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Darren Waters

Network storage still not consumer-friendly

  • Darren Waters
  • 9 Apr 09, 12:20 GMT

Network-attached storage (NAS) has been on the verge of breaking through into the mainstream consumer space for quite a few years.

The idea is deceptively simple - plug a hard drive into your network (that is, into your router) and then you can share the storage across all your computers, and share music, photos and video all from one place.

Quite a few companies - including Buffalo, Netgear and Iomega - have offered consumer versions of more high-end network storage for some time.

The reality is somewhat different, as anyone without an engineering degree who has ever tried to "mount", or connect to, networked hard drives or grapple with RAID system will attest.

There are so many different configurations of hard drive back-ups - from simple mirroring of one drive to another to ensure at least one disk remains healthy, to multiple mirrors in a collective configuration - that for the ordinary mortal, myself included, networked (or even non-networked) storage has sometimes proved offputting.

Coupled with the sometimes byzantine process of connecting to drives - depending on whether you use a Mac, Windows or Linux - and whether the drive itself is formatted correctly for the operating system you are using, it is easy to see why most people have simply stuck with a plug-in external drive.

We've seen a number of attempts recently to simplify this process.

Apple launched the Time Machine and Time Capsule combination, which automatically backs up data wirelessly from your Mac. It's a simple idea, and unfortunately for many people, this simplicity brings with it a lack of flexibility.

Time Machine is a no-nonsense dump of all your data and any changes you make, but with few options around doing anything else, such as streaming to consoles or media players around the home.

Another attempt to simplify NAS has come via a set of standards, called the Digital Living Network Alliance.

This umbrella organisation allows different devices on the network to talk to each other and share media. So a DLNA-compliant TV can stream video from a DLNA media server, for example.

I recently bought a NAS for my home; a one terabyte Iomega Home Media Network Drive. The box said it was DLNA-compliant, compatible with the Mac, and reviews I had read said it was easy to set up and use.

Well, this was partly true.

Physical set-up was easy - simply switch on and plug the NAS into a wireless router via ethernet cable.

It comes with software which promises to autodetect the drive and then "mount" on to my machines in the form of shared folders. The idea is that you install the software on all the Macs or PCs sharing your internet connection and they will all be able to read and write to the drive.

Sadly, this was not the case. The supplied software would not see the drive at all. As far as it was concerned, I did not have a drive attached to the network.

A quick search of the Iomega forums and it was clear this was a problem suffered by anyone using the latest version of the Apple operating system, Leopard.

No problem, though: the Apple OS can mount network drives if you know the internet protocol (IP) address of the drive, or you know its name on the network.

A bit of digging through the settings of the drive and, hey presto, I now had access to the folders on the drive on my machines. The only issue is that I have to manually connect to the drive each time I switch on the Macs.

There is another work-around, but even if that works, every time you put your machine to sleep for a long period and then wake it up, the drive and its folders will no longer be available.

This is a common problem. There is a work-around for this also here, but it is clearly beyond what most users will be prepared to do and makes a bit of a mockery of the supposed consumer-friendliness of the device.

And this isn't a problem confined to Iomega - this is an issue with all network drives and putting machines to sleep.

Thankfully, when the NAS is working, it works like a treat. Not only can my family now share documents more easily across the network, we can also use our PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 to stream any video, music or photos from the network drive.

Sadly, this doesn't include Apple's iPhoto. iPhoto was never designed to be a multi-user program and while it is possible to move an iPhoto library to the network drive, it remains fiddly and prone to problems.

The same is somewhat true of iTunes. It can be moved to the network drive, but I wouldn't advise it, unless you were completely comfortable messing around with folder structures.

Luckily, the Iomega drive is one of a number that come with an iTunes server built in to the hardware, so you can use that to play and store all your music. However, there are limitations: you can't build playlists on the server, so if you want to do more with your music collection, you are out of luck.

I should also stress that these issues related to iPhoto and iTunes are software problems and not related to the drive itself. Neither application was designed with the networked household in mind.

They do have simple sharing/viewing options built in - so you can view the photos of another iPhoto user or listen to the tracks of another iTunes user on the same network - but this is not the same thing as building a truly networked iTunes library or iPhoto collection.

So where does this leave network-attached storage and the consumer?

