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Stop Storing Your Files Like It’s 1999

Whether you’re shooting 8K video or are just coming back from a shoot with 1,000 images to sort through, your digital asset management strategy has to be on point. Over the last few years, technology and standards have advanced quite a bit, and it’s easier than ever to create a powerful, versatile, and safer approach to storing your files, but it can also be confusing. This guide will take a look at the standards you have to know when upgrading your storage.

Why Go Faster?

If your existing storage setup is already working for you, you might be thinking: “Why do I need more speed? Back in my day, we had USB 2.0 and we were happy!” The answer is that a confluence of factors has made this chance to upgrade speeds not only affordable but impactful to your editing workflow. Faster-than-gigabit Ethernet, previously the domain of enterprise-level of equipment, now can be less than $100 for an add-in card, while a switch like QNAP’s QSW-M2108 can bring 10 Gbps and 2.5 Gbps speeds to your entire network with its 10 ports.

Panoramas can mean moving around many gigabytes of files and saving the finished files can quickly gobble up storage.

USB-C, Thunderbolt, and falling SSD prices have all made quick transfers and storage cheap and easy. If you’re traveling, the greater vibration resistance of SSDs compared to portable hard drives makes them a great choice for a backup drive, while the greater speed makes it easy to edit right from them.

Faster imports, transfers, and backups all confer workflow advantages. Being able to work on your images more quickly is the obvious benefit, but another major perk is that it’s easier to set up an effective backup solution and stick to it. If you find any backup method too difficult or slow, you’re not going to keep it up, putting your images at risk.

Faster Connections

There’s been a couple of major areas of improvement when it comes to storage and transfer technologies, including both the interface (basically how info gets sent over the cable) and medium (where that data gets stored once it’s on the device). Some of these have been around for a couple years now, but others are just hitting the point of common affordability.

The first is probably the tech that has been around for the longest, but serves both as a great introduction to the order of magnitude improvements in speed, as well as a major factor in the need for other advancements that we’ll be looking at. The tech in question? Flash storage. As you’ve probably already heard of SSDs, I’ll keep things brief. SSDs offer far greater read and write speeds as well as much higher I/O rates compared to hard drives. 

As SSDs have continued to get even faster, they’ve moved to new connectors and form factors, including M.2 and NVME, along with the recent shift to PCI-E 4.0. What those all mean for the end-user is a much faster experience, particularly when these drives are used for the install of your operating system, programs, and files you’re actively working on. Just as a broad guideline, consider an SSD with at least 1 TB of storage and speeds over 3,000 MB/s. This would mean enough space to hold all your programs and a large amount of images or video, as well as offering over 10x the speed of a conventional hard drive. There’s a number of competent drives on the market, with Samsung’s 900 series drives being a premium choice.

Considering you can get 1 TB memory cards these days, a 1 TB SSD probably isn’t enough to store all your images, but going all NVME SSDs is impractical from both a cost and connection perspective. This is where hard drives come in. It’s also where I’d urge you to resist the temptation to just get a single external drive and call it a day. While that might be the easiest way to add some storage, it’s both slow and a single point of failure.

Storage Upgrades

Instead, consider adding a NAS or DAS product to your setup. A NAS, or network-attached storage, is basically a mini computer, with a bunch of spaces to install hard drives, while a DAS is just a box that can connect a number of drives to your computer. 

While the ancillary benefits of a NAS could be an entire article itself, for the purposes of this piece, we’ll just be looking at how they can help you work with data more quickly and safely than those single-drive options. By bringing together multiple drives in one appliance, you can use RAID, a technology that splits up data across multiple disks, to protect against drive failures and improve speeds. Different RAID levels store that data differently, with some offering more speed, while others prioritize more data redundancy.

While you can already combine disks with RAID in your computer, by moving them onto a NAS, you get access to that storage on your laptop and phone as well, helping defray the cost of cloud storage or storage upgrades for your other devices.

A NAS can offer a great way to expand storage, as well as share it with your whole home network, but if it’s bottlenecked by a slow connection, that’s no good! Here’s where that previously mentioned Ethernet upgrade comes in. Most home networks are set up with gigabit Ethernet, which just doesn’t cut it for networked storage. At the 125 megabytes per second that connection is capable of, even one hard drive can saturate the link. 

In the past, upgrades beyond that speed were very expensive and could even require fancy connections and cabling to support things like fiber, but now, 2.5 GbE ports are available on very reasonably priced devices, like the QNAP TS-453 and the MSI B550 Tomahawk motherboard. With those ports “teamed,” you can get speeds over 500 MB/s, making it easy to edit video and move around huge files effortlessly. For a step beyond, consider checking out 10 GbE cards, particularly if you’re using a single computer for editing and a NAS capable of saturating slower links.

Conclusion

Tech upgrades can be a bit of a treadmill, with the latest and greatest always right around the corner, but what’s available today at a reasonable cost really does make a difference in usability over the existing standards. If you’ve not moved up to SSDs and faster connection standards like USB-C, Thunderbolt, and 2.5GbE, consider it! For working professionals, upgrading might mean only a few hundred dollars or just keeping an eye on the spec sheet when making your next purchase.

