Tech and the Photographer: Storage

Welcome to my 3rd annual “Tech and the Photographer”!

I think data storage may rank even higher on the hot-topic scale that photographers want to talk about. Probably because our data is on them. Our files. Our passion. If that goes, all of our images go.  Yes, data storage is important.

Because there are so many options and many different configurations, it can be an intimating undertaking to upgrade your storage system. Let’s start with the basics and work our way up. We’ll start with drive systems and then backups.

USB/Thunderbolt or NAS

With all of these systems, you can go locally or networked connected systems. They all have their advantages. One type of system is usually better than the other for certain applications.

OWC Thunderbay 4 RAID

OWC Thunderbay 4. Image: OWC

USB 3.0/Thunderbolt systems are going to be faster than their price equivalent NAS systems. But for others to access the system, the computer the system it’s connected to has to be on. Which is a drag. Really, if it’s just you and you want fast access to data or fast read/write times, you go with this connection type. Your typical USB 3.0 connection is 5x that of a network connection.  Thunderbolt is even faster. Even with average hard drives, you’ll definitely notice a performance difference. You probably will use this system when you want fast access to data.

NAS is if you want multi-user accessibility and you believe you’re going to use the software that comes with these systems. The software for NAS systems usually perform the following in regards to storage and backup:

  • Automated backup desktop system to the NAS. So if your desktop system crashes, you can restore from the NAS.
  • Could backup its own data to another NAS or to another storage device that connects via USB to the NAS.
  • Automated backup to a number of Cloud-based solutions.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for what NAS software can do. Automatically having your data backup to a Cloud-based solution is damn cool and its double-backup. The only drawback is the initial backup. However, you can usually send in another drive with a copy of your data and have the service ‘seed’ your backup. This way when you start a backup, it will only backup the changed data. Lessening the time it takes for backup.

The drawback of course is speed. Transferring data over the network is slow. Most networks run at 1Gb/s which isn’t bad with a Photoshop file or two. But if you’re copying over gigabytes of data regularly, it’s going to be a drag. You can upgrade your network to 10Gb/s, but that’s expensive and for anyone not doing 4k video regularly, it’s simply not feasible.

NAS is probably best used for archiving data and using the automation functions of its software. Saving Photoshop files over the network will definitely test your patience. Don’t even get me started about video.

NexStar USB3 Enclosure. Don’t laugh! About as simple as it gets but it works!

Single-Drive Systems

Hey, I’ve been there. The life of a photographer is not always a fruitful one and you go one step at a time. But there are ways you can use a single-drive system and have it more on the professional side.

If you go with a USB-connected hard drive, at least have a really great power strip connected that offers lots of power protection. That’s cheap insurance. You’d be surprised how much protection they can offer when you have lousy power in your work. The next step up would be an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) that offers power-conditioning. This can get pricy. But these things are fantastic especially if you live in areas where lighting occurs frequently.

Of course, you can connect up your other computer gear to these systems as well. But you have to be careful not to overburden them as they have limits. And please, don’t daisy-chain them.

You can also use a Cloud-based software service like CrashPlan to backup all your data. It’s cheap but works surprisingly well. As long as your computer is on and connected to the Internet, it’s backing up. But your first full backup can take a long time if you don’t see the service.

NAS systems with single drives while not fancy, have their advantages with the NAS software. And they aren’t huge investments either. You will probably use them for archiving data you don’t use often and automated backup for your desktop and Cloud. An option is to work on your images directly from your computer’s own drive and then have the NAS backup that data when attached. Then that data can get saved to the Cloud.

Single –drive systems. Unless you got bank, we all start out here. But at least these tips and options will help to cover you.

RAID Configurations

I won’t burden you with the definition, but it simply is ways you can arrange hard drives to store data. Explaining it will take a posting itself. So here’s some Wikipedia action for you. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAID

RAID 1

No, RAID 1 isn’t an option in any way. Yes, it offers great speed but nothing else. If you want speed, go with a 5-bay RAID 5 system as described later. Now, read about RAID 0!

RAID 0

As a beginning drive system, I’d say go with a drive that offers two bays and in turn, gives you RAID 0 which offers drive protection. If one drive goes bad, you still have the other operational. If you delete a file on 1 drive, it will be deleted on the other automatically. So it doesn’t offer any protection other than a mechanical one. There is no performance improvement from a single hard drive either. This is an incredibly inexpensive system and it’s a step closer to being professional.

RAID 5 and Beyond

I’ve been dealing with RAID systems for over 20 years. Except for maybe the last 10, they really haven’t been an option for the single-user home office people. With RAID 5, 6 and others, you get better performance than a simple RAID 0, more capacity and better hard drive redundancy.