To my mind, there's a number of hurdles to overcome before NAS is truly ready for the mainstream home - starting with the hardware itself, the software used to connect to the drives, the operating systems, and the programs we use to store and share our music, videos and photos.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Eh?

    I have a networked drive and it was incredibly east to set up.
    I have an Apple Airport Extreme with a 500GB Maxtor One Touch drive attached via usb.
    I have the drive in my start-up items for when I login so as soon as Im ready to use my laptop all my files are available.
    I have iTunes and Iphoto libraries on the drive and stream from it without any issue.
    It probably helps that I'm using an Apple router and a MacBook, but my flatmates also have access using XP and Vista.

    It took me 20 minutes to set up and for over a year it has run perfectly without letting me down

  • Comment number 2.

    I agree - it's not as easy as it should be.

    teevan: It's all very well saying how it easy it was. Yes, it's not hard at all, but let me guess - you're a student of some sort of technology related subject? Or you at least take an interest in computers. Would your Gran be able to do this? That's the point Darren was making. As a Microsoft Blogger put it very well, "most people use a computer the way I use a car" - they don't want to have to configure it before they can use it.

    The biggest issue for me is speed - anyone using Wireless will find these things very slow to copy large files, and may not be able to stream to devices located in the far corners of the house.

    When 801.11N becomes more common, and routers support Gigabit Ethernet, I can see these sort of devices being more useful.

    One solution I am looking at is Drobo. It allows you to put multiple hard disks inside, and mirrors them (similar to RAID). This is what your really want, since a hard disk crash can happen at any time. It's pricey though, so I'm still weighing it up.

  • Comment number 3.

    "most people use a computer the way I use a car"

    If that were true people would have to get their systems periodically checked to make sure they were in decent condition, and each user would have to pass a practical test to show that they knew how to operate them safely before being allowed to use them on the public network.

  • Comment number 4.

    #3 As a sysadmin I would actually love to see testing a licences being issued before people are let loose to destroy things haha.

  • Comment number 5.

    Windows Home Server - yes another Microsoft product, but one that should be praised! does exactly what it says it will do. Its pretty powerful, and quick. Have found it massivly useful, wihtout the need to tweak. But as its based on Server2003 its got plenty of power to customse and do what you need!

  • Comment number 6.

    @ricostuart I think what MS has done in the home server area is interesting.

    But it's yet another service - with only a handful of compliant NAS drive.

    There are so many flavours to NAS, not all of them friendly to each other, that makes life harder than it needs to be.

  • Comment number 7.

    @_EWAN_ (no.3)

    Just because I've passed a driving test, it doesn't mean I know how a car works, and just because my Mum can make a greetings cards on some obscure desktop publishing application it doesn't mean she knows how a computer works.

    The people who 'get' computers & computing in general, will never be able to understand why some people see them as a box of tricks which doesn't always work it should.

    I've been looking a NAS storage solutions with DLNA compatibility for ages, and in the end I just went for a 500 gig external drive, I can plug it into my desktop, laptop, wifes laptop & my PS3, it works without a hitch, even my wife can use it, to either back up some of here folders, or watch media on the PS3.

  • Comment number 8.

    @darrenwaters

    Well with WHS, its not so much a service, and you dont need compliant hardware. Its a server with any hard drive (s) that you want to use! At the moment, I have it running on an old celeron laptop with 2 2TB drives connected via ESata on a pcmcia card. It works brilliantly! No difficult setup process, no driver issues, no compatibility issues, etc! As with many things, there are improvements that could be made, but its easy to do!

    I have had Linux NAS drives (WD and Network Drive Pro for example), and while they are useful, they are definatly not great. Also, fill up one drive, you need another, and then that means even more complicated setup process! (dont want to sound like Im advsertising!) WHS does all this alot easier. Need a new drive? Plug it in, it adds it to the pool of drives already there so it just expands the capacity!

    The one thing that Microsoft did brilliantly is the one thing they dont shout about!

  • Comment number 9.

    I echo other commenters when I say: Drobo.

    This device DOES indeed bring RAID-like NAS performance to the masses. The name is derived from Data ROBOt. The device manages all the things that traditionally a sysadmin would have to worry about. Watch the demo video on their website and you'll be convinced.