Lead image courtesy of Chris Liverani.

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22 Comments

Alexander Petrenko's picture

What setup do you use yourself?

Alex Coleman's picture

Something pretty similar to that described in the article. Tiered storage via SSD and HDD at my editing computer, then networked storage. Going forward, I’m planning on making more use of networked storage for the ease of expansion and noise benefits.

Tom Reichner's picture

Image editing and image storage have nothing to do with one another. Both are very important, but they are in no way linked to one another at all, and they never interface with one another at all. They're two completely different things that are entirely unrelated.

jim hughes's picture

I'd like to hear from someone using Cubbit. I haven't bought one but it sounds like it avoids the security and redundancy issues of a NAS, and the subscription costs of cloud services. On the downside, recovering from a disaster might be slower.

Alex Coleman's picture

I’ve not tried it, but it’s not really comparable to the options described here. It’s more akin to a “cold” off-site or cloud backup like Glacier or B2 - potentially an extra level of protection, but way more complicated than it needs to be.

jim hughes's picture

For the user, it's no more complicated than a cloud service - which is basically what it is. The difference is, you own a Cubbit server and pay no subscription. It's a cloud co-op. It does what clouds do - stores files as encrypted copies in multiple locations. The user doesn't deal with the complexity.

It appeals to people who want to feel safe from ransomeware but don't want any more paid subscriptions tied to their credit cards. I'm in that group.

David B's picture

How does this tie in to your workflow? Did PCI 4 make importing faster? How does a NAS help if your media can fit on a standard drive?

Tom Reichner's picture

I don't understand what's wrong with the way I do it, which is very similar to how I would have done it in 1999. About once every month, I back up the photos that are worth keeping (the good ones) to an external hard drive, and then I back them up again to another hard drive.

If I think a photo is unbelievably awesome, then I will also back that up to a couple of little USB keychain flash drives. But I only get, like 2 or 3 photos per year that are worth backing up that much.

These monthly backups only take about 4 or 5 minutes for the computer to write the files to the external drive.

I really don't understand what the author is saying about needing to make this even faster. If I didn't have the patience to wait 4 or 5 minutes, twice per month, then I would have something big time the matter with me, from a mental health standpoint.

If the author can explain why he thinks I am doing it so wrong, and why a few minutes per month is too long, then heck, maybe I will learn something new and change my methods!

NOTE:
I don't want ALL of my photos backed up - that would be a freaking nightmare. I mean, if I take 285 photos of a deer in the course of 30 minutes, while it is standing in one spot, then why in the world would I want the burden of all of those photos being copied over and over to various backups? That would be inane. I carefully cull the pile of images so that I select the 5 or 10 best files from that shoot, and then those are the only ones I want backups of.

Alex Coleman's picture

That's a viable strategy at the volumes you're talking about - for a few photos a month, you could easily just use Dropbox or similar. There's a lot of other use cases though, that would benefit from greater, faster capacity. A wedding photographer might produce 200GB in a day, then need that data for a couple months until the album is delivered. A videographer can burn through a terabyte when shooting 4K or 6K raw.

It's like driving - a Prius can be a great choice for your daily commute, but isn't going to be viable for 4x4 or F1.

Michael Aubrey's picture

Thing is, there are things a Prius can do that a 4x4 or F1 can't. It's a generator on wheels.

Steve White's picture

I'm a Mac and LR user, and an amateur photographer with about 55 years of amateur experience. I'd offer some suggestions.

Importantly, photographers should embrace the power of 'and' -- you need fast SSD drives for workspace and scratch-space, AND local backup, AND off-site backup, AND cloud backup.

Also importantly -- let go of the idea that you need all your images instantly available in a single LR (substitute here your favorite cataloging and post-processing program) catalog on a single drive. No, you don't, really. What you need is to know where your images are and how to get to them conveniently. I have images dating back to 1985 (1985-2011 was film, scanned, and since then primary digital; my pre-1985 images have yet to be scanned). I do not very often go back to anything more than a year or two old; but I do know where all of them are and how to open that catalog without a problem.

1) 8 TB drives are increasingly inexpensive and the 'new normal' for mass storage. Whatever size drives you buy, you need at least two -- primary and backup. If you don't need 8 TB in a single drive, the inexpensive 4 TB 2.5" drives are very affordable (buy a bunch with different colored cases). Buy as many HDs as you need. When used in pairs they are NOT a single point of failure.

2) I do not advocate NAS drives for amateur photographers, as they can be fuzzy and a bit complicated. I'd rather shoot images or read my camera manual. If you are a sophisticated computer person, NAS drives may be fine. But otherwise, two identical drives, primary and backup, are what you need (see #6 below, this requires THREE identical drives).

3) Put a 1TB NVMe SSD into a USB3 enclosure (Thunderbolt 3 if you can afford it) and use that as your 'recent' LR catalog and work drive. Fast and convenient just as Mr. Coleman says.

