Let's Talk External Storage

I expect by this point in time, most of us, whether we shoot primarily stills or primarily video have determined that the built in drive on our computers is not the optimal place to store our created content.  If you have not gotten to that point, here's a tip.  Get there as soon as possible.

This is not because those boot drives are unreliable or slow.  Most these days are SSDs or a combination of SSD and fast spinning mechanical drives.  The real challenges are capacity and the ability to clone the drive for effectively instant recovery.

For this we want to our irreplaceable content to be on its own subsystem that is easily replicated both locally and to the cloud.

I've been working with desktop and portable computers since 1981, admittedly a very long time and have gained a lot of experience.  This experience does not make me a seer or sage, but it may be valuable to you.  There are basically three styles of external storage available to us;

  • External locally attached spinning or SSD drive
  • External locally attached drive array
  • Network attached array

I want to look at the pros and cons of each and offer up some real world experiences with each.  I have received no compensation, and no free product for the production of this article.  I would tell you if I had, and if anyone wants to send me free stuff, that is certainly something that could be worked out.

External Locally Attached Drive

A G-Technology Armoured Drive, USB3 ideal for use with a laptop

A G-Technology Armoured Drive, USB3 ideal for use with a laptop

This is a common solution for many laptop users.  A USB3 powered external drive may not fit in a shirt pocket but is going to be nice and compact.  You can get up to 4TB of storage at a very reasonable price point.  The drives themselves may not be super fast, more often 5400rpm than 7200rpm but the lower speed makes for lower power demands and better longevity.  When disconnected, their power down state protects the heads and they can survive a reasonable amount of jouncing around.  Like any spinning drive, bouncing them while live is a prescription for disaster.  You can also purchase a drive case with USB3 connection and install your own SSD drive.  For price reasons this may be less practical given the still comparatively high cost of SSDs and if your files are smaller and not being hit all the time, the performance advantages may be hard to see.  For a simple store bought drive, I have found the Western Digital Passport series to be very reliable.  Slightly more expensive and a bit harder to find are the portable drives from G-Technology.  They have options as both SSD and spinning drives.   I do not recommend Seagate or LaCie drives because they have demonstrated in my experience, a disproportionately high failure rate.

This is a 10TB standalone external drive with USB 3.1 connectivity

This is a 10TB standalone external drive with USB 3.1 connectivity

if you are looking for an AC powered full size spinning drive I recommend the G-Technology drives.  I am less fond of the larger WD externals and do not recommend the Seagate externals as they fail too often.  The LaCie externals look very pretty but they have definitely gone cheap on the internals (which are Seagates at this point) and I have personally a number of failed LaCie drives that I have tried over the years in hope of improvement.  My primary stills drive that was a LaCie Thunderbolt drive died after just over two years of use.  While I have realtime backups, all drive failures are traumatic, and my experiments with LaCie are now over.

External Locally Attached Drive Array

There are a number of options in this space.  My recommendation is going to be the units from G-Technology, but if you choose to purchase an empty chassis and populate it yourself instead of getting it with the superior Hitachi drives preinstalled, go only with an array ready drive such as the WD Red Pro drives.  Because the data is spanned across multiple drives reads and writes are very efficient and if you choose a Thunderbolt or USB 3 connection, performance is excellent.

This is a Drobo 5D3.  It has both USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 3 connectivity and takes 5 drives in its array

This is a Drobo 5D3.  It has both USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 3 connectivity and takes 5 drives in its array

I own a number of Drobos, and my experience with them is one of love / hate.  When they work, they are great although their management software is annoying requiring full system restarts on every update.  I have in production, Firewire connected, USB3 connected and Thunderbolt connected units.  I have had each of the chassis' fail and while Drobo made replacements available at a not unreasonable price, know that Drobo's array model is completely proprietary.  Once you set up a Drobo array, if it packs it in, you will need another Drobo chassis to do a recovery.  If a drive packs it in, it works like any array in that you pull the bad drive and replace it with a new drive and it rebuilds in the background.  The rebuild is not very fast, but the unit provides acceptable performance in the rebuild.  If one chooses Drobo, use only NAS specified drives like the WD Red Pro series or data centre capable drives like the WD Gold series.  I would recommend purchasing Drobocare because all of mine failed within a few weeks of warranty expiration.  Also be aware that Drobo power supplies are known weak spots and getting replacements is what one might call a pain in the ass.

The G-Technology locally attached arrays are excellent and I would recommend them highly.


G-Technology Local Attach Drive Array

G-Technology Local Attach Drive Array

We will find external arrays from Seagate and LaCie, but again, my recommendation is to stay away from them, solely based on personal experience.

Network Attached Drive Array

Many of us have local area networks in our homes and businesses.  A Networked Attached Drive Array is the most flexible way of making storage available to multiple devices simultaneously.  A business grade array will span data across multiple disks and while it can use either spinning disks or SSDs, the cost of spinning disks is lower.  Only use NAS certified drives in such an array.  An associate is using the new 10TB Seagate drives, but he received them at no cost  as part of a reference program.  I as usual, recommend the WD Pro NAS drives.

Synology DS1517+ NAS Array with 5 bays.  This is expandable using Synology Expansion Chassis

Synology DS1517+ NAS Array with 5 bays.  This is expandable using Synology Expansion Chassis

My preference in NAS systems for home and business remains the lineup from Synology.   I personally use a DS1513+ that has been in place for several years with an expansion frame attached to it.  I use one bay for an SSD drive dedicated to acceleration purposes.  I find the NAS no slower in response than the Drobo's and often times faster.  The Synology business arrays support Ethernet bonding, and I have bonded all four Ethernet connections.  Note that your network switch must support bonding for this to work.  I use the TP-Link business grade switches and have found them to perfectly reliable.

Any good array can sustain the creation of multiple volumes and multiple shares within a volume. You can access them via Windows, Macintosh and Linux sharing protocols.  Some like the Synology can also run applications on their native processors.  One should be cognizant of load created and balance app use against response.  Mine runs an Antivirus task, a backup task as well cloud based remote access.  I used to run other services but as I found that I used them infrequently, I disabled them and saw a minor performance improvement.  Some arrays, like the Synology can even clone themselves to another Synology array, either locally or remotely.

Cloud Based Backup

Whatever local storage method you choose, you should also have cloud based backup for your critical files to protect you in case of fire, flood or other disaster.  I have tried several and while I personally use Crashplan for Small Business myself, have a number of clients with a smaller machine footprint who are very successful with Backblaze.  Based on experience both with backup and test restores, I cannot recommend any other service.

In Closing

I hope that this short article helps you choose the kind of external storage that best suits your own use cases.  Whatever you choose, it has to work for your needs and your budget.  I would recommend that everyone remember that no data is backed up unless it is in three places, the original, a local file level backup and a cloud file level backup.

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