Tag Archives: hardware

Photo Backup: RAID Tower

Drobo Power
Creative Commons License photo credit: Thomas Hawk

In the previous section of this “photo backup” series, we went over the external hard drive. This article deals with something that’s a bit fuzzy to define — the RAID tower. It’s similar to an external drive, but it can also be used as a working drive and/or a backup drive.

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TOC — PHOTO BACKUP GUIDE
BACK — HAVE YOU EVER NEEDED TO USE YOUR PHOTO BACKUP?
NEXT — DVD

So again, I’ll try to lay out the topics in a similar fashion to the previous articles. And hopefully the technology doesn’t change on us before you read this.

THE BASICS

A RAID tower is a collection of two or more internal hard drives housed in a box that contains special RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive/Independent Disks) hardware/software, and connects to your computer as if it were a single external hard drive. These towers can be utilized as a working drive or a backup drive, depending on your needs. In either case, the tower is designed to protect your data from hard drive failures (typically one disk can fail and you’ll still be able to recover your data).

RAID towers come in various shapes and sizes, but the most common form is a cube-like enclosure that holds 4 hard drives. The towers that hold 4 drives are capable of a RAID 5 configuration. Other towers may only hold 2 drives, and these are capable of a RAID 1 configuration. In either case, your data is protected against the failure of a single drive. The difference is that RAID 5 allows you to use more of your disk space (RAID 1 is just a mirror, so one whole drive is used for backup).

RAID towers have similar data connections to external hard drives (so I won’t go over them again), but some towers will have multiple connections to boost the data transfer rates. Some will also have the ability to be networked via Ethernet.

One deviant of the typical RAID tower is the Drobo. Typical RAID setups require that all drives be the same capacity (or it considers all drives to be the same capacity as the smallest drive). The Drobo is a bit different in that it can utilize drives of various capacity, and you can upgrade your hardware as your photo collection grows.

BACKING UP

The nice thing about these towers is that they are intended to take care of the real-time backup for you. If you’re using it as a working drive, the RAID configuration will automatically backup your work as you go. If one of your hard drives in the tower decides to fail, you can simply replace the drive and the tower will rebuild your missing data.

If you decide to use the tower in a similar fashion to an external hard drive backup, you’ll still need to find some software that duplicates your work from your working drive to the backup drive. But again, if one of the drives in the tower gives up, you can replace it easily without having to re-backup your entire working drive.

In either case, the stuff contained in the box has a layer of redundancy. But it’s certainly not a solve-all solution. No single backup method can protect against every possible failure.

Pipe Cleaner Muscle Man
Creative Commons License photo credit: Bob.Fornal

STRENGTHS

RAID towers are easy and expandable. The embedded hardware and software takes care of backing up your data, so you don’t need to be as diligent about manually backing up photos. The other main perk of these towers is that you can upgrade the storage capacity as your collection grows. Standard RAID 5 towers will require that all drives be of the same capacity, but a unit like the Drobo overcomes this limitation.

RAID towers are also somewhat portable and they can be accessible via a network. If you had to take one with you somewhere for some reason, you could do it. And hooking it up to your local network is a great way to ensure access to your photos from several computers around your home or office.

WEAKNESSES

IMG_4659
Creative Commons License photo credit: tantek

RAID towers are still basically an external drive, with a limited connection speed. Most users will never notice this limitation, but it is a limitation nonetheless. The other downside to a tower is that you’re only protecting against hard drive failures if you use it as a working drive. Fire, theft, and other major disasters can wipe out all your drives at once. And like external drives, you’ve got a box of hardware sitting on some desk or shelf just waiting to be knocked over.

CONCLUSIONS

If you can justify the cost of a RAID tower, they’re certainly worth it. These devices add an extra layer of protection against common failure modes. I would, however, strongly suggest that if you decide to use a tower as your main working drive, to also use a secondary method of backup. Putting all your eggs in one basket is never a good idea.

I would suggest a RAID tower for folks with a considerable sized photo collection, maybe 500GB or more. Anything less than that, and you might as well just use a single drive for working and another single drive for backup. But as your collection grows into the terabytes, you’ll need more than a single drive to work with.

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Photo Backup: External Hard Drive

LaCie Hard Disks
Creative Commons License photo credit: pietel

In the last part of this series, we talked about internal hard drives as backup hardware. As promised, this time around, we’ll be exploring external hard drives for backing up your photos. Throughout these in-depth discussions of hardware solutions, I’ll try to keep the same format and flow so they’re easier to follow.