These systems start with 4-drive bays and are a serious cost increase over two-drive systems. The enclosures aren’t necessarily that expensive. But more drives add cost dramatically. And there are systems with 8 and 12 drive bays. It can get expensive. I’ve seen decent 4-NAS systems start at $300. But the price for a hard drive that I would use is at least a $100. So now you’re looking at $700. But then again, with enough capacity, this can easily be a 5-year investment or more. Don’t forget the NAS software either.

Backup Systems

Of course, you can simply backup your data to another USB-connected drive or NAS. Just about all these systems come with software that allow you to do this. I’m a big-believer in NAS backup systems. Heck, you can setup another small NAS at your parent’s home

The Cloud

At its simplest, services like CrashPlan aren’t too shabby. It’s cheap and it works. This service at least will back-up anything on your computer and any USB drive connected to it. But it’s slow.

Then there are more professional-oriented backup services like Amazon Glacier. While it’s not necessarily faster, many NAS systems come with software that allow you to back-up to the services like Amazon Glacier. It’s not necessarily hugely more expensive but it’s at least double of CrashPlan.

Gear I Like Using

Most of this is hands-on experience I have with this gear. I’ll also talk about gear I’ve heard colleagues talk about. People who I respect in computing circles. And that’s saying something! By no means a comprehensive list but it can help you get started.

Western Digital Red Hard Drive - Image by Western Digital

Western Digital Red Hard Drive – Image by Western Digital

Hard Drives: Western Digital.

I can’t say enough great things about systems based on Western Digital hard drives. The only time I ever had a problem was when using their ‘Green’ drives. In theory, they are great. They save energy and are inexpensive. Unfortunately, when the hard drive goes into sleep mode and the internal platter spins down, it can take a long time for it to spin back up and data gets written back onto the drive. I consider myself a patient person but the performance of the Green drives just drove me bananas. So, other than these drives, I think everything is ‘very good’ to exceptional in performance and reliability.  The drives are designed for specific functions so choose accordingly.

I just stopped using other brands altogether. Every time I hear a horror story about drive failure, most of the time it’s another brand.

SSD: Intel. The only time I would use SSDs in a RAID system is for one that’s connected via USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt. Sure you can use them on a NAS. But the performance bottleneck of the network is going to weigh down most benefits of the SSD.

But use them in a local RAID drive and wow! The only thing is cost. I think it’s a waste if you use anything less than 512GB. With a local RAID, that’s going to cost you a good $2000. If you have the money, maybe it’s an option. Using good performing hard drives works really well too. SSD in this case is a luxury.

USB/Thunderbolt RAID:

  • Western Digital My Book/My Cloud. You can buy them anywhere and costs less than other brands. Decent quality and features. But just okay. USB 3.0 based. I’ve found them to be dependable at the minimum.
  • Other World Computing (OWC). I love the Thunderbolt-based systems and totally want one! Very reasonable in price and awesome performance. Due to costs, I would go with hard drives instead of SSDs for this setup. At RAID5 and good hard drives, the performance is still excellent and equal or slightly better than the internal SSD in my laptop. And my Mac SSD is fantastic.
  • Promise Technology Pegasus/Pegasus2. These things have a fantastic reputation. Top of the line local-RAID systems? Maybe. They are definitely more expensive than OWC. Worth it? Maybe.

NAS

  • Love these systems. Used them for clients and built like tanks with great support. The NAS software they come with called DSM is second to none.
  • While I’ve heard negative things about them, they come from people I have little faith in a technical aptitude way. I’ve heard others say great things about them. I would take Synology over QNAP just because I’ve used them. I’ve also heard QNAP being a bit more geared for techies too and their NAS software isn’t quite as good as Synology’s. They have some great system though. They have a NAS that ALSO has a Thunderbolt connection. The best of both worlds really. And it’s expensive. But if I had the money, I would seriously consider it.

Local or Network RAID

  • There MIGHT have been a time when Drobo was having issues. One popular photographer-author made a nasty stink about Drobo and really hurt their reputation. I don’t know if it was valid or not. The people I know think highly of them. That’s good enough for me.
  • At the top of the this article, there is an image of the Other World Computing local RAID system. If you want the least expensive, great performance and quality. It’s a good way to go. If I was going local RAID, I’d totally think about this system.

There are many more and great systems out there. Do your research and don’t believe the hype. Talk to people who aren’t paid to advocate the systems you’re interested in and trust. Nothing like referral sales!

Again, you got to do what’s best for you. There is an ideal I want for myself, but you have to decide what’s best for yourself. Don’t fret about not building the perfect system. Lots of times, we just got to do the best we can!

Next week and the final article: Mobile Systems and Accessories

About the author

Ricardo Gomez is a Fashion Photographer based in New York City.

  • Tech and the Photographer: Mobility
  • Tech and the Photographer: The Desktop

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