A Cheaper Storage Upgrade

Seagate 2TB External Drive

If you are sick of my articles on Drobo/NAS/DAS/RAID storage solutions because they are just overkill for your needs, you are in luck. I’m laid up with the flu, which is a perfect time to dump out some different storage solutions because it doesn’t require the same part of my brain the creative photography content does. 

Talking with a friend yesterday about some upgrades for his mac that was running slow and we got around to his current storage shortage.  (Yes, I have a lot of photographer friends, a side effect of this incurable disease I have called photography 😉

After helping him spend about $300 on a RAM and SSD boot drive upgrade for his 2015 iMac, the budget was tight for storage. He wanted to set up a new Storage Set that would be dedicated to RAW files, and include his existing archive of 700GBs of existing RAWs. (See my Freemium Backup and Storage Plan article for an explanation on what a Storage Set is. )  

He settled on buying three 2TB external drives for a total cost of about $179. One would be the master, and two would be exact clones using CarbonCopyCloner. This would let him transfer his existing 700GB of RAWs to the new storage set, and leave maybe a years worth of space for new RAWs from his 45mp camera. The $179 price is an easy bill to afford, and way less than film and processing used to cost, so even if it ends up being a little undersized, it gets him through till his high season for photo sales. 

Putting all your RAW files on a separate drive is a great way to segment your data. Since these files will never be modified directly, the backup needs are greatly minimized for that master volume. Your modified RAWs can live on a volume set aside for more active files in the case of Photoshop, or in your catalog for DAM (digital asset management) programs like Lightroom. 

So why not a RAID in this case? While RAID is a very nice to have, it’s not always a need as long as you are very diligent in doing regular backups. This solution works in keeping the data safe and accessible for very little money. 

My storage articles over the last few weeks weren’t meant to say you need RAID, but rather to explore what they do and how to manage them based on my experiences managing a lot of spinning disks in Mirrored RAIDs and Synology NAS systems. I used to be able to heat my office in with three Mac servers and forty odd hard drives West Coast Imaging required, so to say I’m very close to this subject is an understatement…lol. 

Sometimes inexpensive solutions are the best solutions, and as I shared with my friend, there are always more things to spend money on in photography. Saving money for him means more days on the road having more adventures and making more photographs. So “just enough” is always the right size. Owing spinning disks is not our goal in life. 

Drobo volume/partition size recommendations

A drobo is like a regular external hard drive in that it can be split up into smaller volumes or partitions. Just because you have 20TB of storage doesn’t mean you actually want a 20TB volume.

I recommend your volume size be based on the size external drive you are using for backup, so that each volume can be easily backed up to a single external drive.

For example, if you are using 8TB drives for backup, you might want to make 6TB volumes on your drobo. You want the backup to be bigger than the “master” volume on the drobo because backup software can allow you to keep snapshots of old data that allows you to go back in time if you accidentally delete , erase, or overwrite a file, or if it becomes corrupted. The more extra storage on your backup drive, the further “back in time” you can go (no DeLorean or flux capacitor needed.)

This means you’ll likely have multiple volumes/partitions on your drobo, and you should consider how you use them.

I recommend separating “hot” or frequently changed data from “cold” or seldom accessed data. Hot data is things you are regularly using, like your lightroom catalog, your latest photo shoots, etc. Cold might be where you sort older shoots that you are not accessing, as well as files that don’t need frequent modification. For example “2019 Raw Captures” might get it’s own volume.

Really cold data could be moved to an external drive to free up space on the drobo.

There are lots of ways to play this, but I’ll leave those details up to you.

How long do hard drives last?

Hard drives don’t last forever. Eventually the precision parts that let them rotate at thousands of RPM per minute with read heads that float just microns off the disk surface wear out and fail. SSD drives fail too, just in different ways. Modern technology has made them so reliable that we can be lulled into thinking they won’t give us problems, but that is a false security.

The truth is, an HHD or SSD drive can fail at any time. The best data we have, from online backup provider BackBlaze, proves it. Having a new drive is no insurance. It can fail just as easily at 100 hours as it can at 20,000 hours.

Here’s the part where I remind you that luck is not a strategy to keep your data safe, multiple backup copies is, before I return to the main subject.

So really you shouldn’t ever feel safe about a drive, and should have a disaster plan in place to fix things when, not if, they fail. Because given enough time, it is a when.

