One downside to being a photographer or cinematographer is the amount of data you rack up over the years. I’ve been shooting for well over 10 years and have accumulated roughly 12 terabytes of photo and video data. Most of you will relate to my storage method; several portable external drives. They’re cheap, they’re portable and there are versions of them which are designed to withstand abuse. This fairytale did not have a happy ending for me when one of the drives simply stopped working, and just like that, 2 years worth of photos and videos were gone. Forever. External drives were no longer going to be a viable solution for safe-keeping and the allure of cheap storage options was washed away with the loss of one 2TB hard drive. I decided to move all my photo data to my Network Attached Storage drive which was currently being used to store and stream media over the internal network, but the current setup would not do.
At home, we have a Synology DS918+ network attached storage box. It can house up to 4 hard drives and offer a total of 48TB of RAW storage. Great choice for storing photos, keeping future expansion in mind. The other problem was that currently, the NAS box had 2 regular old 3.5-inch hard-drives, both of which had some bad sectors. The drives were old and could technically fail at any time, but they did not have any data on them that wasn’t replaceable. In order to store and catalog the contents of my photography career, I needed a robust solution that was capable of not only delivering good working speeds but also long-term reliability. The new solution also had to provide safety against drive failures, hence a RAID 5 or RAID 6 setup was a bare minimum requirement.
Enter the Solution
Eventually, the decision was made to acquire Western Digital’s Red hard drives. These drives have been designed specifically for use in network attached storage systems, meaning they can run for far longer than a regular drive before failing, in an ideal scenario. The goal wasn’t to run the drives 24x7, but the idea was to buy something that was going to be the most resilient solution, without having to sell my car (hence, no SSD solution here). There are a few other NAS certified drives out there in the market, but I settled for WD simply because I’ve made a similar setup for a production company back in 2014, and four years later, the RED drives are still holding strong.
Cheap External HDDs vs. Expensive, non-movable storage array
Remember the first time you plugged in a storage device into your computer and discovered that the available storage was lesser than what was advertised? With a NAS, the experience is even worse. After infusing the Synology box with 16TB worth of space, I am left with only 10TB of usable space. There are two reasons for this. First, you already get lower-than-advertised storage space on every hard drive. A 4TB hard drive offers roughly 3.6TB of usable space. However, a majority of the space is lost due to the NAS being setup in RAID 5, where the system offers protection against the failure of one drive. This effectively makes it as if you only have 3 drives. If you were to be even more paranoid and require 2-drive redundancy, then the available space would drop even further. One thing about data redundancy systems is that you are going to get noticeably less space than your drives advertise, so just be okay with it.
After the four Western Digital Red drives were inserted into the Synology DS918+, the system has to build the Volume. The Volume is basically a partition where you will store data. You can choose to create multiple volumes, but making a single volume is generally the most speed-efficient for day-to-day usage. After setting up the new drives, the system takes about 14 hours to build the volume and do a disk parity check, to ensure that the drives are in good health and all the sectors are lined up properly. Wouldn’t want to start a new storage solution with bad sectors, now would we?
Migrating workflow to NAS
One of the biggest problems of moving to a NAS-based storage setup is that you lose the speed of USB3.0 (or newer). Since NAS drives link to your computer via a network, the maximum transfer speeds are capped at a little over 100MB/s. That’s because gigabit has been the standard transfer rate for networking devices for the longest time. My biggest concern with this whole process was that it would significantly slow down my editing process in Lightroom, as the software would run on my machine, but the images would be stored on the NAS. Regardless, I figured it would be a good idea to see just how much slower the NAS was.
Firing up CrystalDisk Mark and running the benchmark on the NAS (connected via gigabit ethernet) and one of the 2TB USB 3.0 drive (connected via USB3.0 port). Turns out my hard-drive was reporting slower read-write numbers in comparison to the NAS. I thought maybe CrystalDisk Mark was not working right, so I decided to use Adobe Lightroom as a benchmark. I created two new catalogues and imported a folder with all my photos and videos from the year 2012. The folder weighed 140GB and Lightroom was tasked with just importing the contents into the catalogue. It took Lightroom 11 minutes and 33 seconds to import this data from the local USB 3.0 drive. The NAS was surprisingly faster, completing the process in 11 minutes and 21 seconds. Even while browsing the catalogue and editing photos, there were no slow-downs. Turns out that if it’s a single person, working off the NAS is totally possible for creative individuals. I am also going to do a follow-up post after 3 months on how the drives have faired given the heavy use they will be getting put through over the next year and more.
Time take to Import140GB of Image data from local USB 3.0 drive
Time taken to import the same 140GB of Image data from a NAS running WD RED Nas Hard Drives over gigabit
Nobody likes losing data that they consider irreplaceable. For me, it was my photos and videos, for you, it might be something else. A NAS might seem like a very expensive proposition, but it is every bit worth the money. However, a NAS box my itself isn’t the answer to your data-loss nightmare. You absolutely need to have the right drives. A regular 3.5-inch drive wont cut it, so it has to be a drive that was designed specifically for demanding use. The WD Red was designed for just that. It runs cooler and quieter than a regular drive. These drives are designed to withstand the cumulative vibration caused by multiple drives spinning in the same box. Desktop drives are not. IF you’re a photographer or a film-maker, you much absolutely invest in a NAS setup with WD Redd drives to ensure you’re not a victim of drive failure in the middle of a deliverable project. Unfortunately, this kind of peace of mind comes at a significant cost. Whatever a NAS box may cost, the drives themselves are more expensive in comparison to their standard desktop counterparts. Each 4TB WD Red NAS hard drive costs anywhere between Rs 12,000-14,000, depending on where you buy it. The WD Red Pro, which is the same as the WD RED but a faster 7200rpm spin-rate costs even more. For single users, editing off the NAS is totally possible, but if you’ve got a multi-user environment, I will follow this post with various work-flow methods that can help prevent the network from choking up.