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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.

FOLLOW THIS SERIES OF ARTICLES!
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.

PRODUCTS

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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?