RAID Won’t Save Your Ass

Wedding photographers.  I’m looking at you.  You have precious, absolutely irreplaceable data.  Do not eff this up.  Here are the rules:

  1. If you don’t have at least three copies, you don’t have any.
  2. A RAID storage system does not count as more than one copy.
  3. Storage devices fail.  They just do.  Plan for the failure of your drives, and accept that it will happen.
  4. At least one copy of your client’s memories should be stored off-site.  No matter how many backups you have, you’re naked and defenseless if they’re all in your home where fire and burglars can get to them.
  5. JPEG or half-resolution files are not backups.  You cannot deliver the quality of product you expect from yourself if you’re forced to rely on these.  A backup is not a backup unless you can deliver a finished product to the client without them ever knowing there was an issue.

“RAID.”  It’s a term that your more tech savvy photographer friends have tossed around.  It comes up in conversations around data backups.  Some of those friends have probably spent impressive sums of money on something they call either “RAID” or a “NAS.”  Now you’re wondering if you need one, too.

Probably not.  I’ll explain why, but first, what is RAID?

Your friends will tell you it’s a fancy way of protecting yourself from data loss if a hard drive crashes.  It also can create massive drives for storing lots of data in one place, without having a bunch of drive letters, or drives mounted on your desktop, so there’s a convenience factor.  It can also get expensive.  While the neighborhood nerd could probably build a system fairly inexpensively, chances are you’re looking at a product you can buy from Amazon, and once you factor in drives and the RAID or NAS product, it’s probably north of $1,000.  The way these systems work is by spreading pieces of your files across many drives, and also storing some information about the data integrity of the file.  This way if one of the drives in the whole system fails, you can replace only that one drive, and the system can reconstruct all your files from the remaining bits of information that are still alive and well on the other drives.  Sounds great, right?

A software RAID-5 volume created with WIndows 8's "Storage Spaces" feature.
A software RAID-5 volume created with WIndows 8’s “Storage Spaces” feature.

Here’s the problem.  Many people make the mistake of thinking that one RAID is all they need.  Their budget for backup devices is $1400, so they spend it all on one RAID and think they’re protected.  I mean, if a drive fails, the data is ok, right?

Easy there, cow-person.  Few people will tell you about the down-sides.  You know that wisdom about how a machine with the fewest moving parts will give you the least problems?  That applies here, too.  RAID systems are complex, and adding complexity almost entirely un-does the value of the data redundancy.  In my years as a sysadmin for a university, we saw plenty of data loss from RAID.  The most common cause was a failure in the electronics that are responsible for splitting and syncing all those bits of data across multiple drives.

Less common, but also a risk, is the failure of two drives in a single system at once.  Sure, there are ways to protect against a two-drive failure, but that makes the whole system even more expensive, so few very-small-business-owners do this.  And even then, you’re still at risk from the paragraph above.

IT folks in enterprise class data positions know that the true intent of RAID is not data security, but data availability.  These are two different goals.  That means that if you want to use RAID storage as your backup system, you must buy not one device, but multiple devices.  They don’t all have to be RAID, but having RAID does not count for more than one of the three copies in rule number one, above.  If that one NAS or RAID device that you’ve had your eye on will wipe out your entire budget for backup systems, leaving you none to spend on additional storage devices, then buying that system is the wrong move.  Period.

So what’s the simple, affordable solution?  Easy.  Just buy external drives.  3TB and 4TB external USB3 drives are fast and inexpensive.  Buy two or three of them, and use them to replicate the exact structure of your master image library.  (It is all in one place, correct?)  For just a few hundred bucks, you can have three or more copies of your data.  FreeFileSync is a brilliant, open-source, cross platform application that makes syncing data between drives very easy.  Just be sure you disable the bloatware that the installer tries to hoist on you.  (C’mon devs – I know you need to pay the bills, but there’s gotta be a better way.  This is an amazing tool that doesn’t need to be sullied by that junk.)

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To keep your storage costs down, delete your rejected images after a time.  I know you think storing them is a better idea, but actually it just makes you a digital hoarder.  You’re fooling yourself if you think you’re actually go back to look at them one day to find that magic, missed photo that will turn you into a million dollar photographer.  Deleting those files will ultimately save you time, headache, storage capacity, storage performance, and catalog backup and upgrade performance.

If a single drive simply cannot provide the capacity you need, then look seriously at Windows Storage Spaces technology.  It functions like RAID, but with better performance, better reliability, better expandability, and much lower cost of entry.  Create multiple pools to satisfy rule #1.

windows-storage-spaces-control-panel

So to recap:

  1. Multiple copies.
  2. Keep it simple.
  3. Keep it affordable.
  4. A single RAID device is not enough.

Now go forth and conquer.

Have you been considering a RAID device?  Will you alter your buying decision based on this?   Do you have a RAID, and have been convinced to add more devices?  Let me know below!

Edit: For a great follow-up article, learn how to set up a rotating backup.

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