    Purists will argue that it's not a "proper" NAS and doesn't "actually" use RAID. So what? It gives the performance, data redundancy and confidence in that redundancy that your average Joe Public needs. Plug it in, turn it on. Done. Check it out.

    www.drobo.com

  • Comment number 10.

    And you sound Apple-friendly, if not Apple-based. What hope for the other 90+% of us??? Having seen the horrors of setting up Linux when MS is a vital part of life, the wholly Linux approach is not on. The Windows approach is stolid and clunky. Suggestions?

  • Comment number 11.

    I have a NAS (a QNAP) connected to my network and accessed by my macbook, and find it works best when connected via SMB. Once connected, you can add the server to your mac account's login items so that it connects at startup. I don't know for certain, but I would assume the Iomega can do the same.

    Agreed though, although I love my NAS, I have found that to get the most out of it I have had to login through ssh and add some tweaks via shell scripts, perl scripts, crontabs and compiling my own binaries from source. As a programmer by trade I enjoy doing this sort of geekery, but most people won't.

    For most people looking to make simple backups then an external USB is the best way to go as long as they remember to backup regularly.

  • Comment number 12.

    @bizniss I've done the same thing with LogIn items to ensure it mounts at start-up.

    The problem is wake from sleep. A short sleep is often fine. But a long sleep is a problem. I suspect it's the DCHP giving me a new IP.

    I've seen a few work arounds but they look risky.

  • Comment number 13.

    Why are all the complaints here from the minority of computer users?

    5% to 10% of people (very roughly) use MACs - yet the 90%ish that use windows seem to have few issues. (I will ignore Linux here, as most users of Linux are very technically adept and would probably have no real issues with a NAS box.)

    Let's look at he root of the problem here, shall we?

  • Comment number 14.

    I must admit I've never been sure what will work with what with "Home Network Drives".

    A PC running Linux and NFS (and Samba if I had Windows needs) works for me. I know where I am with that.

  • Comment number 15.

    @ Mr DarrenWaters

    Over two years ago, I paid 40 odd quid for a Pentium 4 Desktop unit off Fleabay. Scrubbed Windows and dropped Linux onto it. It was a wonderful feeling, blowing away the windows partition to install a real operating system onto it. Plugged it into the wireless router and set it up as a server, and now we have all our mp3s stored on it, along with other files that we can access from any other PC/laptop in the home wirelessly. We also use it as a MapServer and general webserver, and recently my wife needed to go to Central America for 5 months of PhD research, so I simply started an ftp service so she could upload her work from her smartphone (nokia e90) as a backup in case it got stolen (never did). Easy Peasy.

    The server is running brilliantly, I just plugged in a new hard drive and moved all the home area stuff, her research material and music over. Positively painless. I can also log into the server from a remote desktop using KDE Remote Desktop Client and fully administer it as I need, with a fully graphical desktop.

    So you've paid over 150 quid for something that can be done a lot better a lot cheaper. Oh dear...

    Fool and his money, are soon parted I guess...

  • Comment number 16.

    @15
    You seem to have missed the "consumer-friendly" part of this whole article!

    As much as I like Linux, taking a standard install and using it is currently not all that "consumer-friendly" and I'd argue its still at least 11 years behind Microsoft in that respect. Partly due to vendors support (or a lack of therein) and partly due to things you cannot do without learning command lines, which are certainly not consumer-friendly.

    NAS has some distance to come yet, but from the point where we couldn't do this kind of storage 5 years ago without parting with thousands of pounds, we have come a long way in a short period of time.

  • Comment number 17.

    I've been using a Iomega StorCenter NAS on my Linux/WXP network for about 18 months or so.

    Setup was OK, not too challenging. When it works, its great but all too often connection is lost to the NAS which requires a hard shutdown and restart.

    It loses connection when the cooling fan comes on, which it does quite frequently!



    ly.

  • Comment number 18.

    re. "consumer-friendly"

    the car driving analogy has been used above.

    is true in a way but people still have to learn to drive first, and they have to get a licence, in other words, user has to make some small "investment" to use NAS (networking in general).

    current NAS is already pretty "friendly", we use a Maxtor SS2 which, once plugged in and left for a few minutes, supplies a browser based i/f to do what little admin is required.

    once running Windoze simply sees the drive on the network ready for use.

    as DW writes "..issues related to iPhoto and iTunes [and others] are software problems..". the only way round that would be to buy some media centre type solution instead.

    but just for storage, shared or not, Network Attached Storage works "as advertised" out of the box -- don't have Mac, only Linux & Windoze.

