Storage. It’s something many photographers really don’t appreciate until they need it or something goes wrong. It’s also a wildly popular topic when a new camera comes out with a bigger sensor than previously and photographers start whining about storage for the increased image size.

As an IT person for most of my life, storage systems have been the second most important issue for any business I’ve worked with and I’ve had to find the best solution for them. For the longest time, storage systems really didn’t change much and then boom! 10 years ago, new systems came out that were cheaper, better performing and easier to maintain.

When I started, if you wanted a group of people to access the same people, you built a computer server, which is just a computer where you can share data among people. You could do this eventually with a plain computer and just making the drive on it shareable on the network. You could install multiple drives in it in a variety of configurations. The hardware alone was thousands of dollars. Labor to install and setup, about half the cost.

It took me a while to find an image of one of these: A Vintage Compaq Proliant server! It has a CD-ROM drive and even a 3.5" floppy drive! This what a server used to look like.

It took me a while to find an image of one of these: A Vintage Compaq Proliant server! It has a CD-ROM drive and even a 3.5" floppy drive! This what a server used to look like.

I think the big change in storage systems was when self-contained, Network Storage Systems (NAS), started to become more common. Basically, they were just a metal box with hard drives in them and their own, proprietary operating system that just did storage services. First, it was half the cost of your typical server. Then less and less. A huge savings was in maintenance. As a consultant, I barely touched the NAS systems once I installed them. I remember with great clarity how a law firm client was coming close to filling up their server with 30GB installed. By the way, which is nothing these days. I installed a NAS with 300GB and that was pretty much it. No more upgrades. Once in a while I updated the operating system of the unit. Which took all of 15 minutes. Maybe every 3 – 6 months. Pennies compared to what they paid before. These days, the storage options people can be very overwhelming. Not just in the number of options someone has, but the complexity. There is a lot of technical jargon that goes on and I hope I can enlighten you a bit about it.

Single Drive External Storage. The simplest and by far the most common way photographers store their images and data outside their own computer: an attached hard drive. Some people would point their nose up at something like this. Hey, it works and it’s relatively cheap. For $150, I have a fantastic 8TB Western Digital hard drive that holds hundreds of thousands of photos, big Photoshop files, a couple of hundred of movies, thousands of songs, other data and I still have 2TB of space left on it! I just saw a 14TB version of my drive for $280!

  • Keep it simple! One big, proper external desktop hard drive!

    Keep it simple! One big, proper external desktop hard drive!

  • Multiple, mobile hard drives. Seriously not recommended.

    Multiple, mobile hard drives. Seriously not recommended.

Someone is going to say “I can get a 14TB hard drive and be done for the next 10 years!”. Well, no, it doesn’t work that way. Hard drives, the type of storage systems that have metallic, magnetic disks inside of them and spin, don’t last 10 years if being used regularly. I think if you get 5 years use, you’re incredibly lucky. But these things have moving parts in them. They wear out. They become unreliable. And you’re in trouble. Getting a big, external drive is useful when you’re working with big data regularly and you’re a 1 or small-person operation. Like video production. When you do video, you’re working with 30GB, 60GB and more regularly. Even 14TB can fill up pretty fast. But you can even have more of these attached to your computer via a USB hub. But that can get a little messy and if you need much space, there are better options like a Direct Access Storage (DAS) system. But to talk about any of the following systems, we’ll need to talk about the scariest acronym when talking about data storage: RAID.

Another Temptation: Multiple Mobile Drives. Don't do it. It's kinda cute and you would think it works just fine. But these are 2.5" drives typically for laptops and aren't built for regular, constant, high speed data work. For laptop use, they are fine as they are used for, at most, short big data bursts. So the drives don't have time to heat up. You see the setup shown above? Yes, one of them failed and the second was starting to. Just get a proper, external desktop drive.

Redundant Array of Individual Drives (RAID). This is just a fancy term to describe a bunch of drives placed together that makes the computer think it’s just one drive. So if you have 4, one-terabyte drives, configured correctly, the computer will see a one, 4TB drive.If you have more than 1 hard drive, you can have a RAID system. The more hard-drives connected, the more RAID options you have. The most common are:

• RAID 0. Multiple drives that look like one drive. One drive fails, you lose your data. Best performance.

• RAID 1. Drives that look like one drive but are actually duplicating each other data. If you lose one of the copies, you still have another working.

• RAID 5. All drives are made to look like one. But each of the drives has some data from the other drives. If you lose one drive, you don’t lose any data and you can replace the bad drive. You lose some capacity and performance but gain data-redundancy. You need a minimum of three drives for RAID 5.

