Having always trusted my digital archive to a random variety of techniques, I recently decided to bite the bullet and sort it out once and for all. Up to now, I’ve always gone for the very risky technique of storing my archive on a single disk until the end of the calendar year. At that point, I duplicate the files onto another drive and store that one in another location. While it’s kind of the right thing to do, it relied entirely on that first disk lasting the year without any issues. As the common I.T. mantra goes, it’s not a case of “if” a drive will fail, but “when”. As drives contain moving parts, they will at some point grind to a stuttering halt, taking all your lovely art with it. Another phrase worth remembering is that if your data is on one drive, it’s not an archive, but simply stored insecurely. Basically, it’s time to pull your socks up!
In the future, I’m sure the answer will be backing up your whole archive on cloud storage but the current prices leave this option the domain of the uber-wealthy/crazy. For now, the safest bet appears to be RAID 1. While RAID 0 offers faster access speeds by striping your data across two drives, RAID 1 is a simple direct mirror of the data on the first drive. As you back-up your images, the information is written to both drives so, if at any point a drive fails, the information is still there on the second unit. I should point out that the downside here is that whatever you do to the first disk is duplicated. While that may sound like a purely positive thing, if you accidentally break out your fat thumbs and delete a whole wodge of data or accidentally overwrite a file with a corrupt version, you’ll need to pray to the gods of data recovery as you would if you were using a single drive.
One of the stipulations I had when first looking at this kind of set up was the need to be able to take either of the drives and drop them into an external enclosure at a later point and access the information. If I move a drive to a second location and need to access it there, I want to be able to just plug it in and go, not lug the RAID enclosure with both drives to the location. Preliminary research suggested that some types of RAID encrypted the data, meaning that each drive individually was unreadable once away from it’s twin. Thankfully, I found the erotically-named Icy Box IB-RD4320StU3. Unlike using software RAID, the Icy Box uses a hardware controller, with the result being that I can pull a drive out of it at the end of the year and the information is viewable independently. Bravo!
The unit itself is small and as pretty as a metal box can ever be. The physical size of the unit is suitably compact at only 80 x 120 x 185mm so it slots in behind my screen comfortably. I opted for a pair of 1Tb Western Digital Caviar Black drives for my 2011 archive. In case, like me (heaven forbid), you wondered what the difference is between Western Digital’s Caviar Green, Blue and Black drives, here’s the low-down. Green drives are quiet and have a low power consumption but at the cost of a little bit of speed, Blue drives are the “everyday” drives and as such are mid-priced and average at everything while Black drives (being all dark and mysterious) are power-mad beasts. Okay, not quite but they have the fastest speeds of the three, are the loudest of the three but use the most power. Now all of this is relative so when it’s described as the noisiest, it’s compared to the Green drive’s totally silent operation. As for power, the street lights appear to still be working on Tabasco Avenue so I think the national grid is safe for the moment.
Installation of the drives is as easy as pie (or at least the eating of) with the two drives just slotting in with no screws or clamps needed. Once inside, you flick the switch on the back to decide what flavour of RAID you require, push a button to reset the unit and you’re ready to go. One slight complication for me is that I use an AFP PC laptop for work and an Apple iMac at home. As both use different file system formats as standard, I needed to find a common ground. Thankfully, I had to look into this a long time ago and settled on the Windows NTFS format. While Microsoft stands firm with it’s belligerent stance of only supporting it’s own file system, Apple is rumoured to be fully implementing an NTFS option in the forthcoming Lion operating system and, until then, I use a bit of software called “Paragon“. This simply gives OS X a bit of a prod and tells it to recognise NTFS drives, allowing you to both read and write to them. Once, you’ve formatted the drives, a single drive icon pops up on your desktop (in OS X) or in your “My Computer” tab (in Windows) and from now on, everything that you drag onto the disk will be copied to both drives.
The biggest pain of the whole challenge was copying the data from my previous single 2011 drive over to the RAID setup. Despite the Icy Box being USB 3.0, none of my gear is that up to date and the only connection that is shared between my laptop and my iMac is the regular USB 2.0. While that’s fine for pen drives and ipods, it becomes a major mission to copy across 450Gb+ of data. Predicting how long it would take, I started it off and headed to bed and thankfully it had finished by breakfast time. The issue then was how to verify that the information had been transferred correctly. After asking on twitter, I got many suggestions but nothing did the job. If it’s written for OS X, you’ll be amazed how many software packages only see Apple’s HFS format drives so won’t work on my NTFS drives. In the end, I found a free Windows program called WinMerge that chugged away through the drives. Four hours later and I had the thumbs up; Operation Home Raider was a success.
For other photographers’ views on archiving, check out an interesting post at Photofocus, Edmond Terakopian’s blog, Carter Hewson’s thoughts and, if you’re feeling particularly wealthy/paranoid Chase Jarvis’ page. As one final note to all those who think they’re safe, remember drives have a lifetime even if they’re not plugged in and stored in Fort Knox. The accepted belief is that it’s wise to at least plug them in and spin them up every six months or so to make sure they’re in working order. It may seem costly but it’s also worth shifting the data onto new drives every few years too. Technology moves pretty quickly with connection interfaces and plugs changing every few years. That may sound ridiculous but if you needed to access it, do you have the means to connect up that old 150Gb IDE drive you have in your cupboard? So, now that I’ve sewn the seed of doubt in your mind, take a look at your random stack of enclosures, drives and disks and consider how secure your data is. Remember, if you make your living from your photographs, can you afford to lose them?
N.B. – A colleague has pointed out that I haven’t mentioned the actual cost of the whole experiment on here. Cheers for pointing that out, Nick! The total package, including the drives, cost me less than £165. I really don’t think that’s too bad for the peace of mind.