  • Comment number 19.

    A Drobo (not the new Pro) and a DroboShare sounds like a usable NAS solution ...

  • Comment number 20.

    I previously used various flavours of Maxtor NAS for back-up and storage of music and photos, which regularly needed to be reset, and was a real trial of patience.
    I now use WHS, which simply works, however tech savvy the user. I use the HP Mediasmart WHS unit, which was relatively expensive, but as a one stop solution (which doesn't take up any space) it cannot be beaten.
    A linux based server is a potential solution for those on a budget, but they simply aren't practical for those who don't want to be IT support for everyone else in their household!

  • Comment number 21.

    @ 16

    I'm not sure what you mean by command line...you said it not me. I never used it to install and setup the Linux server; it was all done via pointy-clicky graphical interface.

    Seems like you haven't used Linux in many years, or are you still using Slackware? ;)
    But I see your point. I can see how it is incredibly hard and waaaaaay too technical to open a terminal window and type in stuff like: rpm -i flash-for-linux.rpm

    But this is a sad reflection on life these days, everyone wants stuff NOW; nobody wants or cares to take the time to learn stuff. We want it and we want it NOW and we don't care how it works and it's all too difficult and way beyond us all.

  • Comment number 22.

    Hi,

    I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. I am an average consumer and 12 months ago purchased a 500gb freecom Nas drive. Plugged of into the router, mapped the network drive on vista (simple programme included) and have never looked back.

    The step that took a little more effort was setting it up to be an FTP server. Allowing the router to let me connect to it remotley. In itself the disc has simple FTP server settings with account administration.

    I have an FTP client on my iPhone and hey presto all my music and videos anywhere I go!

    I can't see how anyone who is looking for network storage (you have to be slightly computer literate to know it exists) can't find an answer in the solution I use or that offered by similar companies.

    It won't become main stream until ISPs or the like offer it up commercially. Just like having wifi took that boost to become common place.

  • Comment number 23.

    As cloud computing becomes more mainstream, you can't beat online backups as a way of protecting your digital assets. With most consumers on 2MB+ broadband connections, it has become a viable way of backing up your computers. I happen to use Mozy which silently runs in the background each day taking a copy of anything which has changed. Perfect, and it is free for up to 2GB. For unlimited it is only something like £3 a month. No need to worry about the hard drive crashing any more. I appreciate this isn't suitable for sharing documents within the home, but for simple home backup of your digital assets, even my 74 year old Dad was able to set it up.

  • Comment number 24.

    "Plugged of into the router, mapped the network drive on vista (simple programme included) and have never looked back."

    OK so it worked out of the box on Vista and you had a setup disk. How is it going to work out on my Linux or possibly mixed Linux and Windows network? It's this sort of thing I'm unclear on.

    ---
    Just to mention my own sharing solution. It is based around MythTv. The master server has a 750Gb disk and shared files are stored on this. Most, eg.TV recordings, CD's and photos can be viewed and managed (eg, shedule a tv recording, rip a CD, etc.) via the mythfrontend interface on each PC. Additionally, the drive is shared using NFS so each PC has a common directory /mythtv.

  • Comment number 25.

    @ trickyd3 No. 23

    What would happen if Mozy were to cease trading?

    And how does this help if you want to stream music/photos/movies to a PS3 or something similar?

    Windows Home Server is by all accounts great, but it isn't that widely available in the UK, and even in the US its hardly advertised.

  • Comment number 26.

    Windows Home Server is by all accounts great, but it isn't that widely available in the UK, and even in the US its hardly advertised.

    And looking at the MS page on it, I'd have thought should these days should be included as an optional part of std Windows installs.

  • Comment number 27.

    @26

    Windows Home Server is an independant program based on Windows Server 2003 (with a new version due in a year or so based on 2008), so it unfortunatly cannot be included on a Windows install.

    Thankfully with WHS, Microsoft managed to get it released as software only (OEM editions) so people can make up homebrew servers (to the distaste of HP!)

  • Comment number 28.

