How Apple’s End-User Data and Storage Architecture is Evolving

4 minute read
| Analysis

Once upon a time we had a Mac. Or two. We backed them up with an external drive and Time Machine. Then we had an iPhone. We backed it up and updated it with iTunes on our Mac. The digital hub. Simple. However, over the years, our devices and data have proliferated as Apple has expanded its products and services. Today, we’re in flux. Our sync and storage architecture isn’t yet where we hope and need to be.

A warm fuzzy storage architecture

The Apple ecosystem, on the eve of 2017, can be complex. A family may have several Macs comprised of desktops and notebooks. Add to the mix an iPhone for many of the family members and throw in some iPads and maybe an Apple TV, all driven by a cable modem and a wireless router, and one virtually needs a family IT administrator. There are few warm fuzzies.

Along the way, it’s also become increasingly important and convenient to share files, data, notes, documents and photos (to name a few) amongst all these devices. The meme here is that you may be stationary or mobile, using a device that suits your current activity, but you don’t want your data trapped somewhere else. The holy grail would be that all your data is available everywhere, all the time. You merely pick the device and display size appropriate to a given situation. To achieve that, the Apple data and storage architecture probably needs to be simpler, not more complex.

The Storage Issues and the Transition

Today, we’re in a transition phase. The teaser text above describes, if you will, Apple Architecture Phase I. Mac + Time Machine.

Right now, we’re in a somewhat problematic Phase II. Some of our data is backed up on a Time Machine drive and some is in iCloud. Plus, few users appreciate the difference between a backup and an archive, and so it’s often necessary for sophisticated home users to roll their own storage, archival and backup system.

iCloud icon
In any case, iCloud storage is a nice revenue generator for Apple, so one can believe that Apple would prefer to have us back up everything to iCloud. While some embrace this, others have concerns over the costs, ready accessibility, security and (as I mentioned) the archival state of their data.

One easy solution is to manually but elegantly partition one’s data between iCloud, when it makes sense, and local storage. Yet, Apple provides no branded household master storage. That’s what I’ve dubbed the (mythical) Apple Family Storage Server. It’s a RAID 5-class, multiple drive, hot swappable drive system, with Apple’s classic ease of use.  It’s local and can bear heavy loads and high network speeds. Something like a Synology or Drobo device.

Regrettably, these Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices can be intimidating and/or beyond the financial reach of many. It’s easier, unfortunately, to put one’s head in the sand, back up to iCloud, and hope for the best. Surely, Apple will take care of everything.

It seems Apple has little motivation to produce a device like the AFSS for several reasons. As I mentioned, there’s the end user cost and the administration, even with Apple’s legendary UX/UI experience.  Plus, backups in iCloud are, essentially, safe, off-site storage. Still, one is faced with the prospects of paying perpetually for access to one’s own data. However, once you’ve gone all in this way, it’s convenient, simple and tempting to remain there.

Apple’s Long Range Plan

There are several factors at play in a what seems to me, Apple’s long range plan. Call it Phase III. First, the architecture of Apple’s new file system, APFS, doesn’t appear to provide for the traditional back-in-time mechanism of the current Time Machine architecture. (I could be wrong.) It’s probably no coincidence that we’ve heard about the rumored demise of Apple’s Time Capsule on the eve of 2017, the year APFS is expected to be rolled out.

Second, Apple’s inattention to desktop Macs suggests a Pollyanna future in which we have an iPhone, iPad and MacBook/Pro, all very mobile and all very lightly loaded.  (I’d like to be wrong.) In fact, the MacBook line could merge with the iPad at some point, not as a toaster-fridge, but as an elegant device heretofore unforeseen. All that lightly loaded data could be backed up to iCloud.

Technical professionals or families with terabytes of important historical, research or creative work can typically find their own solutions in their quasi-home-work business environment. It appears that Apple doesn’t believe it can earn the big money catering to their idiosyncratic needs. And yet, Rene Ritchie’s Horn Effect could still come back to bite Apple.

To first order, it certainly seems like, as Apple’s products and services expand greatly, the company has backed away from a more modern, all-encompassing local and remote hybrid syncing structure that services all our devices. For example, it would be technically cool if Apple were to provide a first tier of fast, accessible, reliable, secure local RAID storage backed by an intelligent second tier of inexpensive archival data in iCloud. But that probably won’t happen. The iCloud alone, as it stands, is simple, almost magical and maintenance free for the customer. But that gives pause to some.

Finally, a younger generation of iPhone users has much more modest data needs. In fact, for many, an iPhone is the only device they need and can afford. It contains their whole life. And so, it’s realistic to expect that Apple, ever looking forward, isn’t going to work really hard to cater to legacy users. One things is certain, however.  It’ll be a gradual transition. Somewhere on an Apple engineer’s whiteboard is the current and future state. And the migration strategy.

Fortunately, there are many companies that are eager to cash in on the holes in Apple’s product architecture today. They can provide solutions where Apple no longer does, be it workstations, routers, displays, or storage.

Time will tell if a simplifying, long term vision by Apple will be profitable or whether Apple’s inability to grapple with, sustain, manage and service its vast ecosystem for a wide range of users leads to fractures that can cripple in the long run. We’ll just have to watch where Apple goes with it all.

One Comment Add a comment

  1. John its obvious that the long term goal for apple and other companies is cloud storage. As you rightly pointed out a lot of today’s users don’t use the large local storage option. The main issue is infrastructure. Until unlimited / fast data access is pervasive, cloud storage will always be somewhat of a compromise. Also Apple’s ridiculous pricing for cloud storage has to come down. I use Backblaze for offsite backup storage and feel the $5 a month price for unlimited storage is a good price point. The other point is the high cost of always on data. Cell providers have data caps and not the bandwidth to support a truly always on, fast and unlimited architecture.

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