When I wrote an article back in January about my photo backup strategy, I received a polite email from a company called ioSafe that, in so many words, informed me in the nicest way possible how quaint my solution of rotating hard drives was.
NAS, or network attached storage, is the way to go, Brett Callow, ioSafe's PR director suggested, and the company’s ioSafe 218 would be of particular interest to photographers since it is both fireproof and waterproof.
So while I’m a bit of a caveman when it comes to computer hardware, I decided to give it a go, and the results of a couple of months with it have completely changed the way I store my multimedia work.
Not What I Was Expecting
I had never seen an ioSafe, or really any sort of NAS before, and so I was a bit surprised when the box that arrived. It was so heavy. It was big. ioSafe sent me over a just-launched 218 unit to try out and integrate into my photography workflow. When I opened it up, the design instantly reminded me of a late ‘90s mini-tower computer, complete with a large fan on the back. While the plain look isn’t for everyone, I loved the touch of nostalgia. It might be a tight fit in some workspaces, though. It’s actually larger than my Asus PC.
That heavy feeling is not without reason. The inside has lots of protective material, and the whole setup actually feels like one of those expensive element-proof safes you store documents in. I clearly have not tested the fire-proof capabilities of the device, but an unfortunate (or fortunate?) customer did, and as you can see in this photo of one of their larger 5-bay 1515 units:
When you purchase the ioSafe, you can get it “diskless” where you provide your own hard drives, or you can get it pre-installed with hard drives configured in a “RAID 1” configuration. My 218 model came pre-configured with two 12TB Seagate IronWolf hard drives. I had to chuckle at a label at the bottom of the drives that called them “SATA AF.”
The RAID 1 configuration means that in addition to my data being safe from fire and water inside the enclosure, if one of the hard drives fail, my data is still safe on the other one. The drives can also be reconfigured using RAID 0 to get more space from the two drives without the data protection afforded by RAID1.
There are only two bays in the ioSafe 218, but the company makes several sizes, from smaller 1-HD external drives to 5-bay NAS units. Photographer Moose Peterson is a fan of that one. The 218 tops out at 24TB, officially, but that doesn't mean larger drives won’t be compatible in the future.
Depending on the configuration you buy, prices start at $660 and top out at $2600.
Getting Started with NAS
After a couple of days of using the thing, I was ready to throw it out the window. Luckily, ioSafe's technical support was there to help. I called the general helpline available to consumers, and they were surprisingly polite and responded immediately and in detail to any questions I had. If I didn't email or call back after a day or two, they followed up. It’s clear that they know how difficult this is to set up for the novice, and walked me through the process.
I had it in my head that I’d set up the box in the corner of my room and I’d wirelessly transfer terabytes of data as if by magic. I also thought that I’d just plug it in and go, like a USB drive. If you’re new to NAS, get both of those notions out of your head.
The laws of physics mean that the best way to squeeze all of the performance out of the NAS is a direct physical connection. Once I realized that sending files at breakneck speeds through the air was a pipe dream, ioSafe's technical support representative, Shelle Parsons explained that a Cat6 cable directly into the router (oh, and that’s what you plug into, hence the “network” part of Network Attached Storage) was the best way to go. I’m so out of date I didn't know the world had moved on from Cat5. Once I did that, the speed was more or less the same as a portable drive plugged into a USB3 port.
With Parsons’ help, I was able to set up the ioSafe to allow connections from the outside world. Now, in a pinch, I’m able to access the NAS from offsite, but connections are limited by how fast my router and internet connection is. I’m cheap, and so the answer to this is not fast at all, but that’s no fault of the ioSafe.
That brings me back to the service aspect of things. After our phone conversation, Parsons gave me her email address and basically became a direct line for questions, even before knowing that I was reviewing the unit. She patiently listened to my NAS problems and even provided solutions for backing up my backups that I hadn’t thought about. This was good because I needed the help.
When I first plugged in the 218, I couldn't access it through my browser and it didn't read like a normal USB drive (because it’s not). I tried three different computers, Mac and PC, before a second PC laptop made it work with a piece of software called “Synology Assistant” that was able to find NAS. If I had plugged in from the start, this process probably would have been smoother.
