Fstoppers Reviews the IoSafe 218: Is NAS the Right Photo Backup Choice for Technophobic Photographers?

Fstoppers Reviews the IoSafe 218: Is NAS the Right Photo Backup Choice for Technophobic Photographers?

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:

While the outside of this ioSafe 1515 is toast after a fire and soaking of water from firehoses, the hard drives inside were protected. Photo courtesy of ioSafe.

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.

The interior of the ioSafe 218 with one of the Seagate IronWolf drives inside.

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.

The Synology DSM interface used to control the ioSafe 218.

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.

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David T's picture

Another thing is that the NAS is "always on" and works independent from your computer, while a USB drive shuts down with it.

So the additional offsite backup from a NAS to the cloud keeps uploading, even when you take your laptop to a shoot.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I hadn't even thought of that, but yes, you are right. I'm accessing mine right now to pull down some photos from offsite and my computer is definitely off at home. Apparently something else I didn't know is that you can change the settings to have it auto restart after a power outage, so that's neat as well since I'm often not in town to check on it.

Brian Pernicone's picture

Thanks for the write-up, Wasim, this was really interesting. I hate my current backup system (a pair of WD MyPassPort Wireless external drives and Dropbox) mostly because when I unplug the HDs from my laptop, my Lightroom catalog can no longer find the original files. This means that every time I need an original file, I have to plug in the HD and then search for the file. To your point about wireless transfers, I found the wireless transfer rates to be too slow to be useful, and since I don't have a stationary setup, I can't keep the HDs wired to my laptop at all times.

With NAS, is it constantly connected to your WiFi and, thus, accessible wirelessly?

Wasim Ahmad's picture

So I have the NAS plugged into my router, and then I can use my computer to access it wirelessly. I have not tried to connect the NAS itself wirelessly (I blindly followed the instructions and used the included CAT6 cable to plug it into the router). That said, using the computer to access wireless is great to pull down a few quick photos in the field (as I did today for an article) and it's also good for showing photos to clients, but I don't know if I would run entire Lightroom catalogs through wireless means with this setup. It's largely dependent on your router and computer of course, but I experienced a huge speed boost after plugging the computer in with a CAT6 cable to the router as well.

David T's picture

If your files are only on the external drive or NAS, that's not a backup. You need multiple independent copies to have a backup.

Pedro Quintela's picture

I was about to pull the trigger on a NAS this month because I need another hard drive to make my backups. I´m having a very productive year and having a camera with 50mp doesn´t help while storing data.
Unfortunately have some gear issues and only one of my lens needs a 600 euro fix. So instead I went for a LaCie 6tb.

Though your article helped me even more to get my mind clear. When I cover all my photo related expenses this will be definitely the way to go. Meanwhile let´s cross fingers and knock on wood...

Thank you, Wasim!

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Sorry to hear about the lens!

Miro Perez's picture

Great article. If you're not too concerned about the catastrophic fire/water damage consider a NAS like Synology offers. Obviously there are differences in price to performance but you can configure them much in the same way. Another thing is the packages as the author said are valuable. I use the Synology Cloud Sync package with a BackBlaze B2 (or similiar supported service) account so the NAS backs up my photos to the cloud for an additional layer of redundancy. Only the NAS needs to be on for this - no computer involved so you can set it to do it in the late evening. Warning - the first backup can take days or weeks depending on your internet connection speed. It's not too pricey - something like a few cents each GB but it's piece of mind that you can recover your data if you NAS goes south for any number of reasons. Wrt to the performance, I use LR to manage photos and every year or so I archive from my main drive to the NAS moving within LR to the pointers/keywords to the files are maintained in the catalog. I mostly work with files locally for performance although you can create Smart Previews for your NAS based photos.

For the work on my local drive, I also back that up to a time machine drive and cloud storage so that the work that hasn't been archived is backed up too. You could archive to the NAS more often I suppose to free up space on your local drives.

Robert Lynch's picture

You still need another copy of your data. RAID is not backup, even with mirrored drives. So many people overlook the single point of failure of a solution like this: the disk controller. If it goes bad (and they do from time to time) it will corrupt the data being written to the RAID array. I have seen this happen multiple times over the years to people who had no other copies because they thought RAID was all they needed.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Oh believe me, I do. I still have the old drives that I use for that, but I'm looking into adding another NAS and having it sync in a different location.

Deleted Account's picture

So much that. I would not call it "backup" it it's powered, and at least have doubts when it's on-site.

Adrian Lyons's picture

Actually, NAS ISN'T the solution for photographers. Simply put, double NAS is. Two NAS boxes with a duplicate copy of your valuable content safely backed up.

In a perfect world, these two NAS boxes would be located in separate buildings from each other.

A third optional layer of redundancy would be having a copy stored in a cloud storage solution.

Jon Kellett's picture

I would say that the ideal solution is a 4+ drive NAS (use BTRFS or ZFS file systems with snapshots and COW enabled), with an automated process copying to offsite (Backblaze or similar).

Going for plain ol' ext* file system is asking for trouble.

Also, if you're worried about speed of the system (1Gb ethernet isn't that fast) during ingest or working - Use an SSD (internal/external, matters not) and duplicate to the NAS in the background. Lightroom will allow you to make a second copy straight to your NAS during import.

It's not that hard to achieve the above results, just takes a little time Googling if you're not an IT kinda guy...

Marcus Joyce's picture

Add the cloud sync package, and backup to backblaze. It's taken me 2 months to backup 600gb of raw. But at $5 a terabyte it's cheap.

Also capture one works well over Lan/WiFi. But even at 1gbps (or 112MB/se approx) its about 3-5 raw files a second it's "slow". I guess this is why fstoppers starts talking 10gbps nas.. or 30-50 raw a second (if your computer can render them that fast).

My internet was 1mbps upload and committing 10% of that was going to take years to upload. Thankfully I was able to get a Mobile broadband unlimited service and can do 5mbps which cut it down to a month.

In this day and age I don't even think young people understand the importance of their own backups of phones and iPads etc.

Patrick Callahan's picture

I wouldn't operate a business without one. When a water pipe burst and flooded my studio, my iOSafe protected all my photos & video files despite standing in 4" of water. I immediate bought a second unit for my home.