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CASE STUDY: My Experiences of the QNAP TS-435B NAS

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As you will have seen in my recent blog posts, I have focussed quite heavily on storage, the importance of protecting your data and Network Attached Storage (NAS). Having used a NAS system for over six months now, I feel in a good position to share my findings on whether it has helped me, any pitfalls I have found and if I would change anything about my setup.

Is NAS right for you? 

The first thing to address is that not every storage solution is right for every photographer and there is definitely an element of choosing 'what fits for you'. I still continue to use small, portable hard drives when I travel but knowing that the vast majority of editing would be done at home, meant that I could afford to choose a solution that did not need to be portable. furthermore, I knew that the volume of storage I would need would be huge, in the Terabytes! Which automatically meant that Cloud Storage would be a bit of an issue. So rather quickly, I knew that I was looking at a 'home' based solution.

Secondly, I knew that I would be using multiple computers as (for my sins) I use both Mac and PC to edit on. So I need a system that was both flexible and could be used across a network. Naturally, NAS kept coming up as an option, so I decided to explore it a little deeper. Everyones needs will be slightly different, so doing your research is essential. however, NAS is such a versatile tool, as we will see, that it can really be adapted for most peoples needs.

Choosing the right NAS system

There really are hundreds of options out there and like cameras, they range from the very basic to the extremely complicated and the costs span a similar range, form quite affordable to very, very expensive! Due to the wide range of choice, I would set a realistic budget before even looking at requirements and try to stick to it! The second, important factor to consider is that you will (in most cases) also need to populate the NAS with hard disks, so don't forget to budget for the disks as well! 

As with everything in photography, the costs soon add up so being budget conscious is essential. Once you have an idea of what you can spend, look at what your most 'essential' requirements are and go from there. Many NAS systems offer a plethora of additional services, such as the ability to be used as a virtual PC, a media centre, as 'cloud storage' - but these can be costly additions in some circumstances. Whereas if you know that your main concern is large storage that offers redundancy, you should be able to tick that box fairly simply. Once again, research is essential before taking the plunge! 

How much Storage do I need?

This is a very definitely a 'how long is a piece of string' kind of question! Everybody's needs will be different but i applied some simple maths whilst working out what I would need. I looked at what I had shot over the past few years and noticed that with an increase in client work, my storage needs were growing roughly 20% a year. I was also shooting more video, which is very 'space hungry' and new that I aimed to grow this by around 20% a year as well. Then, I simply totted up what I was already using and added the required additional storage for the next three years, taking into account the expected rate of growth. 

This gave me a figure of around 10 Terabytes, so with a degree of 'flexibility' built in, I knew that 12 Terabytes of storage should be sufficient. A couple of things to consider here are how much do you expect your requirements to grow (it will more than likely be different to mine!) and how many years do you want to protect yourself for? I know that every couple of years, I tend to upgrade my storage anyway, so building in three years of protection should see me right! Finally, you need to consider what RAID set up you are going for? No idea what RAID is? Read on...

Choosing the right RAID set up...

Now, this is where the fun really begins! At first, RAID, which stands for 'Redundant Array of Independent Disks' sounds like something straight out of a Sci-Fy film, and in a way, it is! It's a brilliant piece of technology but one that can seem quite daunting at first. In essence, choosing the right RAID is just a case of marrying your desired level of 'protection' with your budget. Why the emphasis on 'protection' - because there is a common misconception that RAID is 'Backup' and very simply, it's not. RAID offers certain protections against mechanical failure, so if you have a hard disk fail - the other disks in the RAID array will either be mirroring that data or can re-build it. What it does not protect against is 'human error' so you deleting a crucial file - as the disks sync, it will be deleted in all locations so that file is gone! Worst still, if all of your data is in one place, such as at home, if you a flooded or robbed etc. Say goodbye to your data!

Obviously, this does not mean that RAID is pointless, far from it. It just means that you have to consider your 'whole' data handling plan. Back to the RAID options, there are many different setups but the most common three that you will come across are:

RAID '0' - Disk stripping splits data across multiple disks to improve performance. Files are 'split' so that data transfer speeds are improved. There is no redundancy so if any data is lost, it is not recoverable using conventional methods. 