4) When the SSD gets close to full, open the LR catalog on your 8 TB drive and have it import the catalog and images on your SSD. That will work just fine. Then you may start a new catalog on your SSD as your default for new work. Over time you have a fast working catalog on SSD, and a primary backup catalog on your enormous HD. You could split that in turn over several drives if you prefer. Indeed, old images that you seldom access could go onto a couple of appropriate-sized drives, one of which travels (see #6).

5) Backup the big HD to the backup big HD at regular intervals without fail. Do NOT depend on your memory. I use Carbon Copy Cloner; use CCC or something similar on an automated schedule.

6) I use 'sneaker net' as a primary off-site backup method. Once a week CCC copies my big backup drive to one of two other drives that I rotate to/from my office at work. I carry the fresh backup to a desk drawer at my office; I bring the previous drive home and repeat the process. If something like this is convenient for you it makes off-site backup easy.

You could break up your backup catalog into smaller chunks in some logical way (by year, etc) and store those to smaller drives that you take to work and leave there. If something dreadful happens to your house, you still have all your images (by the way, this also works for your financial affairs).

7) BackBlaze is a good cloud backup; there are others. Depends on your comfort level as this can be as fuzzy as setting up an NAS drive :-)

So a fast SSD working drive; primary backup to big drives; off-site backup; and cloud backup. That's my suggestion for amateur photographers. Professional photographers are much more sophisticated about this, and have to be to stay in business.

Alex Coleman's picture

That's good advice Steve. I like that you emphasize the tiered nature of backups, which is really key for protecting data. I think NAS appliances aren't as tricky as they used to be, and combined with the speed improvements over Ethernet, they're a viable next step to that big external drive, but again, it'll vary based on your artistic/business use case.

Geoff Miller's picture

One bit of key advice for NAS users... if your NAS maker offers "remote" access ability to your NAS, turn it off unless you really need it for your work. This is a potential security hole that opens the opportunity for things like a ransomware attack like the one that some QNAP users faced not long ago. Also, I don't automatically connect to my NAS upon start-up nor do I keep the drive mapped when I'm not using it. I keep it as isolated as I can to minimize the chances of virus or ransomware attacks.

Paolo Bugnone's picture

If you need remote access to the NAS (or to the rest of your network) the best way to do that is to have a personal VPN server running on your router which if configured properly is basically bulletproof.

Disadvantages are that it's pretty hard to configure a setup like that unless you know what you're doing (especially if you want to use modern protocols like Wireguard which are great but not yet well implemented on user friendly softwares) and you cannot share files directly to other people like you can with proprietary cloud services offered by many NAS manufacturers.

Yin Ze's picture

I backup to 3 external 12 tb drives using Chronosync. I used to backup by connecting multiple drives but I don't want a freak accident to damage multiple drives at once. I now backup to Samsung T7 and one external drive. Every couple of days I backup data from T7 to the other drives then wipe T7. I shoot about anywhere from 30-50gb on a normal day. Sometimes more if shooting 4k and images with a7riv.

Simon Hartmann's picture

I advise to be careful about ACTUAL transfer (read/write) speeds tho. I use a NAS with 4 drives in RAID 5 with a both ends 10GBE connection, but the max throughput of the nas is actually around 280-350mb/s (calculated max should be around 800 for this config and RAID 0 is the same!). So in real world use NAS-drives tend be slower then the connection used, as the IO of the NAS often turns into a bit of a bottleneck...

Alexander Petrenko's picture

One important thing to note about HDDs: there are two main types - CMR and SMR.

SMRs are (much) less expensive but their write performance is generally lower and decreases (dramatically) with decrease of free space.

They also need time to "optimise" themselves so constant writes are not for them.

So, they are great as inexpensive storage for archive/backup but not as good if you plan to work off them.

Alex Coleman's picture

Alexander makes a good point about drive type. RAID 5 is going to come with overhead for parity - if you're saying RAID 0 results in the same speed issue, I'd be curious to better understand the problem, because that doesn't seem right.

Jan Holler's picture

Raid5 has a lot of overhead and spinning HDs have a much slower access time and much less IO compared to SSDs. But that is not all. Many devices featuring a 1 GB/s or even a 10GB/s Ethernet port are not able to process that much data to transfer, resulting in a slow transfer speed compared to what theoretically would be possible.
You can observe this well with relatively cheap consumer routers that are connected to fast fiber-optic lines, for example. Most of them do not manage more than 400MB/s, even though they have GB/s connections.

Simon Hartmann's picture

Exactly my point. I tried a 4 deive Raid 0 first and the max transfer rate was identical to the raid5 config (which is ofc. nonsense from a hdd standpoint, raid 0 should be almost twice as fast with 4 drives). I feel its the NAS thats the limit or the integrated hardware…but then again 250-350mbytes per second is still plenty fast enough for backups for me…

Sean Molin's picture

What’s the difference between JBOD and DAS? I’ve been using a Thunderbolt JBOD enclosure for years to house my active working drives (archived work gets offloaded on to a NAS, physical backups, and the cloud).

Alexander Petrenko's picture

JBOD is a way to organise disks. DAS is a way to connect your disk storage to computer. So you try compare apples and a tree :)