FOLLOW THIS SERIES OF ARTICLES!
TOC — PHOTO BACKUP GUIDE
BACK — INTERNAL HARD DRIVE
NEXT — HAVE YOU EVER NEEDED TO USE YOUR PHOTO BACKUP?

I would expect that many of you are familiar with external drives, but we’ll go through their various aspects, strengths, and weaknesses as it relates to backing up photo archives.

THE BASICS

LaCie Hard Disks
Creative Commons License photo credit: pietel

An external hard drive is simply an internal drive that is housed in some type of case and connected to your computer via external data cables. Some external drives require auxiliary power, while others are powered by the data connection (such as some compact USB 2.0 drives). External drives serve as good backup hardware because of their storage capabilities and portability.

Like internal drives, external drives come in various shapes and sizes. Some are considered “compact” drives (typically housing a 2.5″ drive) while others are slightly larger (typically housing a standard 3.5″ drive). While the casing may look different between brands and models, most external drives have the same basic anatomy.

Also like internal drives, external drives may have several variations on the data connection interface — but these connections are different than those discussed on the internal drives. One typical connection type is USB, and most often USB 2.0. But external drives can also come with Firewire connections and even eSATA connections.

Again, my point is that you need to be aware of the capabilities of your computer(s) before purchasing an external hard drive. Maybe the one you’ve got your eye on is a Firewire drive, but your computer doesn’t have Firewire connections. This will result in you having to either return the hardware or purchase additional hardware in order to make it work.

BACKING UP

Gears gears cogs bits n pieces
Creative Commons License photo credit: Elsie esq.

Just like with the internal drives, external drives will give you a few options for methods of backing up your data. There are two basic camps of people who use external drives: connected all the time, and connected only when backing up files.

If you decide to leave your external drive permanently connected to your computer, it may be possible to use the drive as a mirror, or RAID 1 configuration. Sometimes the software included with the drive will allow you to do this, while other times you’ll have to use third party software. If you’re interested in doing this, check the manufacturer’s website for RAID documentation prior to purchasing the hardware. The advantage to this method is that it’s easy and you get real-time backups. The disadvantage is that the drive is constantly running and constantly attached to your computer.

The other mentality of external drive users (including myself) is to only attach the drive when backing up photos or other data. This method would require that some type of backup schedule be adhered to, otherwise your backups can quickly become out of date and nearly useless. The advantage of this method is that you can store your external drive separately from your computer in a safe or off-site location. The disadvantage is that your backups may not be completely up to date on any given day.

Arnold Schwarzenegger
Creative Commons License photo credit: d_vdm

STRENGTHS

External drives are fairly cheap, reliable, and portable. They don’t cost much more than internal hard drives, and they can have about the same life expectancy (possibly better if not constantly plugged in). But the real benefit of an external drive is the fact that it can be removed from the computer and stored elsewhere. Storing the drive in a fireproof safe or in an off-site location can add an extra layer of security to your backup solution.

WEAKNESSES

New boots and a fake lacoste polo
Creative Commons License photo credit: assbach

External hard drives are still hard drives and they’re prone to the same failures as internal hard drives. The disk may just give up one day without warning or reason. And if you decide to leave the drive connected to the computer at all times, it essentially has the same weaknesses as your computer (lightning strikes, fire, theft, etc.). External drives also tend to be a target for other failure modes, such as being dropped or knocked off the desk. Hard drives don’t like that.

CONCLUSIONS

External hard drives can be great backup solutions, and many people utilize them for doing just this. I, myself, use an external drive to store one copy of my photos and other vital documents. The great thing about them is that they can be truly separate from your computer between backups.

And as with any backup solution, I’d suggest keeping more than one. So an external backup drive is good, but it’s not complete by itself. The next section of this series will discuss the infamous RAID tower, including the Drobo.

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Photo Backup: Internal Hard Drive

Hard Drive - 2 Flash/Brolly
Creative Commons License photo credit: geerlingguy

In the last big part of this series, we talked about working drives — the various options and their strengths and weaknesses. In the next few sections, I’ll be diving a little deeper while discussing various options for your backup hardware. Once we make it through the hardware, we’ll talk software. And finally, we’ll finish off with a discussion about strategy.

FOLLOW THIS SERIES OF ARTICLES!
TOC — PHOTO BACKUP GUIDE
BACK — WORKING DRIVES
NEXT — EXTERNAL HARD DRIVE

Our options for backup hardware is much the same as the working drives, but we have a few other options too. To kick off this section, we’ll go over the use of internal hard drives as backup hardware.