RAID '1' - Disk mirroring - Two disks are used and they are read & written too simultaneously, meaning that if you have a disk failure, you (should) still have one 'good' disk. This means you can simpy install a new disk and copy all of the data across. However, this is very 'storage' heavy, as you are duplicating data and does not offer the same performance increases of RAID '0'.

RAID '5' - Stripping with parity - A very good choice as it common uses three or more disks and takes the stripping performance of RAID '0' and adds the Parity (small pieces of usable information that can recover large pieces of lost information) so you have the redundancy of RAID '1' as data can be used from the good disks to rebuild the bad disk. The obvious disadvantage is having to buy at least one additional disk.

RAID '6' - Very similar to RAID '5' but with additional disks for increased performance and parity. This means that it is possible for two disks to fail and still offer redundancy to rebuild lost data.

There are alternative options and once again, it is advisable to do some research before choosing what works best for you. I personally chose RAID '1' as my main concern is disk failure. However, as we will look at later, this is not considered a 'backup' and requires you to do some further steps to fully protect your data.

Setting up a NAS for the first time! 

You've chosen what you want, you've hit the 'buy now' button and a few days later, the Postie drops off your shiny new toy to your house, what now? Well setting up a NAS can seem like a very daunting process, but in actual fact, it is quite simple, or at least, my experience was. I would be using the QNAP TS-453B and Seagate Ironwolf drives. Installation was simple and the whole setup process was both quicker and simplerthan I had imagined, you can see it here:

Using a NAS over time

So now to the juicy stuff, how have I actually found using a NAS? Well, in short, very good! I have been very fortunate not being in a position where I have had a disk fail and I put this down, in some part, to the quality of the Seagate Irownolf drives, they really are beasts! However, knowing that I have an additional layer of protection against drive failure really does offer a great piece of mind.

I had to alter my workflow slightly, as previously I had been moving data onto external hard drives and praying that they did not fail! The NAS takes away some of that concern, but as previously stated, it can not be classed as fully 'backed-up' until the data is in at least three places, including 'off-site'. So this has meant that I need to religiously save my most important data to an offsite location such as DropBox, Google Drive or an external drive kept somewhere else - and I still haven't quite cracked this one! As always, 'life' gets in the way and before you know it, you've gone a couple of months without making sure your data is protected against fire, theft, flooding etc.

However, all this aside, as a professional photographer & videographer, I really don't know how I ever lived without a NAS before. The features on the QNAP TS-435B are immense, the fact that you can create multiple accounts for different users, use it as 'cloud storage' for when you are away from home, use share links for accessing data for clients etc. Furthermore, it has Photo Station which makes storing images incredibly simple - show how versatile the system can be and this is before you even touch on the media centre features and the host of other capabilities that NAS's can offer. 

Using the QNAP has proven to be a piece of cake. Once the initial setup was completed, managing my data became second nature. I only really use it as a mass storage option, even though it has many other features. Using it like a data vault means that I can move files from my Mac & PC to the NAS where the QNAP quickly & quietly takes care of the dirty work of duplicating the data across the two disks. Accessing files is quick and simple and there are a host of ways of doing so, whether you are at home, in the office or travelling. my most common approach is to use the intuitive files structure to access my 'archived' files, should someone order a print etc. 

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Final Thoughts

In short, I would class a good NAS setup and a well thought out data workflow as essential as the camera and lenses you use. Our responsibility as photographers does not end with capturing and editing the image. Whether you are a professional or an amateur, being able to protect your data and being able to understand where it is, how it is protected and how it will be stored for years to come is essential. The QNAP really is a 'do it all' kind of tool and when teamed up with high-quality disks such as the Ironwolf NAS rated disks, it allows me the piece-of-mind to be able to concentrate on the important stuff of planning shoots and delivering to clients, rather than worrying about the next drive disaster and what I would do if I lost it all! 

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