A truly innovative ‘back-up’ plan

12 Nov

ImageNovember 12, 2007

By Geoff Meeker

It’s destined to become the Next Big Thing in Internet-based data storage. And it was developed right here in Newfoundland and Labrador, by technology entrepreneur Tom Chalker.

The dataSentinel is a truly revolutionary product that securely backs up all your files, while allowing access to them from any computer, anywhere in the world.

It’s enabled modestly enough, by a USB flash drive, a portable storage device so tiny it clips to your keychain. These devices have limited storage capacity, which raises the question of how it carries so much data.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t.

The Data Sentinel system works by taking all of your important data, encrypting it so that it can’t be read without a password, then dividing it into packets and uploading it to a series of computers across North America.

The flash drive contains the program that unlocks all that data. You plug it into your USB port, it asks for the password and in a flash, it retrieves, descrambles and reassembles your data. It appears in a series of folders on your screen, just as it would in Windows.

It’s extremely easy to use. Starting next week, when the company actually begins commercial operation, a sales rep will come to your office and handle the data backup process. After that, all you need to remember is your password.

The company’s focus for now is business, though they won’t turn away consumers who want the service, which is subscription-based at a fee of about $10 per month per gigabyte of compressed data.

Anyone who has ever taken along a CD of work files on a business trip knows too well that feeling of forgetting a key file, or realizing that you need additional files. Imagine how emancipating it will be to turn on any computer – with an Internet connection – and call up ALL of your files. It’s also nice to know that your data is backed up, in case your office system crashes or – heaven forbid – the building burns down.

I asked Chalker what would happen if there is a serious crash at one of the remote computers where data is stored. He was two steps ahead of me.

“Actually, each block of data is stored on three independent servers, and all those servers are aware that each other exists. If one of those servers goes down, the remaining ones realize it and replicate that third block onto yet another machine. So there’s always three copies of your data.”

The system, he assured me, is totally secure because the files cannot be accessed without the program on the stick, along with the user’s password. “The program uses cryptology mathematics to decide where to put all those blocks across the Internet. To guess (where they are) without that key would mean making billions of guesses with each computer. It would take billions of years.”

As a young fellow, Chalker studied electronics engineering at the old College of Fisheries, before moving to Ottawa to work in the technology sector. He came home in 1986 and taught for a decade at the Marine Institute, before forming Where Media, a technology company that showed some promise but was killed by the dot-com collapse of 2000. Chalker worked for a few year as VP of R&D with Consilient, before forming a company called Pixecur in 2004. This was where the dataSentinel idea was born.

Chalker has applied for a patent on his invention, which should be approved by early next year. In the short-term, he will introduce his product into key markets in the United States. The company has five employees now, but they plan to have 12 by the end of 2007.

“I think that in five years time, or even sooner, everyone is going to be comfortable with the idea that their entire set of data is on the ‘net and not on a specific computer,” Chalker said. “Our technology is an obvious way of doing that. It’s going to be an easier and a cheaper way for the big vendors to store all their data. I think that we, a small Newfoundland company, have a real shot at being the preferred vendor for mass storage across the world.”

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