Most people don’t think too much about backing up their home computer data until it is too late. For those that do think about it, there are many cheap or free solutions to store the relatively small amount of data. One of the easiest methods is to burn your data onto a CD/DVD once a week. If you get even more serious, burn two copies and keep one at a neighbors house or at work. However, the possibilities start to become more difficult when you start dealing with larger amounts of data.
My wife is a part-time photographer. When shooting a wedding, she will produce over 3,000 high resolution images, all which need to be stored, accessed and backed up. Brides don’t want to hear that they don’t get any pictures because the hard drive stopped working. Combine those images with our hundreds of mp3 music files, personal photographs, office productivity files and just record keeping and we have over 500GB of data that needs to be stored and preferably backed up.
This is a scratch pad of my work to find a solution to this storage and back up problem. I call this a scratch pad because I will use it as a place to store my research and findings, my notes and even my To Do list. My goal is to find a solution that works for our needs and provide a finished Associated Content article on that single solution, its advantages and its disadvantages and the costs. Some folks may want to see more of the details that went into my final solution, and that is where this scratch pad comes into play. Other folks won’t want to know all of the details. If you fall into that category, feel free to just check back often to see if I’ve published the final article.
Obviously, doing this type of research will take some time and resources. It will likely even involve making some purchases and even building some custom computer solutions. That being the case, money and time become my major limiting factors. You can help out with either. I’ll include a link soon to a) be contacted about donating money to help with the purchase of equipment for review and testing and b) to provide information on any solutions you may be using or have tried.
My current solution is a Buffalo Technology DriveStation Duo. The model I have is a 1TB solution that contains two 500GB hard drives which are in RAID 1 mode. This means that the drives mirror one another. Anything stored to drive A is also stored to drive B automatically. While this is a 1TB solution, I really only end up with 500GB of usable space since each drive is storing the same data.
This is a great solution for hard drive errors because if a drive fails, I have a second one to get my data from. The device is attached via a USB connection to my computer. If/when a drive does fail, the device indicates the problem to you via status lights and it will automatically rebuild the mirrored copy when you replace the defective drive.
I did lose a drive in this device once and everything worked as advertised. I bought a new drive with similar specs (size and speed), opened the box, replaced the defective one and turned the device back on. The new drive was detected and rebuilt with my mirrored data (I only know this from the indicators. There isn’t really a way to see that you have two copies of the files). It does take quite a bit of time to rebuild the new drive, but that isn’t really a factor of this specific device, but a factor of using the RAID 1 technology with that amount of disk usage.
One the other side, one disadvantage to this device is that I’m out of space. I’ve filled it up and now I’m constantly looking for old documents and files that I can get rid of to free up more space. Once it is full, it is full. There is no method for expanding the amount of space. I thought about replacing the drives inside with larger ones, knowing that I’d have to work out how to get the current data back onto it, however, Buffalo Technology specifically states that they don’t suggest doing that. I don’t know if that is because it won’t work or if that is because it robs them of potential sales. I would like to try this out, however I’m skeptical since my all of my data is currently tied up in this solution. I’d rather find a new, expandable solution first, and then look at playing around with the DriveStation Duo.
Another disadvantage to this solution is that it doesn’t offer any protection against things like fire, theft, or other disasters. Since the drives are both located in the same enclosure, in the same house, if a fire burns down our house, both copies of the data goes with it. My wife has mentioned to me before that if there is a fire, she’s going after that drive. I think she is at least partially serious about this, which is another reason I’m doing this research. I certainly don’t want anyone worrying about getting their computer drives safe during a fire and putting themselves, or other family members at risk.
Here is a quick spec sheet on this solution:
Cost : Low (~$175)
Effort to maintain: Low
Portable?: Yes (must move entire enclosure)
Available remotely (Internet access to files)? : Not natively
Protection from Hard Disk failures?: Yes
Protection from Disasters: No
So in my quest to look at solutions, I thought, I should probably explain what RAID is since many people don’t know this term and it would only confuse them. RAID is an acronym which stands for Redudant Array of Inexpensive Disks. So what does that mean? It is a way to use multiple hard drives to achieve different goals. There are different types of RAID configurations, each achieving different goals. RAID-1 (mirroring) is probably the most common use of RAID which is where you have two hard disks, each of which mirror one another. Every file written on one is also written on the other.
The simplest type of RAID is probably RAID-0 (striping), this is simply where your total disks (two in our example) are combined to give you a combined total amount of space. The benefit to this is that it performs better because both hard drives can be reading or writing data at the same time.
Another popular option of RAID is RAID-5 (Block-level striping with distributed parity). Don’t worry about the name so much as what it allows you to do. Instead of Raid-1 when you have a 1 to 1 pair of disks, RAID-5 allows you to have 3 or more disks, and use more than 50% of your total space and still have the protection against losing a hard drive.
