Digital Lifeboat: Data Backup without the Data Centers

12/20/11Follow @curtwoodward

When the veteran entrepreneurs behind Digital Lifeboat settled on a location for their fledgling company, they weren’t concerned with landing one of the hot tech-startup addresses in South Lake Union or Pioneer Square.

“Our offices are between the cemetery and the trailer park in Redmond,” co-founder and CEO Steve Teglovic says with a laugh. “That’s called being very efficient with our cash.”

Instead, the small Digital Lifeboat team has been pouring its time and resources into developing the software engine for its version of online file backup—including getting patents. Now, it’s a little more ready for primetime.

The startup recently added $1 million in financing to round out a $3 million round that originally was filed with regulators last year. Investors include Mercer Island, WA’s Keeler Investments, San Francisco’s Catamount Ventures, and angel investor Brian Finn. The company just ended its nearly yearlong beta testing phase, and is now open for new paying customers—”Basically, it works now,” Teglovic says.

Digital Lifeboat’s product is an online file backup service, offering consumers a place to securely save copies of their important documents and other digital treasures. Big deal, right? There are plenty of companies offering similar services already, including EMC/VMWare’s Mozy, which is based in Seattle, and Boston-based Carbonite.

The difference is that Digital Lifeboat uses individual computers on its network as nodes in a distributed storage system, rather than requiring a concentrated mass of data centers to store everyone’s files. That’s similar to the idea behind Seattle startup Symform, which is targeting business customers with a distributed storage system.

When users sign up for a Digital Lifeboat account, starting at $30 a year, they get unlimited backup on the system. But by joining the service, users also agree to become a part of the storage network for everyone else, giving up a piece of their unused hard drive space to store someone else’s stuff.

Of course, security is hugely important in this kind of arrangement. All of the files are encrypted and hidden in multiple ways to ensure that private data remains unseen by anyone else, Teglovic says. One of the major features is something called “erasure coding,” which splits files into pieces and distributes them across the network. In layman’s terms, here’s how it works: After each file is encrypted, it’s split into 20 different “chunks.” Those 20 chunks are then split again, this time into 50 chunks, which are sprinkled across different PCs on the storage network.

But the chunks overlap, so to get their file back, a user only needs to access 20 of the 50 chunks at any given time—giving more flexibility for Digital Lifeboat to manage how much space to take up on the network.

The startup’s software and central control server act as the traffic cop this whole time, ensuring that everyone on the network has access to the files they need, but also retains enough room on their hard drives to keep running their computers properly.

The whole thing is designed to be “opaque” to the end user, Teglovic says, and if things ever get too close to affecting performance, Digital Lifeboat scraps that machine as a storage option and moves the pieces of data somewhere else on the network. You’re actually not even required to function as a storage node—you just have to give Digital Lifeboat the option. If a user has an old machine that is getting stuffed with files, the Digital Lifeboat software will just use other parts of the network.

“In aggregate, the average PC brings way more resources to the cloud than they consume,” Teglovic says.

Other companies have tried something similar, Teglovic says, but require more action from the users—they have to opt in with more contributions to the system in order to get more storage, and do too much junior system administrator work.

“We’re betting the company that the amount of free space in the cloud will always be adequate. And no one else has ever made that bet or built … the system to make all of the technology behind that opaque to the user,” he says.

In the year or so that it was in beta mode, Teglovic says, Digital Lifeboat has added more than 5,000 users and is managing more than 3 petabytes of hard drive storage (a petabyte is 1 million gigabytes). “That is a hell of a lot of space,” he says.

Digital Lifeboat is betting that its prices, starting at $30 a year, will be much more attractive to consumers than some options they are more familiar with. Carbonite’s unlimited backup starts at $60 per computer per year, and Mozy’s is about $72 for 50 gigabytes, which is billed as one computer’s worth of space. Digital Lifeboat can price lower because it’s operating a storage business on software’s much higher margins, Teglovic says.

The company’s other founder is Steve Hull, who serves as Digital Lifeboat’s technology chief. Hull and Teglovic have worked together before, when Teglovic was CEO and Hull the vice president of engineering at iShip, a shipping software company. iShip was purchased by Stamps.com for more than $200 million in stock in 1999, and then sold to UPS in 2001.

Teglovic says the peer-to-peer idea behind Digital Lifeboat is gaining steam in the broader technology marketplace, with examples like video-calling service Skype and social music upstart Spotify using connections between users to deliver their products.

“It’s a quietly developing paradigm,” Teglovic says. “If you look at all the computers in the country, that’s a lot of computing power. And the question has always been, what can you use it for?” Back at that office between the trailer park and the cemetery, they think they’ve found a pretty good answer.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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  • Alexis Elizabeth Drob

    Digital lifeboat should be ashamed of itself for what it did to it’s users. They left us high and dry. They lied to us and now we have to scramble to find new backup services!!! Shame on you liars!!!

    • Ernesto

      I am lost on what happened? What is going on Alexis?