Making Sense Of Storage Media

With each evolution of high-performance digital cameras, the need for greater amounts of media on which to stockpile your pictures continues to climb. We’ll discuss a variety of options and levels that photographers should consider, as the technology for storing and backing up images is as varied as the camera technology used to capture.

Modern Connectivity

A majority of your modern consumer-grade hard drive and other storage options will feature one of three popular connection types: the “traditional” USB style connection you’ve seen for years, maxing out at USB 3.0; the similarly “traditional” Thunderbolt-style connection that’s also been around a few years, maxing out at Thunderbolt 2; or the newer USB-C simplified connection, which promises a new era of “the one port to rule them all.”

USB-C (sometimes referred to as USB Type-C) ushers in a new universal, symmetrical and bidirectional connector/cable type. As the new format takes hold, all devices, from computers and laptops to hard drives, printers and other peripherals, will share the same USB-C connector, meaning no more device-specific cables. USB-C is also symmetrical; either side is “right way up.” Finally, USB-C is bidirectional and includes expanded abilities to carry higher power (up to 100W) in addition to data. Greater power transmission also mean less external power supplies for peripherals, including hard drives.

As for speed, USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 2 topped out at 5 Gbps and 20 Gbps, respectively. The USB 3.1 standard that accompanies the debut of USB-C now increases transmission potential to 10 Gbps. That being said, USB-C and USB 3.1 aren’t the same; the former is a physical form factor; the latter is the underlying chipset and resultant speeds. Adding to the potential confusion, Intel’s new Thunderbolt 3 technology shares the USB-C form factor. Thus, if a manufacturer of a computer or hard drive incorporates Thunderbolt 3 underpinnings, the potential speed of the connection accelerates to a blistering 40 Gbps. Be aware that while Thunderbolt 3 ports can work with USB 3.1 devices, a Thunderbolt 3 hard drive or another device won’t function when plugged into a computer’s USB 3.1 only port; the manufacturer has to have incorporated Thunderbolt 3. Further, Thunderbolt 3, like all Thunderbolt connections, supports daisy-chains of multiple devices, while USB 3.1 devices do not.

So how does this all relate to your storage and backup needs? They offer the ability to read/write today’s larger files to and from storage media faster than ever. In conceptual terms, when reading a manufacturer’s product description, remember that the often-referred-to “Gbps” refers to gigabits per second whereas GB/s refers to gigabytes per second. There are 8 bits in a byte, thus when you see “USB-C/USB 3.1” offering 10 Gbps speed, it actually translates to the potential throughput of 1.25 GBs of your photos and videos per second. Depending on what actual storage/media you’re reading to or writing from, you’ll likely experience speeds far below that, as the bottleneck is the ability to read/write to the hard drive media itself. A typical off-the-shelf single spinning hard drive maxes out at about 150 MB/s, far below the capacity of the USB-C cable, but more of that potential can be tapped as we move into the newest storage technology and multiple disk enclosures.


Drive-Based Storage

Hard Disk Drives

By now, everyone is familiar with the long-available hard disk drive (HDD) format, consisting of a magnetized spinning disk platter and a mechanical read/write arm hovering over top. This traditional technology has been the basis for computer storage for over three decades. Capacity doubles every year or two, with additional underlying disk speed and other technologies continuing to marginally bump read/write speeds to a modern maximum of about 200MBs per second. Modern HDD technology still reigns supreme for inexpensive mass storage of your data, but the drawbacks include relatively slow performance and relatively delicate internal parts, ill-suited for a single point of robust storage or backup.

LaCie Rugged Series
G-Technology G|Drive mobile SSD

For on-the-go use, the LaCie Rugged series of external portable drives are available in a variety of sizes and connectivity, and the integrated rubber bumper offers a decent amount of protection from the rough and tumble world of mobile computing. At the desktop level, G-Technology’s G-Drive platform offers the latest USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 connectivity paired with 7,200 RPM HDDs in a variety of sizes, boasting best-in-class transfer speeds.

Websites: g-technology.com; lacie.com

Solid State Drives

Relatively newer on the scene is the Solid State Drive (SSD) format. As the name suggests, these devices contain no moving mechanical parts, leveraging integrated circuits instead for a much more robust and much higher read/write performance speed. While still vastly more expensive than their HDD counterparts, modern SSD drives easily approach write speeds of 500 to 600 MB per second, nearly three times that of conventional HDDs. Many manufacturers now depend on SSD internal drives as the primary startup drive for your desktop or laptop because they’re much more responsive to the complex and high bandwidth needs of modern operating systems.

Now that SSD drives are also making their way into high-performance external hard drives, with modern USB-C connectivity, think about that performance benefit the next time you’re downloading a 32 GB memory card, potentially doing so three times as fast. Compound those benefits with the robust stability of a drive without mechanical moving parts and other delicate innards, and you have the obvious choice for storage needs as prices continue to fall and higher-capacity SSDs come on the market at reasonable prices. The industry isn’t quite there to implement SSD in all aspects of your storage, but SSDs are already an attractive option for some portions of your workflow.