Online Backup Solutions vs. Online Storage Solutions
There are many services available online which offer storage or backup in the “cloud”. There is a big difference between the two types of solutions however. Online Backup Solutions usually involve a small application running on your computer which communicates to a storage provider on the Internet somewhere. Your files are copied to this off-site storage facility to provide a safe backup of your files. With most of these solutions, however, if you delete a file from your computer, it will ultimately be deleted from the online facility as well. Very few offer the capability to keep files after they have been deleted from your local computer.
Online Storage is basically the same idea of having available disk space somewhere in the “cloud” of the Internet. The difference here is that there isn’t a requirement to have the files also stored on your computer. You can choose what files are stored and which files aren’t. Some of these solutions may include backup software so that you can use it as a backup solution as well, but deleted files can/will hang around until you remove them from the online storage.
Given the differences between the two, Online Storage Solutions clearly offer the better option. You can use them as a backup solution, but you have the flexibility to store files that aren’t on your computer, freeing up local disk space. The problem with Online Storage Solutions is cost. A Online Backup Solution may be as cheap as $50 per year for unlimited space. That is a great deal considering that you can store 500GB + of data for just $50 per year. But, keep in mind that it also means keeping a local copy of all of that 500GB + worth of data. These companies are betting on the idea that the avg. customer won’t have mass amounts of data.
Online Storage Solutions almost always charge by the total amount of space that you want. Want more space? Pay more money! Amazon offers a well know storage solution , but with a very complicated pricing scenario. You pay for the amount of storage and you pay for the data transfers as well. Amazon also charges for requests to the server (to store, to retrieve, etc.). Figuring out what it would cost to store 500GB of data comes in at $75/month to maintain the 500GB of storage space and a one time fee of $80 to get the 500GB worth of data there. If you need to retrieve that data (say all 500GB of it), you are looking at another $75 to bring your data back down. As you can see this is much more expensive than the $50/yr of unlimited space for a backup solution.
In general, however, there are several issues with online solutions for either backup or general storage. First, these processes are slow. To upload 500GB worth of data from your home Internet connection could take you weeks. The same would be true if you ever needed to retrieve it back down. Second, depending on the company you choose, you don’t really know what these folks are doing with your data. Sure they claim they are safe and secure, but do you know? Did you just give some disgruntled high school student access to all of your data? Another issue is you don’t know what the hardware situation is at the backup site. Suppose they aren’t backing up your data and they lose a hard drive with all or part of your data on it. Are they going to ask you to re-upload your data, or worse, will you find out about it when you need to retrieve files from the service? Probably the biggest issue, however, is that most of these services don’t work for networked or shared drives. These services are intended to backup a single computer’s data, therefore they don’t allow you to upload data from a networked drive or from a drive that is shared on your network. In my situation, I share my external USB drive out on my local network. I do this so that I can access the files from my main computer or my laptop. My wife has a laptop too, so she also accesses the drive. Since we went through the trouble of purchasing a RAID 1 (mirroring) drive, I want to be able to use it from any pc on my network.
For my needs, I like the idea of having the online backup, but am definitely not willing to pay the premium price for just an online storage solution. The main disadvantage for me is the fact that these services don’t allow for backing up networked drives. There are probably ways around this by sharing the drive when I need to and not sharing the drive during the night when files are being copied. First, what a hassle this would be. Second, it would probably only be a matter of time before these vendors figure out a way to prevent that from working either, if they haven’t already. The other disadvantage for me with the backup solution is the amount of time it will take to back up all of the files, and again to retrieve them if needed.
NAS is an acronym for Network Attached Storage. These devices are just like external hard drives that you would attach to your computer. The difference is they attach directly to your network instead of your computer. Having it attached to your network gives you a couple of bonuses. First, they are always shared on the network. By default, a drive hooked directly to your PC is only available to your PC. You have to share it out if you want others to have access to it. A network drive is just the opposite. It is available to all of your local network by default and you have to deny access if you want to limit it. A second bonus to a NAS is that it is always available to any computer on your network. So long as your NAS box is turned on, the drive is available to everyone. If you had a drive hooked to your PC, it will only be available when your computer is turned on. Most people who own NAS devices just leave them on all of the time. They consume much less power than a full computer and they usually include power saver features. The last benefit to having a NAS drive is that they usually include additional benefits. :-) Most NAS devices include additional features that you can use. Some of them include the ability to hook up a printer and share that out to your network. They also include features to make your drives available on the Internet so that you have access to your files anywhere (this requires additional network configurations and can open you up to vulnerabilities if you aren’t careful). Different drives have different features, so you’ll have to shop around to see what is offered.
This is interesting, you can use these products to build your own customized storage solution. Essentially, this is the same as my current solution, but with the possibility of expanding.
D-Link DNS-321 NAS device
This is a NAS device that supports RAID -1 mirroring. D-Link offers a few different NAS devices. This is the cheapest model that they offer. I saw some benchmark testing that showed it performed equally as well as D-Link’s other devices. It doesn’t include as many bells and whistles as some of the others, but it does the basics.