The Wonderful World of Local Backups (Part 2 of 2)
In my last post, I began a review of several of the local backup options that I have employed over recent recent years, starting with a simple external hard drive and moving onto Drobos. In this post, I’ll review two additional options I’ve explored and setup: Time Capsule and a Network-attached Storage (NAS) device (in this case, setup as a RAID array).
It bears repeating that, whatever my local backup option, I always use an additional online backup option such as Backblaze to provide an additional offsite duplicate.
Time Capsule and Networked Drives
For anyone who appreciates the simplicity of Time Machine, but dislikes the burden of constantly plugging and unplugging an external drive, then a Time Capsule or networked drive may be a great option for you.
If you aren’t familiar with Time Capsule, this is an out-of-the-box solution made by Apple that combines a wireless access point with a built-in hard drive. This option is perfect for someone building their home office from scratch, as it gives you two devices (a wifi router and an external hard drive) together. For those more familiar with Apple’s product labels, the Time Capsule is basically an Airport Extreme base station with a built in hard drive.
The downside, of course, of having a two-in-one device is that if one breaks, you’re stuck repairing or replacing both. Although I have had access points die on me, it’s far more likely the hard drive will fail long before anything else has a problem, in which case any local computer shop would be able to replace the drive for you (or you could do it yourself, if you’re handy with electronics).
If you like the concept, but want to keep the components separate, then you can use a wireless access point (such as an Airport Extreme) that supports wired network drives. Simply plug an external hard drive into the device’s USB port, configure it as a network drive, then you can set it up to serve as a Time Machine drive that performs just like the Time Capsule.
These options are great for laptop users, as your device will automatically backup whenever it’s on the network, without having to remember or worry about plugging in drives. The major downside is that you are still dependent on one hard drive with a single point of failure — if your hard drive croaks, then your backup is toast. This is why I went for a NAS RAID array.
Network-attached Storage RAID array
Network-attached storage (NAS) devices are sold in a number of flavors and sizes, but for the purposes of this review, I’m referring to those that include two or more hard drive bays, for reasons that will become apparent.
NAS devices are like the swiss army knives of data storage — you have a large number of options for what kinds of functionality is provided. Similarly, they’re the most complex to setup, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be easy, fun, and useful!
The particular device I’m using is a QNAP, such as this model found here [affiliate link]. Most devices of this nature offer the ability to setup a RAID 5 array. Put in plain English, a RAID 5 array is simply a redundant file structure using multiple drives. So, if a single drive fails, the other drives contain backups of your data so you don’t lose anything while you replace the failed drive. If you really want to dive in, there are also different types of RAID levels you can read all about here, which mostly relates to how many drives are used and how many failures are supported, but that's mostly for the power users.
If this sounds similar to Drobo from my last review, it’s the same concept, but with one important difference: unlike Drobo, RAID 5 arrays are not proprietary. If your device croaks or you want to change manufacturers, you can remove those drives and they'll function in another device from a different brand. You’re not locked into one company when it comes to data protection.
The downsides of a networked RAID 5 array are otherwise similar to a Drobo, namely: cost (not only of the device, but the drives you put into it), and the fact that you’ll lose a fraction of disk space in order to support that redundancy. Many RAID 5 arrays also require use of drives of the same size and have more limitations on their expandability than Drobo.
[Editor's Note: With a RAID 5, generally all drives must be the same size, but with some systems if you have varying size drives, then the smallest drive becomes the template for the rest — clearly not an ideal way to go (i.e. if you have three 5 TB drives and one 3 TB, all drives will be treated as 3 TB). In a RAID 5 set, one drive is called the parity drive and is “lost” from storage, so if for example you only have only two 3TB drives as RAID 5, then you'll only have 3 TB of storage. But if you have three drives, you'll have (3–1) × 3 TB = 6 TB; if you have 10 drives you'll have (10–1) × 3 TB = 27 TB, and so-on. Drobo on the other hand lets you mix and match drive sizes, however as I noted in the Editor's Note in part 1 of this article, I heavily, heavily discourage users from buying Drobo. I and many other photographers have lost precious files to these proprietary systems. –Joseph]
There are additional advantages to a networked device, however. These devices are plugged directly into your home’s network, which allows you to backup wirelessly to Time Machine. QNAP (and other manufacturers) also include pre-installed tools for managing a Time Machine segment, which allows you to set and modify the size of your storage space dedicated to a Time Machine backup. The device also includes a slew of features beyond backup, including the ability to store music and videos & stream that content from the device over your network or through an HDMI cable directly to your TV.
This doesn’t begin to touch on the capabilities of such a device. If you’re a geek, you can configure any number of different functional options — the sky is the limit. My point, however, is that you don’t have to be a geek to enjoy the benefits of this device. If you just want a simple place to backup your stuff with redundancy and maybe stream some music and videos, you can do so very easily out of the box without an unreasonably high level of technical skill. It took me about 15 minutes to get up and running.
Granted, this is still an expensive option and one likely reserved for the power users and truly backup-obsessed among us, but if that applies to you, then give it some consideration. I’m only sorry I didn’t do it sooner.