Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Huge Hard Drives:
It's a RAID!

January 2008

By Mike Gould

"Stuff expands to fill the space available."

And that goes double for anything digital. Especially if you have a digital camera, camcorder, or just like to collect music files. And all that stuff needs to be stored somewhere, and instead of shoe boxes packed with pictures, we are now faced with hard drives filled with files.

Being a commercial photographer, I face this issue regularly, and since I am going through the throes of planning to upgrade my system when the new Macs come out in January, I thought I'd share some advice about choosing storage.

Drive, He Said
I'm an extreme case; I currently have 7 hard drives hooked into my Mac G5. One has my system and applications on it, one contains my general files (client websites and files, all my articles, etc.), and one that just backs up the general files on a nightly basis. Then I have 4 drives filled with photos, divided up by year. Then there is a stack of 4 additional drives with archived copies of the above from previous years, standing by in case of a disastrous failure of any of the others. And I have a variety of smaller drives I take with me on gigs and camping trips to hold photos when I'm on the road.

I should also point out that among professional media folks, I am a wimp. My buddy Andy Sacks is a pro photographer / videographer, and he currently maintains around 24 hard drives, although only 5 or so are currently plugged into his G5. The rest are storage of previous projects, and backups.

Now you may not need this scale of storage, but if you take a lot of family and vacation photos or videos, you are probably in the market for more storage now for your media files.

Internal Vs. External
Hard drives come in two main types, internal and external. An internal drive sits in your computer, and an external drive plugs into your computer via a port (techspeak: one of those connector thingies) on the back of the box. Laptops usually hold only one internal drive, but you can usually put two or more in a desktop computer, depending on its size and internal configuration.

Unless you are comfortable opening up your computer and installing a second drive, I recommend external drives for storage of media files. The good news is that these drives are getting cheaper and bigger as time goes on. You can buy a 250GB external USB drive for under $90, and 500GB models can be had for around $120.

External drives are categorized by connection type, storage size, and physical size. Connection type, what I call "flavor" is usually USB, FireWire or lately, eSATA, as explained below. Storage size refers to how many Gigabytes of data it can hold, and physical size is either 3.5 inch disk or 2.5 inch, based on the diameter of the spinning disk inside. Note I said Gigabytes (GB) of data; a GB is a thousand Megabytes (MB), and you need GBs to store many MB-sized files. Given that your average photo from a digital camera is 6MB, these can add up, especially if you have kids whose growing-up you are documenting.

Types of Hard Drives
The most ubiquitous drives out there are USB 2 flavor. This is a fairly high-speed way to deal with your media files. Stay away from USB 1 drives, as they are painfully slow (I don't think these are generally available any more, anyway). USB stands for Universal Serial Bus, and a USB jack is found on virtually every computer these days. If your computer doesn't have a USB port, it is way past time to upgrade.

The other main flavor of drives out there uses FireWire. This is a faster means of transferring data in and out of a drive. All Macs come with FireWire, but some PCs will need an inexpensive card to talk to these. Then there is FireWire 800, which is twice as fast as regular FireWire and what I use. Unless you have an upscale Mac, you will need to buy a card for these. If the time you spend waiting for your photos to download from your camera is becoming excessive, look into getting a FireWire card reader for your system. I have a SanDisk Extreme FireWire 800 card reader, and it has cut my downloads from 20 minutes to 7. (URL below, be aware that this works only with compact flash cards. They also make a slightly slower model that works with other cards.)

The newest flavor of external hard drives is eSATA. It is faster than all the above and what I will be switching to next year. This is so new that very few computers come with an appropriate port (including Macs, alas), so I will have to buy a card for this. Stick to USB 2.0 or FireWire for the moment.

Size Matters
At the time of this writing (12/2007), the largest drives out there are 3.5-inch 750GB. You can get drives advertised at one Terabyte (1TB: one thousand GB), but these are really two 500GB drives hooked in tandem in what is called a RAID.

RAID stands for "Redundant Array of Independent Drives", originally "Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives". This is a way of combining smaller drives into one big virtual drive. A virtual drive looks like one massive drive from your computer's point of view, but data is spread ("striped") between the drives, which has the advantage of faster throughput. There are several types of RAID, and the above is called RAID 0. A disadvantage of RAID 0 is that if one drive dies, it destroys the data completely because the data is shared across the disks. For this reason I don't recommend buying an inexpensive RAID-ed one TB drive. Stick with the 500GB and below models until the technology improves.

There are a lot of mini-drives out there, based on the 2.5-inch drives. These are useful for transferring data and backups, but are generally slower and more expensive than the 3.5-inch drives above. For regular use, I recommend 3.5-inch drives.

I use and recommend drives from LaCie, but lots of people are happy with drives available from all the local computer and office supply shops. See what is on sale in the local Sunday papers.

Fast card readers:
http://www.sandisk.com/Products/ProductInfo.aspx?ID=2006
http://www.sandisk.com/Products/Catalog(1197)-SanDisk_20_USB_Readers.aspx

More on RAID:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAID#Standard_levels

Recommended vendor:
http://www.lacie.com/us/index.htm

Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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