There are many other different configurations and have their advantages. But these 3 configurations serve the basis for the others. If you get these three setups, you understand the rest. And I don’t want to write a blog article on RAID. Because it’s totally possible.

Mind you, except for RAID is not a backup system. A backup system copies your data somewhere so if your storage fails, you can retrieve it. More on that later.

Direct Access Storage (DAS). These systems are basically multiple drives in one box directly connected to your computer through a hub. You can dramatically increase storage, performance and reliability. So in a lot of ways, it’s pretty simple and you can setup the DAS to recognize the drives individually or in a RAID. The cost is really in the DAS enclosure and you want to create a particular RAID setup. If you want a 4TB RAID system, then you need at least 4, separate 1TB drives. And that’s going to cost a lot more than a single 4TB drive. At least double the price and then you have to include the price of the enclosure. What you gain is performance and/or data-redundancy.

Pretty simple really and not a bad option if you need lots of space and want to safeguard against a single drive going bad. It’s a step up from the single, or multiple drives on your desktop. But there is another level: NAS.

OWC ThunderBay 4 mini SSD (Image: OWC)

OWC ThunderBay 4 mini SSD (Image: OWC)

Network Attached Storage (NAS). 10 years ago or so, these systems really came into their own. They are basically DAS systems on the network with some brains in them. With DAS, the computer it’s connected to controls access to it and how it’s configured. With a NAS, the unit itself takes care of access and is usually ‘always on’ and attached to the network. So anyone with a network connection can theoretically connect to it. Anywhere. On top of that, these systems are so powerful, that they have lots of additional functionality built-into them that make them even more value-oriented.

So what’s the problem? Why don’t more people use them? Well, there are several:

• Cost. NAS systems get expensive very fast. Normally, because someone wants the performance, storage capacity or the extra functionality available in the pricier systems. If you want just storage, the pricing isn’t too bad. But the temptation with the bells and whistles is hard to resist. I think most basic NAS systems are going to cost double their DAS counterparts. Once you get those fancy, built in features, the cost goes up dramatically.

• Networking. You also have to deal with the network. While you can usually connect directly to a NAS, you will most likely connect it to a network. So if you have your laptop in another part of your office or home, you can still access it. Or, if you are on location and have it connected to the Internet, the NAS will have to be networked. While the setup program within a NAS usually makes it simple to setup, some people get intimidated by the work and it does involve cost with networking equipment. Though, this can be done quite affordably.

• Setup. Companies like Synology have NAS systems that make setup and maintenance pretty simple. Nothing like it was 10 years ago. But even then, compared to setting up a server, establishing rights, setting up computers to connect properly to it.. It was still super-simple in comparison to that. By far the most time-consuming part of the process was transferring the physical data over the network and creating user accounts. But once you’re done, you’re done.

As a consultant, installing a NAS lessened my earnings potential. Maintenance cost is a huge income generator in many businesses. But when my clients saw their IT costs dropping and needing less maintenance, it would build trust. They would also be more open to spending money on IT projects that they needed but would also to get them ahead of their competition. So, it really doesn’t lessen income if you’re doing things for the right reasons. I’ve known far less scrupulous IT consultants in my career.

Who needs these systems? Well, if you have multiple people needing to save data to a central location. Or, and more likely, you want to access your data when you’re on location. Or, if you want to upload your newly created media someplace safe until you get home. At the most basic functionality, this is why you want a NAS.

Remember the pricy NAS systems I talked about? Well, many of them come with automated backup software for computers connected to it. Software that allows you to install a computer completely on a hard drive called a Virtual Machine. A computer within a NAS that you access via a browser. Video streaming software. Dozens of functions are available. Do you need them?

  • The Synology DS1019. (Image: Synology)

  • The QNAP TVS-672XT. (Image: QNAP)

So how do you decide what to get? Well, make a list of what you specifically want in a NAS: storage capacity, number of drives, performance. Look what is the cheapest you can get it for. Then look at pricier units that have the same features and see what they offer. Find out what each of these extra functions are and if they can help you.

I'm showing you two systems above: The Synology DS1019 and QNAP TVS-672XT. There are two obvious differences: the QNAP has an extra slot and a display. But the cost of the QNAP is almost triple the price. Why?

* CPU Performance. Like any computer, there can be a dramatic CPU difference between two physically identical units. However, the CPU performance is to help the unit transfer and manipulate data faster. Not simply to make the operating system of the NAS faster.