    Probably about 3 years ago now, I was enquiring into network hard drives because I figured that they would be a lot easier to share media around the house without having the computer that the file is stored on to have to be on constantly. Because it was 3 years ago the blokes in PC World didn't even have a clue what I was going on about.

    So yea, 3 years on and we have them starting to come to market good and proper, I think that network capabilities are definitely within their limits to share files or even programs via network hard drive, but as Darren said, the software on the machines aren't really up to scratch yet.

    I'd expect the Linux community to be coming out with some sort of way to use network hard drives fully and then probably Apple with their Snow Leopard release set for this year and lastly Microsoft with Windows 7 - although I'm still not holding my breathe on how well they will work with NAS. I think that Apple probably has the best chance of making it as they have already implemented a system that works on the same basis and all they need to do now is build on it.

    In response to a a few of the posts made earlier about needing a driving licence for your computer and needing it checked up every year - I don't think that it would be a bad idea at all really, because the amount of incompetence I see in my job as an IT Technician is astounding and you'll probably have noticed that performance on machines does tend to lag a bit when they are about a year old.

  • Comment number 29.

    All these NAS devices work fine on a PS3. It is not the devices at fault it is the operating system you choose to install them on.

    Look, when people post about NAS and Linux there seems to be no problems as shown in all the above comments. Same with MAC. Now when we talk about Windows all of a sudden there are problems. Even the PS3 picks up all NAS drives without any issue at all!

    I think the BBC and all other news outlets around the world owe it to the human population to explain that microsoft is not the answer at all and that they should be the last option.

    Microsoft needs to go, they are making things to complicated and slowing down progress.

  • Comment number 30.

    I agree RAID is hard ... having set up my own Linux based RAID server it was hardly something for all households.

    This product looks like it has the potential to change the assertions made in this feature.

    http://www.drobo.com/Products/droboshare.php

  • Comment number 31.

    I've yet to try RAID.

    I should have it on my web server and probably will have on the next sortware upgrade due at the end of this year but I'm not specially fussed about the rest.

    Currently my only "spare" disks are used for backups, something I'd still need with RAID.

  • Comment number 32.

    I too have had problems with the Iomega solution. However I now use an NSLU2 with two hard discs attached. I have a mixed Windows and Linux setup. On Windows running the supplied disc set the system up first time. On Linux I set up a persistent SSH connection, three or four mouse clicks. It has been running perfectly for about a year now with no outages. It seems to me that the problem is more with Iomega than. Generally if the website is offering workarounds it is better to look elsewhere IMHO.

  • Comment number 33.

    All these discussions are a bit in the past for me, NAS and for that matter all computer storage, needs major updating. Both the physical part, the software part and the conceptual part.

    What I want is a virtual Library in which I keep everything, classified by subject. I want the system to keep it anywhere it wants, in any file name it wants and make it accessible anywhere I want.

    No setup. Just do it.

    So where do we go from here?

  • Comment number 34.

    What utter rubbish. I bought a network attached drive some years ago and it was up and working within no more than 10 minutes.

    In the time since then it failed once, after a power flicker. So I turned it off, let it wind down, turned it back on again and off it went again.

    How easy do you want it to be? It practically installs itself.

  • Comment number 35.

    I see the Mac vs PC arguments started quickly! Just to put my tuppence worth in, I', running a 1TB NAS on my home network that has Macs and PCs all running smoothly on it. The setup went very smoothly on the PC in my office, attaching it to the existing Apple TimeCapsule that it's running as a backup of as well as the main NAS for storage. When it came to wirelessly connect the Mac, again, it went straight through, with no problems. The only thing I couldn't work out was how to have an icon on the Mac desktop dedicated for the NAS (don't get me wrong, I was attaching fine to the NAS, just had to go through the Finder window where it was always visible). Also, the previous attach of the TimeCapsule to the PC went okay, just a case of running the supplied software to allow the PC to find it the first time. Now all I have to do is set up a wireless card in the Linux machine in the spare room, so I can have all the 'puters in the house interlinked...

    Bottom line is that some NAS (I happen to use a Buffalo Link Station) are easy to set up, others are awful. It comes down to how well designed the overall package is, how well-written the software that comes with the hardware is, etc. It's worth taking a look through reviews online on shopping sites before taking the plunge.