The PC under the MiniMac
Creative Commons License photo credit: veeliam

THE BASICS

An internal hard drive is simply a hard drive housed within your computer case and attached to its power and data connections. All computers have at least one internal drive to run the operating system, but an internal backup drive is one separate from your main drive. Simply creating a copy of your data on the same hard drive won’t give you much data protection. On that same note, most computers have more than one power supply cable and hard drive data connection, so installing a second, third, or even fourth drive should be no problem.

Hard drives come in all different flavors. Common form factors include 3.5″ (commonly found in desktops) and 2.5″ (commonly found in laptops). Let me just interrupt the flow to state that this article is based on the assumption that you’re using a desktop computer with 3.5″ drives — laptops don’t usually have too much extra space for additional drives. Hard drives also come in a multitude of disk interfaces (or the shape of the data plug). The SATA interface is most common today, but some computer are still supporting the old ATA drives. SCSI (pronounced “scuzzy” if you’re a geek) is not terribly common, but some people still use them. And I’m sure that by the time I publish this article, the next best thing will have obsoleted the SATA drive.

So my point is this: make sure you know what type of drive you can plug into your computer. Don’t jump on that ATA drive because it’s cheap, only to find out that you can’t even plug it in. Also beware of differences within a particular interface — for example, we’ve got SATA 1.5 Gb/s, SATA 3.0 Gb/s, and now SATA 6.0 Gb/s is in the works. So again, figure out what you need before you buy.

BACKING UP

Internal hard drives can be used as backup drives a few different ways. The simplest method is to install the drive as a secondary drive, or extra storage space, and use some type of software backup utility to make a copy of your chosen data from your main drive. We’ll talk about software options later, but most operating systems (excluding Vista) give you the ability to make backups of specific files and directories.

Another method is to use the drive as a mirror, or RAID 1 configuration. A mirror is simply a disk that is a duplicate of another disk or portion of a disk (like your photos), usually updated in real-time. For this, you’ll either need a piece of software or hardware (like a RAID controller) to manage the mirror operations.

The last major method of internal drive backup I’ll talk about is a full-blown RAID 5 configuration. This method will require at least 3 separate internal drives and a RAID controller to work (though I believe that some distributions of Linux can do this via software). A RAID 5 setup utilizes these 3 or more drives as a single drive with the data split between them in a manner that allows one drive to fail and your data to remain in-tact (of course the failed drive has to be replaced though).

Lucha Libre
Creative Commons License photo credit: Brian Auer

STRENGTHS

Internal hard drives are fast, cheap, and they stay out of your way. They won’t clutter up your desktop or get knocked off the printer stand because they’re bolted to the inside of your computer case. They also have fairly high capacities given the cost — 1TB drives are not so uncommon. Drop down to 500GB or so and you can pick one up for much less than $100.

WEAKNESSES

still fighting the burger wars
Creative Commons License photo credit: Sumit

Well… for starters, it’s sitting right next to your main drive. This means that you’re not protected against theft, fire, lightning strikes, computer viruses, and spontaneous combustion. If something happens to destroy your main drive, it’s probably going to destroy your back up drive. It does protect against a random hard drive failure though, which is more common than most other catastrophes. The other downside to the internal drive is that you can’t pack it up and move it around or store it off-site without lugging your whole computer along or ripping it apart.

CONCLUSIONS

Extra internal drives can be a very feasible backup solution. They’re certainly better than nothing, and you have a couple of options for how you set up the drive to interact with your other internal drives. If you do choose to go this route, I’d strongly suggest a secondary backup plan (which is something I’d suggest anyway). Just don’t get stuck in the notion that you need an external hard drive to backup your photos — which is what we’ll be talking about in the next article for this series.

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Photo Backup: Working Drives

Working Drive Comparison Chart

A good photo backup strategy starts with your working hard drive(s) — that place you use to access and work on your photos. If you don’t have a clean system for keeping your original copies, your photo backups are going to be a nightmare — especially if you’ve got stuff strewn between several computers and various external hard drives (you know who you are).

FOLLOW THIS SERIES OF ARTICLES!
TOC — PHOTO BACKUP GUIDE
BACK — HOW BIG IS YOUR PHOTO COLLECTION?
NEXT — INTERNAL HARD DRIVE

There are several basic options for working drives, and they all have their pros and cons. You may not be ready to completely change your game plan right now, but this could be something to think about the next time you upgrade your computer (or run out of disk space).

MAIN INTERNAL DRIVE

Computers require a hard drive to operate and that hard drive usually has some extra space on it for your personal documents. When you journey into photography, this main drive is usually where the photos get stored.

