When a hard drive fails, it can wreak havoc on your work day. Let me share with you how, in 2010, I built a reliable, cost-effective storage solution that grew over the years as I grew—saving me time and money.

Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID)

RAID sounds scary, but it’s just a way of configuring several hard drives together to act like one super hard drive. There are several different “levels” of RAID—each offering its own unique benefits. The good news: products such as Western Digital My Book, Synology and, of course, Drobo, handles this complicated setup for us.

Since I’m a Drobo user, I can only speak on how I set my Drobo up. I chose single disk redundancy—meaning one drive can fail and I don’t lose my data. I could have chosen dual disk redundancy, giving me extra protection in case two hard drives failed at the exact same time. This options comes at a cost—requiring more disk space and a little slower performance.

Started small, then grew into my Drobo

I had a dedicated 1.5TB hard drive just for my photo library, mirrored to another 1.5TB drive as my backup. My operating system, along with my programs and miscellaneous files, were on a separate 1.5TB hard drive. Unfortunately, this hard drive wasn’t backed up and I paid the price when it failed. To keep my photo library within the 1.5TB range, I would either delete or move irrelevant images to an external hard drive. This was NOT the ideal solution. To this day, I’m still looking for images I archived on different external drives. Finally, all this changed when I received my first 4-bay Drobo FS in 2010.

Making RAID a part of my system

Drobo took care of configuring my RAID system. I installed two new 2TB drives and Drobo made them appear as one hard drive. Even though I installed two 2TB drives, the unit only showed 2TB, not 4TB available. RAID made the second hard drive redundant—if one failed, the other would take over. Since I had two bays free, I repurposed my old 1.5TB drives and added them to my Drobo. I still kept my operating system and program files on a separate internal hard drive.

Compressed backup drive to save space

My new Drobo showed I had 4.53TB available. The problem: my largest hard drive was only 2TB. I decided to take an inexpensive path and compress my backup drive. The pros—I didn’t need to purchase another Drobo plus, if a hard drived failed in my Drobo, I could easily replace it. The downside—I needed to use software to view my backup files.

I grew into a second Drobo

As my photography business grew, my hard drives were getting full. I replaced the old 1.5TB drives with 2TB drives. This solved my storage problem, but not my backup problem. I invested in a second Drobo 4-bay FS unit and repurposed my old drives and added drives to match my main Drobo. Now I didn’t have to compress my backup drives. I have a one-to-one mirrored copy of my files. If my main Drobo unit failed, I could rely on an identical copy of my files.

Hard drives will fail

I’m finding hard drives usually last as long as the warranty. I’ve had some drives for as long as 5 years and others for only 2 years. Once the hard drive fails, I replace it with a larger drive. This keeps my Drobo growing with my needs. Currently I upgraded my Drobos units a few years back and have all 3TB drives with the except of the new 4TB drive I just installed—inspiring me to write this article.

How is my storage solution working?

In the middle of a project, my Drobo unit alerted me I had a hard drive fail. I kept working until I took a break at 8 p.m. to head to Best Buy. I purchased a new drive, came home, replaced the failed drive with the new drive, then continued working on my project. No downtime, no data lost. My storage solution is right on track.

Suggestions for your storage solution

If you’re a photographer with less than 2TB of images, purchase two 3TB external drives. Toshiba Canvio 3TB Portable Hard Drives run about $99 each. Refer to “Building a Bulletproof Backup System” on how to set them up.

If you’re a photographer with more than 2TB but less than 6TB, it’s time you to invest in a Drobo or a RAID enclosure. I would suggest a Drobo 5N. The N stands for network. Use the network Drobo as your main hard drive and a 6TB as your backup. Drobo 5N is a little slower than a Drobo 5D, but you will be able to access it from anywhere in the world. Don’t worry about security, Drobo has that covered. When you grow into a second Drobo, choose the 5D version. You will be able to repurpose the 6TB hard drive.

If you are a full-time working photographer and your income depends on delivering your images on time to your clients, budget in 2 Drobos or 2 RAID unitis. If you choose Drobo, get a Drobo 5D as your working drive and Drobo 5N as your backup drive.