This post is full of advice for choosing the right external hard drive. It’s mostly advice for what to get/what not to get to help you in your search. Skip to the end if you’re just looking for a specific suggestion and don’t need the backstory 😀
Back in November, we had a catastrophe. Our cruise in the Caribbean hit disaster when our dry bag bailed failed and drowned a bunch of our camera gear. It was one of those “oh shit” moments that ultimately ended up costing us a few thousand bucks. Not the end of the world though, it’s only equipment and it’s easy to replace (even though footing that bill was pretty damn painful).
Fast forward one week, and something much, much worse happened. One of my 4TB hard drives decided to pack up and die.
So, without wanting to make myself look too stupid, I’m going to talk about it and share my experiences. Here’s the worst part…. It wasn’t backed up and I NEEDED those files. We had a LOT of our photos on there, not to mention important documents and even our wedding photos (shh don’t tell Louise).
This post is a little bit out of character for our blog, but I thought it would be really, really valuable to anyone that travels with a hard drive but doesn’t really know much about drive storage and how it all works and what the risks are. Please learn from these mistakes because it will save you a LOT of money in the long run.
Disclaimer: I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but this little episode has given me a fairly hands on education in this genre. If you really want to know more, I would highly recommend talking to an actual expert! Oh, also there are a couple of affiliate links in here, but as I’m sure you can tell.. All opinions are our own.
As a bit of background, the hard drive I was using for travel was one of those LaCie rugged 4TB hard drives that are supposed to be shock proof, and generally indestructible. They’re bright orange and you can buy them from the apple store. I’ve been carrying it around the world for a couple of years now and it’s been pretty great. Never had an issue with them (although I’m told they have a nasty habit of dying) but honestly, I’ve put it through a lot of abuse.
…Never had an issue until it failed.. that is.
(Just as a quick side note, LaCie just creates fancy branded hard drive covers, not hard drives. Seagate owns Lacie and therefore all LaCie drives should technically be seagate and therefore have no noticeable difference in performance. One’s just wearing a crash helmet. )
So, I’m using the drive and all of a sudden the computer stops reading the drive and an ominous light appears, followed by a VERY ominous grinding sound. I unplug the drive and a wave of nausea washes over me. Oh no. It just died and it’s not backed up.
Ok, after a few deep breaths and a change of underwear, it was time to look into data recovery. Can’t be that expensive right?
A quick poll of everyone I know suggests that as a whole, nobody has a CLUE about the costs of data recovery. Well as it turns out, it is incredibly, INCREDIBLY expensive.
…Don’t believe me? Ok, off the top of your head, think of a reasonable number that you’d want to pay for data recovery.
Ok now add a zero and that’s probably closer to the true amount.
Imagine my shock when I call up the Seagate recovery line and they tell me that this $400 drive is going to cost more than TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS to recover. I repeat…$2000!!!?!??!
After having a brief meltdown over the phone, I politely hang up and decide to send it to a local lab. (Unfortunately, shopping around didn’t help and all labs quoted the same rough price).
In summary, you do not want to ever, ever have to pay for data recovery.
Fortunately, regardless of the ridiculous price, the story had a happy ending and we were able to recover 99.71% of our data. Considering it was a mechanical failure, this is virtually unheard of. I’m pretty over the moon, but this whole experience has taught me a number of very valuable lessons that I feel I need to share. I’ll start with the obvious:
ALWAYS BACK UP YOUR EQUIPMENT BECAUSE DATA RECOVERY IS CRIPPLINGLY EXPENSIVE!
This might be cripplingly obvious to many of you, but you might be like me and feel like the odds are in your favour and that it’ll probably never happen. Well… it did happen and now I’m a sad panda. Don’t be a sad panda like me.
AVOID A RAID 0 SETUP IF AT ALL POSSIBLE
The next lesson is in how to choose the correct type of file storage for your drive. Because it’s not just as simple as “this drive is 4TB; this drive is 2TB”. No, because that would be too easy.
When I bought the LaCie 4TB drive, I was under the impression that it was a 4TB single drive. Turns out that it was actually 2 x 2 TB drives. The official diagnosis for my drive was that one of the drives had had a mechanical failure, causing the entire system to crash.
“Great, so only one drive failed? So I still have 50% of my files then?”
Why? Because my drive was a RAID 0 setup.
Because my drive was using a thunderbolt connection (Mac users beware), it was supposedly more concerned with writing files quickly than safely. To speed things up, it takes each file, chops it in half, and writes 50% to one 2TB drive and 50% to the other at the same time. Effectively, neither of your drives will store complete files.
That means, yes, you have two 2TB drives, but if half fails, you’ve effectively lost everything.
The intact drive will hold half of all your files, rather than all of half your files (if that makes sense?).
This is known as a RAID 0 setup, and believe me, it makes absolutely no sense and you should avoid it at all costs.
In addition to that, if/when it does fail, you’ve now got 2 hard drives that need to be analysed, taken apart and copied. That means twice the man hours and twice the cost to recover. At $150 per hour, the cost of recovering two drives is significantly more than one.