Drives record how long they have been powered up in internal logging called SMART data. Some drive cases allow us to read this data and see how many hours drives have been turned on. And while drives can die at any time, they become more likely to die as they log more hours.

Knowing a drives age in hours can be useful. I feel pretty comfortable using a HDD for 20,000-25,000 thousand hours based on my experience maintaining the servers for my printing companies, and my use of hundreds of drives.

25,000 hours/24=1041 days or 2.85 years of continuous use.

But chances are you only need access to your data for a few hours each day, so you can make your dives last a lot longer by powering them down or having them spin down when not in use. Some drive cases like drobo and synology let you specify when drives should “sleep.” Others need to the USB or power to be unplugged or switched off.

At 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year, you’ll log about 2,000 hours a year on your drives, and it will take you over ten years to get to 25,000 hours, by which time we should have some Star Trek like crystal storage technology, or at the least, much much cheaper cost per TB, and you’ll have probably replaced your current drives with much larger version for convenience. Less hours spinning means less chance they will fail.

But assuming you are really using your drives a lot, once drives approach 30,000 hours, I like to rotate them out of my master level storage and downgrade them to backup, where they will see fewer hours of use per year. While I’ve had drives work for over 50,000 hours, I wouldn’t want a drive that old to be used for anything but backup for a host of reasons.

All this applies to HDD drives, traditional hard drives with spinning disks. SSD, or flash drives have their own issues, not the least of which is loosing data if not powered on regularly. As of yet, there are few ways to safely put your data on a shelf for a long time and just forget about it. Your data needs to be kept alive on fresh drives and properly backed up, and only you can do that.

So how long do hard drives last? Until they don’t! Which will be the worst possible time they could fail based on Murphy’s law.

Hard Drive Costs November 2019

Current hard drive costs at a glance with links to purchase from Amazon. I recommend Seagate hard drives because they continue to test as some of the longest lasting drives.

Highlight for November is that 10TB external drives are a big savings over 10TB Internal drives. Also, on a cost per TB basis, 10TB drives are getting close enough to the sweet spot of pricing to make them attractive. But I generally don’t recommend buying more than a year’s capacity at a time, because 10TB drives could be $100 by next November, and will erase any “savings” from buying more than you need now. Also remember that a properly backed up “storage set” requires three drives, so buying more than you reasonably need (over provisioning) can suck up a lot of money.

Sometimes external drives are less expensive than internal drives. Advanced users may want to explore “shucking” external drives to save money as the external drives are often, but not always, SATA drives that can be used as an internal drive.

EXTERNAL

2TB $59.99 ($30 per TB)
4TB $89.99 ($22.50 per TB)
6TB $99.99 ($16.60 per TB)
8TB $139.99 ($17.50 per TB)
10TB $179.99 ($18 per TB)

INTERNAL

2TB $49.99 ($25 per TB)
4TB $89.99 ($22.50 per TB)
6TB $131.99 ($22 per TB)
8TB $149.99 ($18.75 per TB)
10TB $249.99 ($25 per TB)
12TB $312.99 ($26 per TB)
14TB $439.99 ($31.40 per TB)
16TB $476.99 ($29.80 per TB)

I’m an Amazon affiliate so I receive a small commission from each sale.

Long Term Photo Storage on Glass

Digital photograph has a big problem with long lasting storage. Hard drives and SSDs fail and degrade with time, with a 3-5 year service life in most cases before the drive fails or the data degrades, a fact I think most photographers are oblivious to, because for the most part, digital photography works well…until it doesn’t.

If you think you take storage seriously, you might want to compare your efforts to those of Warner Bros. They’ve partnered with Microsoft on Project Silica to create a truly archival form of digital storage. Engadget just did a great writeup on it:

https://www.engadget.com/2019/11/04/microsoft-archived-superman-project-silica/

Project Silicon encodes digital data onto stable quartz glass that is resistant to many forms of damage and degradation. The article provides a fascinating look into the challenges with preserving both film and digital data. I hope we still photographers can someday reap the rewards of this technology.

Interestingly glass has a long history in photography as it provides a dimensionally stable base for film emulsion. Ansel Adam’s famous Monolith, the Face of Half Dome was made on a glass plate. Glass plates were widely used by astronomers for most of the 20th century because they allowed precise measurements of star positions. There is a certain poetic beauty that photography is about to come full circle when we again store our photos on glass.