Storage and Backup: Some Personal Experiences

[Note that this is likely to be duller than usual! It’s mostly written up so that anyone who searches for similar problems might find it useful.]

This all began last Wednesday when I noticed an email from Synology inviting me to update the firmware that runs that two NAS drives I own – a DS210j and DS214se. They’d just released DSM 5.2, their proprietary software that allows you to do all sorts of clever things with their products.

I’ve had nothing but good experiences with Synology. They’re reasonably priced, and they offer a safer way to store data than simply using an external hard drive.

So I ran the updates. My new DS214se updated no problem, but the older DS210j had a problem. It got to about 20% of the process and then stalled. And it wouldn’t restart. The status light was flashing orange which is not a good sign.

Now I was unable to get into the volume at all. I was concerned.

I had previously put in place a monthly “off-site” back-up. The NAS had 2 x 2TB drives in a RAID 1 array. That gave me a 2TB volume safely mirrored on the two drives alleviating most hardware failure. Additionally, I would monthly plug a 2TB external hard drive into my computer and ensure that all the contents were backed up. This 2TB volume would sit safely in my desk drawer at work – “off site”. Unfortunately, I left my old job, and hadn’t carried on with my back-ups, so my most recent back-up was over a year old. Furthermore, I’d since bought a second NAS, and that had no back-up at all. But that was working fine, so a problem for another day…

At one point in the procedure, I’d attempted to reinstall DSM using the software provided. But then I’d been presented with the five stages the software would take – including re-partitioning the drives! I pulled the plug – literally – when I saw that. I didn’t want my drives to wiped!

My workaround after a bit of Googling was as follows. I bought another 2TB hard drive and a SATA dock for a hard drive from my NAS. Because I’d used RAID 1, using one of the drives should be fine. I then downloaded a bootable version of Ubuntu onto a memory stick, and followed instructions to boot into the OS on my PC and get access to the drive. Ubuntu us seemingly better for reading the RAID file format.

My files were safe! Ubuntu wasn’t reading my external HD though. I put this down to buying a special kind of HD that I’d my eye on anyway. It’s WD WiFi model that can deliver files to portable devices easily. More usefully to me in photography was the built in SD-Card reader which can hoover up any files on a card while you’re in the field. While SD cards are cheap enough, it’s good to have a backup on the road, and reading the resulting images into Lightroom afterwards via USB will be quicker. However Ubuntu couldn’t read this new purchase, so I had to get another cheap 2TB drive which it could see.

I then used Ubunutu to copy down the files to my external hard drive. This obviously took many hours. But now I had at least the safety of knowing that they were backed up before I went about rebuilding my NAS.

Then it was a question of reinstalling DSM 5.2 onto my Synology. I was expecting the software to reformat the drives before I had to copy them back to the NAS. However, when it came to the re-partitioning step… it skipped it! It took a while, but it reinstalled DSM onto my NAS, and my files were safely sitting there without me having to copy anything back. I hadn’t actually needed to buy either of the two 2TB drives I now had, boot into Ubuntu or buy a HD dock. I felt much safer for having a backup though.

There was another problem now – one of the hard disks was reported as physically degraded. That was because I’d foolishly yanked the HD out of the dock before making sure it was switched off. You know instantly if you’ve done this because the spin speed imparts some serious gravitational forces on the drive and you can feel them in your hand. I really can’t explain how weird this feels. I don’t suggest you try it unless you don’t care about your hard disk.

Had I completely messed up my drive in this process? Was I going to have to buy yet another 2TB drive?

Possibly.

I went through the Synology repair process – it took a painfully long 18 hours – and all seemed fine. The drive is no longer reported as degraded (although I will keep a close eye on it), and once I’d reinstalled Plex and Download Station onto my NAS, I was back up and running.

Searching my records, it appears that I bought this NAS in 2010, and the drives at the same time. I suspect that I need to replace them anyway in the near future. So a couple of 3TB or 4TB drives is on the cards. Storage is so expensive, yet so dull.

Do I get a new NAS at the same time? Getting a Synology NAS that supports Plex is a more expensive proposition these days, despite the advances in processing power. I’ll see depending on what comes out.

In the meantime, I’m now faced with another dilemma. What do I do about my “off-site” back-ups?

I reckon I currently have between 3 and 4TB of data stored across various devices that I’d like safely backed up. But what’s the most cost effective way of doing this? I could revert to portable hard-drives sitting in a locker at work again. But cloud computing costs are coming down, and my fibre connectivity is unlimited. Even then, I realise that it’s likely to initially take a couple of weeks to fully back-up my current file usage. But having files in the cloud would be massively useful. And much safer.

I currently have a Google account with a bit over 1TB of included storage (a Chromebook promotion), of which I’m using a grand total of 7%. They charge $9.99 per TB per month for storage additionally. So that’s an option, although getting on for $500 (£320).

I also have 1TB of storage with Microsoft’s OneDrive because I have an Office 365 Personal subscription that came with a computer. They came out as Labs winners in the most recent PC Pro magazine. I’m using even less of that 1TB, but I’m a bit confused about OneDrive’s options.

Logging onto OneDrive to look at additional storage options suggests that I have to pay either £1.99 a month for another 100GB or £3.99 a month for another 200GB. Yet this piece from their blog in October last year says that they are rolling out unlimited storage! It still seems to be in beta, so I’ve added myself to the list. £60 a year for Office plus unlimited cloud space would be a great deal (or even £80 for 5 PCs). [Update – November 2015: I never got my “unlimited” storage. I got the 1TB when I later bought an MS product that came with 12 months’ of Office 365. Microsoft has now pulled unlimited, and is sticking with 1TB for Office 365 users, and 5GB (down from 15GB) for free users.]

The other option seems to be Amazon where I pay for Prime. But again the situation is a bit confusing. Logging into my account I seemingly have 10GB of total storage space, of which I’ve got 9.7GB free. The remainder is mostly made up of documents I’ve sent to my Kindle in the past.

Amazon does allow free photos to Prime members in the UK. But there are question marks about some file formats. Amazon recognises some RAW file formats but not others. Video is excluded though, and although I mostly keep it out of Lightroom, there’s a little in there. Perhaps Amazon could take care of my Lightroom photo library though for no additional cost.

What’s odd is that in the US you seem to be able to pay $60 a year for unlimited storage of any kind of file. This just doesn’t seem to be an option in the UK.

Otherwise, there’s DropBox, but it’s too expensive on current price plans. There are smaller companies, but it feels safer to go with a big company. If Microsoft does properly roll out a full unlimited OneDrive offering, then I’m in. Otherwise it could be Amazon as a partial solution.

Decisions, decisions.

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