Problems with Digital Libraries, Multiple Users, and Hitting 88mph

I write this missive as my house undergoes another, albeit smaller than in the past, digital transformation. As with many a digital transformation, this one occurs at a crisis point.

On Monday, I noticed an amber light on my NAS, one that hadn’t lit up in more than a year. The light could indicate a number of problems, all related to the hard drives. After some diligent checking, I discovered the problem – we had hit 95% capacity on the hard drives and the light was a warning that we were running out of space.

Now, running two 3TB hard drives setup in mirrored fashion (Raid 1), 95% capacity was not the indication of an imminent problem, just the gathering storm. The last time that amber light went on was for the same issue, but with a terabyte less space on the drives, and the instance was 20 months earlier (before I got “The Sopranos” on Blu-ray along with its must-be-downloaded HD digital copy of every episode). Our remaining capacity wasn’t going to disappear overnight, but it was going to disappear and a solution had to be figured out.

When this problem first occurred, as may be clear, I went out and bought two bigger hard drives, but my NAS didn’t have the ability to handle even larger ones this time, so that wasn’t a choice. Cloud storage was also out as the cost for the amount required was not feasible (seriously, that may be a great deal if you’re a company, but it isn’t if you’re a person).

I could have opted to get an entirely new NAS, one which could support larger hard drives. Jumping up to two 6TB drives would have doubled my current capacity and rendered me safe for a few years.

That, however, was not an inexpensive choice, so what I did instead was by a single new 6TB drive, slap it into an external case, and use that to backup a now striped (Raid 0) setup on the current NAS. This, as with the new NAS choice, doubled my capacity, but did so for less than half the cost of that option.

Now, I tell you all that because it underscores just one of the difficulties we face in our digital world – space may be substantially less expensive than it used to be, but we need more of it all the time, and we need access to it as well.

Space isn’t just used by the free digital copies I download when I buy a Blu-ray, it’s my children’s baby pictures, our ever-expanding music collection, backups of our phones and iPads, etc. It isn’t world-shattering stuff, it’s just extreme annoyance stuff.

And what really galls me about it isn’t the solution space-wise, it’s the future of it all. When my daughter likes a song and wants us to get it on iTunes we, her parents, end up with a copy, not her. Sure, she can add her profile onto our account for now, but that’s a terrible long-term solution and this digital, should-be-forever, copy of a song will disappear for her at some point in the future. We buy Kindle books and eventually she’ll lose access to those in a way she wouldn’t with a real book as well. And don’t even get me started on just me and my wife trying to work out multiple users in iTunes – they may be making all of that easier and better with each iteration of the software, but it’s still a cumbersome, unwieldy, poor setup.

It requires knowledge and discipline to keep multiple users’ libraries in-sync content-wise in ways that it really shouldn’t. And, as you may be aware, trying to access a large iTunes library from multiple devices is a nightmare which, at least the last time I tried it, regularly resulted in those annoying little exclamation points appearing next to song after song after song. The underlying system feels like it was built without that in mind. Trying to make it happen is like trying to harness the power of a lightning strike for use in your flux capacitor at the exact moment your car hits 88mph. It’s doable, but you may find yourself dangling off a building for a short while, and if the DeLorean doesn’t start you’re really up a creek.

Creating a digital life for one person on one computer isn’t an easy process, but it’s certainly manageable. Once you go past one person and past one computer, it just doesn’t work as seamlessly and effortlessly as it should. I can solve my NAS issues with a little thought, effort, and money, but solving the problem of making sure everyone in my family, including myself, can easily access the appropriate parts of our single digital library now and in the future is something else entirely.

It is one of those things which, from the outside, seems like it should be easy, but also which, I’m sure, a programmer can explain just why it’s impossible. The thing is, in a world where all the pictures we take, songs we own, movies we consume, books we read, are digital, it’s hugely important and I hope someone out there is working on a true solution.

If not, we’re going to wind up disappearing from every photograph we own.

photo credit: Universal Pictures

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