  • Comment number 36.

    i can only agree with #35 - using a similar model the device was just connected, switched on, run the setup utility and away i went to save data. added a 1TB USB disk to back the whole lot up so effectively having 2 drives. i can now rest assured that family pictures, music, and homework are stored securely.

    similarly with #34 one time the system was unavailable but a switch off/on cured the problem. system software updates available via the web. having functionality in the home which would be normally reserved for corporate users at a fraction of the cost (£70) is truly exciting and innovative.

  • Comment number 37.

    Same experience as a lot of the others, I bought a Lacie NAS a few months back and setting that up was very easy with Windows PC's.

    I have all my photos and iTunes music and video living on the drive with no problems.

    Having centralised storage has been great!

  • Comment number 38.

    I bought an old Iomega network hard drive about 5-6 years ago now, which was great for carrying around files, but was no use for my storage requirements.
    I wanted something that would be 'always on', offer redundancy in case of disk failure, have ubiquitous access from any device and offer easy expandability.
    Having searched high and low, no manufacturer could offer me a 'home solution' at a sensible price point - my requirements veer into the range of corporate systems which start at £1000+ and that was for basic elements.
    So, I settled on linux. £300 for a bunch of SATA drives, a hot swap caddy and a SATA controller and I was away. 1TB of storage with redundancy, plus, because I'm using software RAID, all I need to do is add more disks and expand the storage. Plus it means that my Windows & Linux PC's, Xbox 360, Windows Mobile and any other devices can see the media. Plus, using HTTP/FTP I can get at it from around the world (all be it slowly with our crappy ADSL lines). So, my solution fits my needs, but it is a shame that you seem to need to be an experienced sysadmin to get this solution - when will manufacturers fit my requirements with a home solution?

    Now I'm trying to address my next problem - backing up 700GB of data remotely, in case of fire/theft/Act of God.

  • Comment number 39.

    As a system administrator myself I read the above comments with interest. Network storage is no where near ready for the consumer market. A network storage device should simply be an appliance you connect to your router and it should just work. It should be no more effort than locally attached storage like a USB external hard disk. Connecting via FTP, SSH, etc, etc is just awful. At the end of the day it should be just a mounted drive letter or mount point on a folder and be completely transparant. I'm more than capable of configuring such a device but in the home but I have neither the interest or energy to do this. If you do, the administration burden can quickly outweigh the advantages.

    With consumer orientated devices like this no one cares about the underlying technology; the problem is that various manufactuers have been putting out devices with really quite poorly implemented software; they might crib it from open source but the execution can be terrible. Some of them also go the other extreme and use highly proprietary protocols and drivers that make usage an agony.

    At the minute Apple and Microsoft seem to be closer than anyone else with Time Machine and Windows Home Server respectively - it seems incredible they are able to better implement this than companies that specialise in storage. It's very unlikely I'll be replacing any of my USB external disks shortly because nothing in the NAS arena comes close to their cost, simplicity or reliabilty. The horrors described in the support forums of the storage vendors make me think we are still come time away from home storage being the always-on, zero-administration appliance that it should be.

  • Comment number 40.

    I am looking at Network Storage for home business use. Is there a wireless solution?

    I do wonder about those who have put all their music and photos on their single network storage drive. What if that drive fails - which it will? Surely you need to keep all things in two places in case one fails???

  • Comment number 41.

    TudorPC (40) You're right that it's important to have a backup of all your important files. That was one of the reasons behind my decision to invest in a NAS. I'm glad I did it, as I had a hard-drive crash on my Macbook earlier this year, and I was able to restore all the files from the network. Ideally, I'd also have a RAID NAS working as a backup to the standard NAS, but I've yet to find a cost-effective home RAID solution. That is where companies should really be looking for the home user: A simple to set-up solution that is at least RAID1, that connects to your modem/router quickly, has a simple back-up software akin to Memeo or Time Machine, and is non-platform specific.

  • Comment number 42.

    What if that drive fails - which it will?

    Remember a drive failure is not the only thing that can go wrong. We can for example have a mirror copy of a disk with RAID (1) and keep up and running through a disk failure.

    This will not protect you from human error or perhaps a glitch in some software causing files to be deleted, overwritten, etc. though.

    As suggested above, ideally you would have RAID and take backups. One is not a substitute for the other.

 

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