SanDisk

SanDisk, better known by photographers for its memory cards, now offers the Extreme 900 Portable SSD in a variety of sizes, boasting the fastest USB 3.1 connectivity. Similarly, G-Technology has advanced its G-Drive Mobile platform to SSD in its new R-Series line.

Websites: g-technology.com; sandisk.com

Redundancy

For some, combinations of individual external hard drives for primary storage and backup may be all you require. Understand that all drives will eventually fail, either due to mechanical failure, hard drive corruption, power supply failures or some other cause; thus, it’s critical that for every primary copy of your cherished photos and video, you should maintain at least one, if not two, additional copies of your data. Hopefully, one copy is physically off-site in the event of catastrophic loss (fire/flood/theft) wherever your primary copies reside.

RAID

The next step up the storage pyramid is a technology commonly referred to as RAID, which stands for redundant array of independent disks. There are various flavors of RAID, and all offer various benefits of intelligently spreading your data across multiple hard drives within a single enclosure, including both data redundancy and higher performance. RAIDs that offer redundancy, where every bit of data is written to at least two different hard drives within the RAID, can recover from a single drive failure, copying the data back on rebuild. Further, as RAIDs grow larger with additional individual internal drives, enclosures can offer much larger performance benefits as the RAID enclosure breaks up larger chunks of incoming data into smaller packets written to multiple drives at once, thus compounding the aforementioned HDD limit of 200 MB/s to 400 to 600MB/s or more.

Traditional RAID systems, for the most part, rely on some combination of the exact same size, speed and manufacturer of the individual drives to ensure the above performance features. You build the RAID at the outset, and the total available capacity is a function of the RAW internal hard drive capacities minus whatever amount of redundancy you’ve built in. Increasing the size of that RAID down the road would require offloading all the data, wiping out the old RAID and rebuilding with larger capacity or additional drives, and then copying all the data back on.

Promise Technology Pegasus 3

G-Technology offers a variety of solutions in the RAID market, but a great entry-level is its GRAID dual drive enclosure offered in a variety of sizes, able to mirror your data across two internal drives with the latest Thunderbolt 3 connectivity. Promise Technology, long a player in the professional photo and video realm, offers a 4-bay Pegasus3 RAID enclosure to bring Promise’s RAID technology to your desktop environment with blistering-fast Thunderbolt 3 in a daisy chain-able unit to grow as your archive grows.

Websites: g-technology.com; promise.com

Drobo

Drobo 5C

Drobo is a unique player within the mass storage market, touting a specialized proprietary flavor of RAID it refers to as Beyond RAID Technology. While the underpinnings are similar to traditional RAID, the Drobo system relies heavily on a specialized software architecture to increase flexibility and growth of the system over time. The benefit of the Drobo system is the ability to combine various sizes, speeds and manufacturers of drives that you have (or can afford) at the time and allowing the Drobo software to determine how best to use the hard drive capacities at hand. Further, over time, as the Drobo fills, you can swap in individual larger-capacity drives, one at a time, and the Drobo reacts by rebuilding the contents of the replaced drive and adding the additional capacity. This is an incredibly useful feature for a photographer’s growing archive. The Drobo 5C enclosure offers five bays and USB-C connectivity, thus you can start with two to three drives and grow your available storage by replacing or adding larger drives over time to the remaining bays.

Website: drobo.com

NAS

Synology DS216J

Rounding out our drive-based storage is network attached storage (NAS). While all the previous technologies attach directly to your computer, NAS technologies sit on your home or office network and can be accessed by multiple computers or other devices at once. NAS devices are a little closer to a traditional standalone computer with an onboard processor and operating system to manage and serve your data. While there are very complex/high-performance NAS systems on the market, a number of manufacturers have developed simplified NAS offerings that require minimal setup and management, sitting on your network dolling out data as you see fit.
Synology has had a strong presence in the NAS market for years, and it continues to debut a number of solid consumer-level options, optimal for home use and complete with a software suite that facilitates easy setup, ongoing management and a number of options for remote access of your files. Its DiskStation DS216j is a dual-drive unit offering RAID redundancy at a great price point, allowing you to fill it with the hard drive size of your choosing and download additional feature options to customize the NAS to your needs.

Website: synology.com

The Cloud

There’s some confusion about “the cloud” and how that fits into various consumer storage and backup strategies. In simple terms, the cloud refers to passing off your data to various groups and their banks of computers and server farms to remotely manage your data. They handle the technology side, the various upgrades over time, and the backups required to keep your data safe. Since this data is transferred and maintained via your home or office internet connection, whether the cloud is an option for you comes down to how fast and reliable your internet service is versus how many photo and video files exist in your files and how often you need to move new files to those services.