Then I poked around the software, Synology's Disk Station Manager, or DSM, which is what the ioSafe 218 uses to control everything. It almost looked like the interface to an iPad or something, but with far more complicated tools.
I learned that the currency of this system is not apps, but packages. I could make the ioSafe do things that simply aren't possible with a $59 external hard drive just by downloading these useful pieces of software. There are packages that simplify backing up, instantly transfer photos from the provided USB port, and allow remote access and gallery creation, among other possibilities.
But Why Should Photographers Care?
So a lot of this sounds like nerdy talk that would make an IT person swoon. Why should photographers care about a NAS, and particularly the ioSafe 218? The biggest thing, for me, is peace of mind.
With my previous backup solution, I was reasonably assured that I wouldn't lose much data because of rotating backups, but there’s always that “much” part. I have a lot of redundancy, yes, but it’s a lot of work to keep up and occasionally a week will slip by where I can’t make a regular backup. Yes, anything delivered to a client is already in the cloud in Dropbox, but that doesn't mean that there’s some inherent risk of losing raw files or things that just hadn't made it into deep storage yet.
The ioSafe 218 takes the anxiety associated with this out of the equation. When the housing is fireproof and waterproof, that’s one less thing (or perhaps two) to have to worry about. The enclosure can even be bolted down to help theft-proof the whole setup. It’s nice to know that even in the event of a catastrophic fire or flood, the latter of which is not uncommon in New York in the last few years, my photos and video are safely cocooned from the elements.
There’s also the potentially massive amount of storage that’s available through using a NAS with several bays. This model tops out at 24TB and the 5-bay versions can fit even more. You’re starting to see USB drives that get you to 12TB, but at the price point they’re at, it might be worth it to spend extra to get the expandability and functionality of a NAS, in addition to the rugged aspect of the ioSafe.
There are also a lot of features that could change the equation for many critical tasks that aren't directly hard drive related. Synology's DSM that’s loaded on to the 218 has a lot of packages that could work well for photographers. USB Copy can easily offload memory cards through the built-in USB port on the NAS, though I had some trouble getting this to work consistently, it seems to be largely dependent on your card reader and card. Photo Station 6 can serve as a client file-delivery tool, potentially saving me money on cloud services for that function. I love the remote access options through the DSM software, as there are many times, such as when I’m writing articles for Fstoppers off-site, that I need to access a specific photo or file, and this lets me do that.
The ioSafe 218, and NAS in general, though, isn’t for everyone. Hobbyist photographers who don’t have mission-critical photos to keep safe probably won’t want or need to pay for the expense of a fireproof, waterproof backup system. For this crowd, the ioSafe 218 is probably overkill. It’s more expensive, though, precisely because it’s overkill, which is a good thing if you need the protection.
Also, I’m technically challenged, but not so technically challenged that I couldn't follow a support representative’s instructions to set this up. But I’m not going to sugar coat it – initial setup was not easy. It’s not for the technically faint of heart. Once the initial setup was done, though, things got much better and I was able to explore the full functionality of the device, but that is something to consider: A NAS setup is not plug-and-play.
“As for your overall backup/workflow strategy, there's no easy answer as to the question of what's best. It really down to how much data you create, how valuable you consider it to be and how you want to be able to use, access, and share it and, of course, how much money you've got to play with,” said Callow, the ioSafe PR director said.
Even when I was swapping out hard drives to back everything up, I knew there had to be a better way, but I wasn’t sure of what that was. This is that better way. Callow said in his email to me that once I tried NAS in any form, that I wouldn't want to go back. He was right. Adding disaster-proof hardware to the equation makes sense if you’re already spending the money to upgrade your storage to a NAS system anyway. The ioSafe 218 is a tool that photographers with large catalogs of photos should certainly consider to safeguard and back up their work.
What I Liked
- Fireproof and waterproof storage solution.
- Flexibility with Synology's DSM to tailor to your workflow.
- Huge storage capacity over a regular hard drive.
- Good email/phone support from the company.
What I Didn't Like
- Quite large and quite heavy. Don't expect to move it around much.
- Difficult initial set up for novices. I definitely needed the tech support.
- Like other NAS units, speed is largely dependent on your router, cables and Internet connection.
Click the following link to purchase the ioSafe 218.