end code, allowing customers to roll their own solutions. It's not an ideal situation but the reality of the business world is that not every company succeeds, deserving or not. Pogoplug is to be commended for thinking through this potential from the ground up.
Although, like TiVo, Pogoplug is marketed as a pure consumer device, also, like TiVo, it's a hacker's dream come true. Pogoplug supports an open community forum for interested hobbyists. Here you can read about logging into your plug via a secure shell, connecting your plug to your TiVo so you can watch your recordings on the road, and learning how to build your own servers.
The Downloads page includes kernel and ram-disk images and drive software for Linux. The forums include general users discussion as well as development-specific topics like treating your Pogoplug as a low cost embedded computer. So while the plug delivers as a consumer device you can install for your Mom, it also offers a level of technology hotness that delivers for hobbyists.
During my time testing the Pogoplug, it has delivered exactly what it promised. Setup was insanely simple. Sharing was easy as could be. Reliability has been right on the mark. For me, it's not really a question of "should I recommend this" or not. I do. Enthusiastically. Instead, it's become a question of how many more ways can I think up to take advantage of a unit whose charms and capabilities are numerous.
Product: Pogoplug, networked storage device
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