If you have a relatively fast internet connection and your photography archive is modest in size, perhaps under 500 GB, and you only shoot a handful of GBs of new images per day on average, cloud services might work well for you. If your archive is already in terms of multiple terabytes (1,000 GB) and you’re regularly filling 32 GB cards on a shoot, it’s unlikely you can “get the data there” reliably. Some cloud services do allow a “seeded start,” meaning they send you a hard drive that you fill with your initial data to get the large chunk out of the way, but after that point you’re reliant on your internet connection to keep up with the additions and changes you make to your data on a daily or weekly basis. The last thing to keep in mind, as far as backup, is the relatively slow performance of recovering your data from the cloud in the event of loss. If you have a primary archive of 500 GBs of photos backed up to the cloud and your local hard drive fails, you may be facing days, weeks or longer to physically re-download your backup versions.

Hard Drives With Integrated Cloud Services

A number of manufacturers are now debuting local drive base storage with integrated cloud services. One uses the hard drive in a traditional manner, and the manufacturer’s software links to their own cloud services to duplicate your data in the manufacturers’ server farms. Thus, the offerings combine replication of your images in a managed data center environment with advanced remote access abilities for your files.

Seagate’s Backup Plus series includes simple USB external hard drives offered up to 8 TB in size that automatically synchronize with Seagate cloud services for backup and remote access.

Western Digital My Cloud

Western Digital’s MyCloud line of enclosures adds WD’s cloud package to a simplified home NAS. You fill the MyCloud over your home network or via the USB ports dedicated to import and allow the WD software to automatically manage backup to WD’s cloud service backup. The MyCloud line also offers a “mirror” version, which integrates a local RAID dual drive system, mirroring your data across two local drives, with the cloud backup as the third copy, a great solution for photographers.

Websites: seagate.com; wdc.com

Backing Up To The Cloud

Dedicated cloud backup services fall into one of two main categories. The first is manual backup destinations like Dropbox, Box, Google Drive and others, where you manually coordinate what’s added to these services but again rely on these particular services to manage and back up your data over time. While Dropbox and Box are attractive options, for many Google Drive is a simple add-on to services you likely already use.

The second is automated software backup from a variety of services like Backblaze, Carbonite, Mozy and others, whereby you inform the software and services what computers and devices you prefer to have backed up and allow the software to intelligently manage backing up your data on a predetermined schedule. Backblaze’s Personal Backup is just $5 a month per computer for unlimited storage, including your attached external drives, representing an incredible value for amateur photographers.

Even Adobe has entered the game with integrated cloud services in the latest Lightroom CC, which is enabled with 1 TB of free cloud storage, not only backing up your data but also allowing access and synchronization across multiple devices. As the primary player in the photographic editing and digital asset management space, this is a great move on Adobe’s part to help ensure its user base is properly storing and backing up their precious photos.

Backup Tools

To back up your files, you’re going to either need to manually copy them over or use an application to copy them to your storage devices. For Mac users, the Time Machine backup built into the OS is a good place to start. Time Machine backs up a selected computer and/or attached drives and saves the files automatically, in the background, to a specified location, keeping multiple versions as files change. Users can access Time Machine from their Applications folder and scroll back through history to find the version of the file they need. Time Machine will automatically remove old files as the storage fills up, so it’s important to keep an eye on the Time Machine volume.

Retrospect backup software

For users looking to move files from multiple computers, the program Retrospect can make this a lot easier. A veteran backup tool, Retrospect allows users to back up any number of computers and connected drives to any type of connected storage device. As devices fill up, Retrospect prompts users to add new ones. Retrospect keeps a catalog of files, and if an older file is needed, the program shows which storage device has that file, for quick recovery.

Carbon Copy Cloner/SuperDuper!/Acronis

A huge number of programs exist to clone whole drives, or portions of drives, at fixed periods of time. These programs, such as Carbon Copy Cloner and SuperDuper! for Mac and Acronis for Windows, allow for copies of drives to be made and will even allow for bootable volumes to be created, so that if disaster strikes, a user simply starts up from the cloned drive.

Future Storage Solutions

The day will come when all your photos are stored locally on blazing-fast SSD media for utmost performance viewing and editing your images, while those same images are safely backed up to trusted cloud providers, giving you peace of mind that your precious data is in the hands of dedicated experts monitoring the integrity of that storage media 24/7. For now, each photographer has a variety of price vs. performance options to fit their particular needs. The cloud sits tantalizingly on the horizon as a managed solution in the years ahead, but may already be workable for you, dependent your connection speed and archive size. We hope this article has provided some clarity of the myriad of options currently at hand.


Brett Wilhelm is a photographer, videographer and technology specialist working for a variety of national clientele, including ESPN’s X Games, Red Bull, the NCAA and The New York Times. He specializes in action/adventure sports and environmental storytelling. Visit Wilhelm’s website at wilhelmvisualworks.com.

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