'Plug computers' plugged as next big thing

Gadget can turn USBs and hard drives into NAS devices, maker claims

Can a computer get any smaller and cheaper than a netbook? Marvell Technology Group thinks so.

The Silicon Valley chipmaker is trying to create a new class of inexpensive, energy-efficient devices it calls "plug computers", for which it would supply the integrated processors.

A plug computer is a home networking gadget that transforms external hard drives or USB thumb drives into full network-attached storage (NAS) devices.

That allows easy access to files, particularly videos and songs, via a home network or the website provided by your plug computer's maker, says Raja Mukhopadhyay, a product marketing manager for the Santa Clara, California, company.

Marvell announced the plug computer concept last month. It is based on Marvell's SheevaPlug platform, which includes a 1.2GHz ARM-compatible processor with 512MB of flash memory and 512MB of DDR2 memory that approximates the CPU-memory-storage trinity in regular PCs.

The target customers for SheevaPlug are software and web companies with Linux and Java programmers whoc can customise the SheevaPlug and create easy-to-use consumer gear.

The target customers for the finished plug computer would be not-terribly-techie multimedia junkies, who want to store their TV shows on a drive at home so they can watch them from a laptop or netbook while on the go, Mukhopadhyay says.

"We can provide the same services as a home server or a NAS device at a much lower price," he says.

San Francisco-based CloudEngines is beta-testing a US$99 Pogoplug device running Marvell's SheevaPlug system-on-chip. Brent Evans, who writes a gadget blog called Geektonic, has written about the Pogoplug he is testing on Twitter.

"It's very easy to set up and use — easy enough so your average non-technical user could handle it," Evans wrote in an email. "It is not a full-blown NAS and doesn't have all of the features you'd find with a more expensive NAS or Windows Home Server, but it seems like a great and easy way to do the NAS on the cheap."

Marvell was founded in 1995 by a husband-and-wife team of immigrants, Sehat Sutardja and Weili Dai.

According to a report published last August by analyst Linley Gwennap, of the The Linley Group, Marvell shipped more than 300 million processors in 2007 to control hard drives, power BlackBerries and other smartphones, iPods, GPS systems and e-book readers such as Amazon.com's Kindle.

Revenues have grown 36-fold since 2000. The company, which employees 5,000 workers, is now larger than many of its far-older Silicon Valley peers, recording US$2.9 billion in revenue last year.

A major misstep for Marvell was a financial scandal involving backdated stock options that included Sutardja and Dai. It was settled with the SEC last year.

Marvell's chips are usually embedded deep into devices for which the market is already established. Thus, it has never had to "publicise its design efforts," Gwennap wrote.

But with the SheevaPlug, Marvell is stepping firmly into the general-purpose CPU turf, and is thus finding itself having to define a potential market and build an ecosystem for the first time.

Marvell has already announced a handful of other OEMs that plan to build plug computers. But it hopes to attract far more, so that it can eventually price its SheevaPlug chips low enough for vendors to profitably sell plug computers for as little as US$49, Mukhopadhyay says.

Besides price and ease of use, Marvell is touting the SheevaPlug's "green" credentials. A plug computer should use only about three watts of electrical power, Mukhopadhyay says. This, it is said, compares to the 65 to 250 watts of most desktop PCs.

While the first wave of SheevaPlug devices will be focused on supercharging storage gear, there are already vendors considering whether to build antivirus devices that would scan network traffic for malware and allow users to uninstall antivirus software on their local PCs, Mukhopadhyay says.

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Tags technologyMarvell Technologyplug computers

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