Building a NAS backup solution

Recently I was hunting for a set of RAW files for the shoot above, taken in 2013 –  they definitely weren’t on my main hard drive or on my external hard drives although I had the jpegs….and it dawned on me that they were saved somewhere on a CD, because thats what I did back in 2013 to archive larger RAW files!  The idea of storing things on CDs to me now is a pretty daft one, especially considering neither my laptop nor my iMac actually has a CD drive built in.  I soon moved on to a more workable backup system, but now four years later my business and consequentially my storage needs had grown considerably, and I needed to invest in something that would be not only reliable, but have the ability to grow as my storage needs do.

Although there are loads of backup solutions currently available, they range from single external hard drives plugged into your computer to full on multi drive NAS systems, which is what we built. I am by no means a technical expert – my partner is the one who built my current system, so I am just going to explain what it is we have.

We built a Synology multi drive NAS (Network Attached Storage) system – basically a rectangular housing with a certain number of slots to hold several hard drives – ours has five slots but you can have more or less slots depending on your needs. The NAS connects all the drives together, so that your total storage is the sum of all the individual storage drives together. E.g ours is 15TB altogether – (5 x 3TB drives). However it’s best not to max out the total storage, but instead assume a small contingency – so our total storage is 10TB, with 5TB contingency should one or more hard drives fail.

When uploading to the NAS, data is spread in duplicates across all the hard drives by the housing, so if one hard drive fails, you simply take out that drive from it’s slot, replace it with a new one, and data will be copied back across, meaning you shouldn’t lose anything. The software that comes with the housing should tell you if there are any issues with the hard drives, or if they fail. The hard drives that you will put in the NAS housing are a bit tougher and more hardcore than the external drives that you would buy to sit on your desk:

We have literally had everything happen to our NAS – drive fails, storage fails, power cuts…so you do need to always be thinking one step ahead and put in as many measure as you can to backup your backup!

That’s where our additional backup solution comes in. Our NAS drive is backed up online by Backblaze B2, an online backup solution that is constantly running in the background. When my enclosure died and I was without my NAS for a week or so, I was able to access all my work online through B2, and download it if necessary. In worst case scenario and all my hard drives plus casing failed, I would just need to download everything out of B2 or get it shipped over to me on hard drives, to reload into a new system.

To add an extra layer of protection, we also attached a UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply) to the NAS drive – this is essentially a battery pack that only kicks in if the power to our house dies – so for example if we had a power cut – which has happened on a few occasions! If the power to the NAS drive is suddenly cut off, it increases the chances of data corruption because the hard drives might have been in the middle of spinning and writing new data when they cut out. The UPS we bought is made especially for NAS drives – in the event of a power cut, it kicks in and assumes uninterrupted power to the NAS drive so it can keep working as if nothing happened. More importantly, because a battery pack only lasts a couple of hours, the UPS actively tells the NAS drive to shut down safely before the UPS runs out of battery power. We went through a spate of several power cuts in a matter of weeks recently, so the UPS really saved my bacon here!

It’s worth nothing that if you’re on a Mac, the NAS drive can also be set as a Time Machine, so our drive is also backing up the contents of my iMac’s hard drive in a constant Time Machine – I used to have two hard drives sat on my desks that alternated Time Machine backups, so it was great to be able to ditch these and save some space.

There are some additional things you will need to get a NAS up and running:

Decent internet connection –  If you think about how an external hard drive that sits on your desktop is connected to your computer, the data transfer is fast because it’s wired to your computer via USB cable. So really you want the same for your NAS – I have a network cable plugged into our router that then plugs in to the NAS drive, and than another network cable that runs from the NAS drive to my computer. This makes data transfer faster than over wifi. I didn’t want a large drive sitting on my desktop – one of the reasons I got a NAS was to reduce the amount of crap on my desk, including the four hard drives I used to have sitting on it (which were also annoyingly noisy). We put the NAS drive away in a downstairs cupboard, so all we had to do was run the network cables through floorboards to connect it all together. Even with this setup, I recommend getting a strong internet connection with a decent router, so that the online backup of a NAS is fast.

Additional RAM memory – when we first set up the NAS, it was uploading and backing up data really slowly – it took us a while to work out that it actually Crashplan (the online backup solution we used before switching to Backblaze) running out of memory to be able to back up data. You can pick up additional RAM quite cheaply from somewhere like Crucial or Amazon.

Use additional existing solutions – When you first set up a NAS drive, you are probably going to be uploading a LOT of data, so it is initially going to take a good while for it all to be fully uploaded to the NAS, and again to all be uploaded and backed up by Backblaze or your online backup provider. Basically it took us a couple weeks of continuous uploading to get everything uploaded, so you’re going to want to have whatever solution you have now keep going as a temporary one for a least a couple of months to make sure that everything is covered during the uploading and backing up period. Even when I had uploaded everything I needed onto the NAS, I kept a couple of the external hard drives I was previously using on my desk going – even now I have one sat on my desk that I still upload the same data onto as I do the NAS drive. When I finish a shoot, I upload the RAWs onto this drive as well as the NAS (and this one is also backed up by Backblaze) so that the files are stored on the NAS, backed up by Backblaze B2, are on the desktop external hard drive, and also backed up by Backblaze. Eventually I will ditch them off the little hard drive when I know that that B2 has also backed them up from the NAS. That way I get a little extra peace of mind and the desktop hard drive never gets full. Online backup eventually does get to a point where it is only uploading new data, so you just need to get past the initial uploading EVERYTHING hurdle.

Summary of benefits:

– Larger amount of data storage than just one drive
– Better protection against a failing hard drive, and more reliable than just one hard drive on it’s own
– Can be set as an additional Time Machine to back up computer hard drive (eliminating the need for a dedicated external hard drive Time Machine to be plugged into the computer)
– Can be upgraded for more storage anytime, just pull out a drive and stick one with greater volume of storage in
– Extra fun tip – can be turned into a film/TV show server – we run a program called Plex on the NAS which stores all the digital copies of our original TV and movie DVDs – saves space and means we can watch anything in our library digitally through the Apple TV as well as access that digital library from anywhere that has an internet connection

Building a dedicated NAS drive is a huge step up from just having an external hard drive sat on your desk, and really it depends on how much work you produce as to whether a NAS is a suitable solution for your storage needs. For a hobbyist photographer, you can use things like the 1tb storage on Flickr’s free account, Amazon Glacier storage, other storage sites like Zenfolio, and a couple of desktop hard drives. The absolute minimum you should be doing is using something like Backblaze or Crashplan running in the background to constantly back your computer hard drive and any external hard drives up online. Both offer really cheap monthly plans – my Backblaze is $5 (£3.50ish) a month.

As a wedding photographer I can’t risk losing work, and so while it was a huge investment at around £1k to build the entire system, I can say it has absolutely been worth it for me – especially as I know that this is a system that can expand as my business does.

As I have a Zenfolio account for client galleries, I take advantage of their unlimited storage option to store all my edited works, and can use Dropbox or Amazon Glacier for additional cheap online storage solutions for RAW files. Trouble is if I store too many things in too many places online, I forget what is where, which is why I much prefer using the NAS with online backup as my main storage!

Below are some useful links for the bits I bought – I’m by no means recommending that these are the only things you can use, but just listed what we bought, if it’s helpful to anyone:

Synology housing –

WD Red NAS hard drives –

APC Back up uninterrupted power supply –

Additional RAM –