There is a question that I am asked in most every class that I teach and during almost every presentation that I give. Ironically it is not about my cameras, though they come up often. Nor is it about my lenses, my table-top tripod or my electronic flash. The fact is that almost every photographer I encounter wants to talk about “it.” Yet few photographers have a clear answer to the question, which tells me that “it” is one of the most important (and unresolved) questions for today’s digital photographer.
What am I talking about? The question usually goes, what kind of hard drive system do I use to back up my work and also access the same work whenever I need to? Most established pros have worked there way through this question so they may have some kind of system, though I am often surprised to find that many pros have less than robust systems.
The irony is that this question only exists because of digital imaging technology. Back in the “old days” of slides and negatives, my system was pretty simple. I kept all my slides and negatives in archival slide pages within archival storage binders/boxes. Those slides/negatives that were extremely special, typically the top twenty images from a given project, those were kept in the same archival storage pages but in the safe deposit box in the bank a few blocks from where I live. Thus I had what is now known as “off-site” backup of my most important slides and negatives. With digital imaging, I still have “off-site” backup, but it took me awhile to build my own particular system.
Like most photographers, my “office” once looked like something of a hard drive farm. Before I set up my current system, I really had no system. I backed up my files on pairs of hard drives, so the good news was that there was always double back up. On the other hand, when I needed more storage space, as the RAW files I was shooting got bigger, I would simply go out and buy more hard-drives with ever more storage capacity. When I hit the point where I had over a dozen hard drives on the top of my desk (or in storage in my bookcase,) I knew I had to do something.
I knew that I wanted some kind of RAID system, as in a “redundant array of independent (or inexpensive) disks,” which is an umbrella term for computer data storage systems that divide and replicate data among multiple physical hard drives. RAID configurations vary and my head ended up swimming amidst all the options. What matters is that each RAID strategy tries to strike a balance between two key (and contradictory goals) increase data reliability vs. increase input/output performance. I am not going to argue for one system over another except to say I went with the simplest, RAID level one, mirroring, where the data is duplicated on two different drives.
What matters is not what I chose, but why I chose it. Just like with cameras… When a photographer pushes a given camera brand, including me, the question to ask is, why that brand over another, in fact asking, what does that particular technology do for the photographer in question?
RAID one allows me to rest comfortably knowing that whenever I write something to the one hard drive on my desktop, it is automatically mirrored to another hard drive. Keep in mind a few things that are unique to my system. I do not run my Hard Drives all the time. In fact, my HD gets turned on maybe four to six times a week for a few hours then it gets to rest. (I wish I had as much down time as it does.) It is off for long stretches of time while I am away.
I use Apple’s Time Machine for the short term back up of my day-to-day activity on another hard drive, keeping in mind Time Machine’s main drawback. That is, when Time Machine fills up a given hard drive it makes new space by deleting the oldest copy of whatever data it is storing. So Time Machine is great for making sure I can go back to what I did a few days ago, but it is not of much value when it comes to finding older material. That is where my mirrored Hard Drive (RAID 1) format comes in.
The next question is which brand of RAID HD do I use and again, why? I looked at a lot of choices, including what is arguably the most well known RAID system for photographers, the DROBO. The big drawback with the DROBO is that the information you are storing is written in a proprietary compressed format. That is fancy way of saying that if the company behind DROBO ever goes out of business and you have “issues” (and need to get to your data) you are on your own. I settled on a CalDigit VR (which was 4TB storage when I bought it but they are now up to 6 TB storage)
What does the CalDigit VR have that is unique to my needs? First, in case something goes wrong with one data cartridge (in my case a 2TB e-sata hard disk) or the enclosure itself, each of the individual data cartridges can be pulled out of the enclosure and read in any of what is commonly called an “e-sata toaster,” which is a very simple device that allows one to access data on any e-sata hard drive. This means that while the enclosure in the CalDigit VR is useful for organizing data and holding the cartridges in place, the data exists on its own. What the enclosure does add, which matters to me, is that everything I copy to the CalDigit VR hard drives(s) is copied to both HDs in the enclosure, which are mirroring each other.
The best thing of all with the CalDigit VR is how easily it allows me to do my all-important “off-site” backup. Once a month, or more often when I am diligent, I go to my bank’s safe deposit box and get out my third data cartridge, which is simply another 2TB e-sata hard disk. I pull one of those same cartridges out of the enclosure, both of which are in the enclosure and have the most up to date information. I put the “up to date drive” in the safe deposit box, knowing my data is “safe.” I then put the “older” drive in the CalDigit VR enclosure and the machine sees that the “old” disk does not match the new one so it rebuilds the data, making a copy of the new data on the “old” drive. The best thing of all is that it does this without the need for any kind of host computer. That last part is really important since many RAID systems require a computer to do the actual backing up.
When thinking about what kind of hard drive system to use to back up work (and to be able to access the same work) the question that matters goes something like this: How paranoid are you about losing data and how diligent are you about backing up the same data?
In answering that question, I came to see how the CalDigit VR could work for me. I did not buy it because someone recommended it highly, though I read a lot of praise for the system. I bought it because I looked at my set of problems and the available solutions. Then I took into account my level of paranoia as well as my diligence. With all those factors in mind, and a healthy skepticism of proprietary technology, I went with CalDigit VR. I know that my data is backed up securely. What about yours?