PROS — performance, simplicity, cost. Today’s computers have plenty of hard drive space, usually sporting between 200 and 500 GB of capacity. Unless you’re shooting with a pro-level camera (and doing lots of it), this hard drive space will probably last a while. Internal drives are great for speed too — with the latest SATA 3.0 drives clocking in at 3 Gbit/s (or 375 MB/s) communication rates.

CONS — scalability, security, portability. If you keep shooting, you will run out of space at some point. Plus it’s a pain to transfer photos when you decide to get a new computer. You also have to consider that you’re sharing space with your operating system — that disk is constantly working overtime just to keep your computer running. More use of a drive can mean a quicker unexpected death.

SEPARATE INTERNAL DRIVE

IDE Drives - P9153453
Creative Commons License photo credit: isdky

Most computers have the space and connections to accommodate multiple hard drives. One drive can be used for your OS and your standard documents, and the other drive(s) can be used just for photos.

PROS — performance, scalability. Internal drives are way cheap and they come in many sizes to suit your needs. Since they’re connected straight to your motherboard, you’ll be enjoying quick performance while organizing and processing photos. If your photo drive fills up, you can get another one. And when you switch computers, you’ll probably be able to just transfer the drives over without issues.

CONS — cost, difficulty, portability. I said they’re cheap, but they still cost more than nothing. There’s also a constant shift in technology that tends to obsolete hardware like hard drives. Then again, it’s a good idea to get fresh drives every few years. You just have to make sure that you’re getting the right type of hard drive to go with your motherboard — and you have to pull the computer apart to install it.

PRODUCTS — 500GB, 1TB, and 1.5TB Drives.

EXTERNAL DRIVE

An external drive is just an internal drive with a plastic box around it. They are typically connected to the computer via USB or Firewire, and juiced up with an external power supply.

PROS — simplicity, portability, scalability. Most external drives are pretty easy to set up and use — just plug it in and use it. They’re also nice in the fact that they can be moved from one computer to another in very little time (handy for those who use a desktop and laptop). It’s pretty simple to expand your photo collection with external drives too — just get another one and plug it in.

CONS — performance, cost, fragility. External drives cost more than internal drives because they have a convenience factor and they’re covered in extra hardware. They’re also free-standing units, which means that they can get bumped and knocked off the desk or shelf. External drives also tend to be slower than internal drives when reading and writing data.

PRODUCTS — 500GB and 1TB Drives.

RAID TOWER

RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive/Independent Disks) is a type of technology that uses two or more hard drives to achieve better performance and/or reliability. Similar to an external hard drive, RAID towers are just a box with multiple drives inside (but they have a brain too).

PROS — security, scalability, accessibility. The great thing about a RAID tower is that it protects itself against most hard drive failures. If one drive fails, pull it out, put a fresh one in, and let it rebuild your data. You can also upgrade your drives for additional space as the need arises. Most towers are also geared to attach to a network, so you can access them from several computers through a router.

CONS — cost, performance. These boxes are not at all cheap — because they’re much more complex than a simple external drive enclosure. Some are like little computers on their own. Recent towers have gotten faster with data transfer rates, but an internal SATA 3.0 (375 MB/s) drive is still going to outperform anything external — even if it has multiple USB 2.0 (60 MB/s) ports, Firewire 800 (100 MB/s), or eSATA (120 MB/s) connections.

PRODUCTS — Drobo tower and Buffalo’s 1TB, 2TB, and 4TB towers.

NETWORK DRIVE

flight deck (2)
Creative Commons License photo credit: david ॐ

There probably aren’t too many people who would need this option, but it can be handy in a professional environment. A network drive is basically just a hard drive (or set of hard drives) that live in a dedicated file-server.

PROS — accessibility, security, scalability. When networked, these drives can be accessed from multiple other computers, and even across the web if you have the technical know-how. Good for a studio environment where many computers are used and workstations are upgraded regularly.

CONS — cost, difficulty, portability. In addition to the drives, you’ll be paying for the extra computer hardware and the network equipment. Then you have to be knowledgeable on the fine art of networking computers. Plus you’ll have another computer that needs upkeep on the software and hardware.

IN CONCLUSION

A good photo backup strategy starts with your working hard drive space. There are many options available to give you the performance and flexibility you need. The main things you need to consider are cost, performance, simplicity, scalability, security, portability, and accessibility. The most important thing is to find a solution that works for you, and be prepared to change your mind about your current setup as you get pulled into the hobby/career of photography.

What are you using for your main working drive? Are there any options that I’ve left out?