* Memory Performance. The QNAP has internal memory enhancements that can greatly increase performance in data. For instance, if you are constantly accessing a particular file, it will move that file to it's much higher performing memory area. The Synology has it as well but it's not as well performing as the QNAP.

* Connectivity. The QNAP has Thunderbolt 3 for connectivity. If you wanted to, you can connect the NAS directly to a computer that has TB3 and use it as an external drive! This could be hugely beneficial if you had say, several video editors sitting closely together and connecting to the NAS directly vs a network connection. TB3 is 4 - 10x faster than any network connection. 

The Synology and QNAP are the big dogs in the NAS world and I chose these units to exaggerate the differences two systems could have. The Synology really is about making a system simple to use. The QNAP is much more for the techie and better hardware specs. 

I’ve been wanting a NAS for years. It’s just that my system is going to cost me about $2000 with the hard drives. It’s not a huge amount. But when you compare it to $200, you really have to justify it. I just hate migrating data from an old drive to a new one and making all the necessary changes. Not only is it time consuming, but you risk missing or losing data. With a NAS, I can simply add another hard-drive or have it configured with a huge amount of capacity so I don’t need to think about it for years. If a drive fails, replace it with a bigger one. There are all sorts of ways to avoid data migration.

Which would I get? I'm planning on the Synology. I simply don't need the performance of the QNAP. I would edit everything on my computer and when done, transfer them on to the NAS. And the transfer speed would be more than sufficient on the Synology. It has all the functionality I want. Why spend the money? Before you answer: most tech Youtubers, like 99.9% of them, don't have professional experience. Period.

Backup Systems. You’d be surprised how bad some backup systems photographers use, if any. They really don’t know what it means to have a backup of their photos and data.

A backup is keeping your data in a location or device that is not directly accessible via the file system. Meaning, if your computer or hard drives die, your backup will be safe and sound. Using a RAID is NOT a backup unless the RAID device is separate from storage drive you regularly use for accessing data. If delete a file on your RAID or it gets corrupted, it’s done. Unless there is a built-in retrievable depository built into the unit. But again, it’s not a backup. So if you have a desktop computer and have one data drive installed and think “Hey, I can put another drive in there for backup”. No, it’s not a backup. Well, not really.

Backup is insurance. So how you implement a backup solution is how good that insurance is going to be. There are some simple ways and some more elaborate.

• Time Machine with a connected or network drive. For the Mac, the simplest and easiest backup method. You can have it work via an external drive connected to your computer or run off a NAS. With the NAS system, you can even have a tiny NAS located somewhere remotely like a friend’s or family’s home and just have it sit there.

• Online Backup. I love it. It’s also running and accessible as long as you have an Internet connection. Probably the biggest problem is your Internet connection. Because the backup data has to be uploaded, it can take time for backup to happen. It also can take longer to retrieve the backup. The plus: the backup is on a service that is completely secure and basically, indestructible. It will cost you but it’s relatively cheap. Backblaze and Amazon are the biggies but there are many others available. Heck, you can even configure Google Drive or Dropbox to be your online backup.

  • Backblaze Online Backup System

    Backblaze Online Backup System

  • Amazon Glacier Online Backup Services

    Amazon Glacier Online Backup Services

There are pros and cons to each system and you can set each of them in vastly different ways as well. I choose online simply because it’s simple and rarely need it. I actually had a nasty and strange external drive failure that required for me to use it. It was a bit of a hassle to retrieve the data. But I followed a methodical approach and it wasn’t too bad. It was just time intensive.

Remember about the functionality the NAS systems have? Well, one of them is automated backup in multiple ways. Not only can you have a NAS automatically backup your data from your own computer or externally connected devices, you can also have it perform an online backup to a service of the data on the NAS.

See why I want a NAS?

Even the cheapest NAS systems have this capability. And since your NAS is always on, you don’t have to leave your own computer on once you’ve transferred data onto the NAS. It will start the upload to the online backup service when it’s scheduled to do so.

People over-complicate storage and backup systems. Keep it simple until you really know what you want and need. I’m an ex-IT professional and I’ve been using the simplest of all options just fine for years. As I mentioned earlier, plenty of extremely successful professionals do as well. Don’t listen to the static from the forums. Keep it simple.

The next article: Mobile and Accessories! The fun stuff!

Ricardo Gomez Photography

Originally from San Francisco, Ricardo is now a New York-based photographer specializing in editorial and commercial photography.
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