In summary, AVOID RAID 0.
The only saving grace here was that because there were two drives, they could recover all the data from the intact drive and then cannibalise the parts to try and read the damaged drive – ultimately saving us a bit of time and money.
BUY A SOLID STATE DRIVE
So it turns out that our drive failure was mechanical. This is the worst kind of failure because with a disk drive, a mechanical failure often means that a part will break and then shred the disk it’s reading. Scratches on a disk means your data is 100% toast.
Fortunately, by some miracle, our data was largely intact, and our catastrophe only ended up being financial.
Anyway, the point here is, if you have moving parts in your drive, they are at risk of mechanical failure. Mechanical failure is generally the worst kind of failure, so to avoid this, invest in a solid state drive (i.e. no moving parts).
Our recommendation is the SanDisk 2TB Extreme Portable SSD (currently about $595 CAD for 2TB)- click here to see rates on amazon
At this point, technology hasn’t got to the point where SSD technology can offer large storage at low prices, so past 500GB, things can get very expensive indeed. Don’t bother looking for a huge 4TB SSD because it’ll cost you an arm and a leg.
A RAID 1 SETUP DOES NOT PROTECT YOU FROM STUPIDITY OR VIRUSES! YOU NEED MORE BACKUPS!
So the next question is, if I get a hard drive, how should I set it up then? How can I make it safe?
If you’re going to get an external hard drive for your travels then, what’s the alternative? Let’s talk about a RAID 1 setup next.
A RAID 1 setup is taking that 4TB hard drive with two internal drives, and having one drive copy/mirror the other. Effectively your 4TB drive is now a 2TB drive, but everything on one drive is mirrored on the other drive. Some people tout this as the cure to data loss, but in reality this is just a security precaution against mechanical failure.
If one drive dies, the other one will still have all your valuable data. It does NOT protect you from viruses or accidental deletion etc. If you get a virus on one drive, guess what, it goes on the other one too. If you accidentally delete all your information on one drive, guess what, it gets deleted on the other one too!
Yep, RAID one does not protect you from stupidity or viruses, so while it’s definitely a better setup than RAID 0, it’s not foolproof.
USE CLOUD STORAGE
So where does that leave us?
Well, the best solution I’ve heard in the past few days is cloud based storage. Buy a RAID 1 setup for physical backups, but then store everything on the cloud as well. A good friend of ours stores his photos on his SD card, his portable hard drive, 2 forms of cloud storage and 3 different physical hard drives. He still freaks out about hard drive failures. You can never have enough backups.
GDRIVE has fairly reasonable rates for cloud storage that range from 1TB up to literally more than you could ever possibly use in several lifetimes.
KEEP A LARGE HARD DRIVE AT HOME AND TRAVEL WITH A SMALLER ONE THAT YOU UPLOAD TO THE BIGGER ONE WHEN YOU GET HOME.
Finally, what if you want something physical to store your files that is absolutely bullletproof; a tank to keep everything safe forever? In that case, you need to go big.
Keep your small, portable external hard drive for your travels, but invest in a setup that you can keep at home and permanently store your files in. This “never leaves home” hard drive can have backup drives, and back ups of back ups.
You can even buy ones with wireless network connections that allow you to travel anywhere in the world and send your files home over the internet.
That might be the ultimate solution for permanent storage, but this really needs to be coupled with portable storage because, say you’re in the middle of nowhere with terrible internet; transferring 1000 .raw files wirelessly is going to take you 6 months.
A FEW SMALL DRIVES IS BETTER THAN ONE BIG DRIVE
Ok, so if there’s one thing we’ve learnt, it’s that hard drives can break at any time and for no apparent reason. We’ve also learnt that data recovery is just absurdly expensive. Whatever you can do to reduce your risk and emotional trauma is a good idea, so the last piece of advice is to invest in several small drives rather than one large one.
Minimise your potential risk for catastrophe and limit the amount of precious things you can store in one place. If a full 4TB drive fails on you, you’ve lost 4TB of data. If one of your two 2TB drives fails on you, you’ve only lost half.
And to further reiterate what a good idea it is, it’s what most pro photographers do with SD cards too.
Because say you just took a thousand wedding photos on a single SD card, and then inexplicably, it suddenly packed up. Would you want to tell the bride she isn’t getting any photos at all?
Wouldn’t it be a better idea to lose 1/3 or 1/4 of your photos because you split them over several cards?
It just makes sense, right?
So those are a few of the hard lessons I’ve learnt from this ordeal. I hope they help and save you a few bucks down the road. Actually I hope something like this never happens to you at all, but as we all know…shit happens, and a stitch in time saves nine.
If you’re interested in knowing what our solution going forwards is going to be, these are our recommendations:
The Drobo is the network attached storage system. It allows you to add hard drives as and when necessary. It also allows you to transfer data from anwhere with an internet connection. Pretty cool right?
This post isn’t sponsored, and is based on recommendations from friends and experts in the field. It does contain affiliate links though!