It Can Happen to You: My Photo Hard Drive Just Failed

It Can Happen to You: My Photo Hard Drive Just Failed

In between my music and photography work, I have a lot of hard drives. But even so, I've never had one fail, until just two days ago. It went without warning: no crunching sounds, no notifications, just a red light.

The Story

It's been a rough few weeks for me computer-wise. I was editing client photos earlier this weekend, and all was fine. Then, when I turned on my computer Sunday, I received the following message: "Your device has a RAID configuration issue." I figured it was something a restart might fix, but I peered at my enclosure (it's hidden behind my monitor) and saw solid red lights (never a good sign). I shut down my computer, then restarted it and watched the enclosure as the soft white light blinked on, thinking all was fine, only to watch it suddenly switch to solid red again. I opened the drive utilities app and saw the dreaded status telling me one of the drives had failed and needed to be replaced.

Thankfully, I use two 8 TB hard drives in a single enclosure in RAID 1 for my photos. RAID isn't a backup solution, but it did allow me to immediately switch over to the redundant drive and continue working. Everything is backed up with Backblaze (at $5 a month, I really can't recommend them enough) and on another drive in my apartment, but even so, the thought of losing literal terabytes of not just data but hard work, creativity, and memories was sobering.

The 3-2-1 Strategy

If you're never heard of the 3-2-1 strategy, it's the best way to back up your data. It goes like this: at the minimum, you have three copies of your data, two of which are local and one of which is offsite. So, for example, my current setup is:

  • Main external hard drive: My photos live on an 8 TB external hard drive in RAID 1 configuration with an identical drive. I do not count the RAID configuration as a backup; it simply makes it very easy to get back up and running if a drive fails.
  • NAS: I have a second external hard drive attached to my router. My computer automatically backs up the photos drive to that drive. I prefer it this way because my router is in another room on another circuit, so I do get at least some isolation between the two local drives (imagine a burst pipe in the ceiling pouring on both if they were on the same desk). 
  • Backblaze: Every night, my computer syncs to Backblaze, so my offsite backup is always up to date. The initial backup took about 40 days, but if that's too long for you, you can send them a hard drive of your data. 

With this method, you can easily get up and running again if your local drive fails, and if something catastrophic happens, you have the offsite backup. And I can't stress the importance of an offsite backup enough. It doesn't matter if you have 500 copies; if they're all in the same place and a fire/flood/theft occurs, you're done for. If your Internet connection is slow, another option is buying a backup drive that you bring home every few weeks or so, then store elsewhere, such as an office or relative's house. At $5 a month and with the benefit of real-time backups, Backblaze is a no-brainer for me, but if your connection speed precludes its use, bringing home an extra external drive every few weeks isn't a bad alternative. 

Yes, the extra hard drives and subscription services add cost to the equation. Nonetheless, the thought of losing my work is terrifying enough that I'll gladly pay that extra cost, and I definitely recommend you do too. 

Lead image by Pixabay user 422737, used under Creative Commons.

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Ryan Mense's picture

I have everything stored on one external travel-sized drive. It's called the 50-50 strategy as every day it feel like I have a 50% chance of making it without losing it all.

Andrea Re Depaolini's picture

You like to live your life dangerously... (Seriously Ryan please follow Alex's advice)

Ryan Mense's picture

Ummmmm 😳

Chris Rogers's picture

livin on ze edge

Jessica Jones's picture

As a film shooter and self-developer I live on the edge anyway so I am pretty much in the same boat when it comes to backup! I have my negatives, but man would that be a bitch to re-scan!

William Howell's picture

I just bought a SSD, very prescient.
Are your hard drives SSD? What do you think of the durability of SSD? I have my photos back up to the cloud only. What do you think of that strategy, is it enough?

Anders Madsen's picture

Currently SSD drives are probably best suited to be a “working drive” - that is, you have your projects stored on SSD until they are delivered to the client, then it goes to your archive drive (which is usually much larger and cheaper but slower).

As for backing up to the cloud only - well, it depends.

There are two terms that you should know when trying to determine a backup strategy:

Recovery Point Objective (RPO) and Recovery Time Objective (RTO).

RPO is basically how much work, you are ready to lose, if a media with data not yet backed up is lost. If you are a wedding photographer your RPO is basically zero - you shoot to dual cards, a card is not formatted until the data has been transferred to a hard drive AND backed up AND copied to an offsite location.

If you are a portrait photographer you may be able to accept a 24 hour RPO and perform a backup every night - after all, if you lose a days worth of portraits (or retouching work), you can probably talk the client into returning for another session.

It your “backup to the cloud” is a near-real-time synchronization (e.g. Dropbox) it is imperative that deleted or replaced files are stored and available for a while - otherwise a file that has been deleted locally will be gone from the cloud a few seconds later.

RTO is how long you can wait for a restore of your data, and this is where the cloud may be an insufficient solution. Alex briefly touched on this: A backup taking 40 days to complete will also take days or weeks to restore, and that may not be fast enough if your business depends heavily on your data.

If you want to continue using a cloud service as your only backup, I strongly suggest a segmentation of your data: One small set (your working drive, e.g) and several larger sets defined by time (one new folder each month, e.g) - that way you can restore your working data first and then start restoring your archive (and pray you don’t need anything from your archive).

Personally I would not be happy with anything less than what Alex has described in his article, but I can easily appreciate that not everyone can afford a full blown 3-2-1 solution if photography is just a hobby. If you are a working pro, I have a hard time finding a good excuse for not having a local backup too.

William Howell's picture

Thank you, i have been segmenting my files with monthly folders to the iCloud, but like you said it could take days to recover lost photographs to the new drive. I’m an avid enthusiast, so time is not of the essence to me, but I want my stuff to be safely backed up, but I’m a lazy procrastinator.

You have explained the situation plainly.

Some cloud services (such as Dropbox) do keep a history so if you delete/edit a file locally and it syncs to Dropbox, you can recover both the original and the edited version. I pay a small extra fee to Dropbox and get a full 12 months of history on every file.
Also, even if it takes a month to fully restore your local copies, you can always access individual files on Dropbox - so it shouldn't be a huge inconvenience.
You always run the risk that the cloud service provider will fail, but this is very rare and IMHO the chance of this happening at the same time that you lose your local files is very, very small indeed.

Andrea Re Depaolini's picture

Perfect article Alex, I quote every single word! Especially "RAID isn't a backup solution" I work in IT and sadly most customers understand how important backup is, only after a major failure.
I could add another reason to have an offsite backup and is computer virus such as Cryptolocker. Usually, photo/videographers PCs/Macs are really fast and this makes the Cryptolocker work easier, so having an offsite backup that is not connected to our LAN is vital.

I agree that most understand how important this is only after a major failure. Everyone in my family has experienced something along these lines, including myself when I spilled a glass of wine on my laptop. I've made them all install Google Drive and pay the $2 per month to have their important documents backed up. And it's those people that need a solution like Backblaze or Google Drive that does this automatically otherwise they get lazy and forget why it was so important in the first place.

Andrea Re Depaolini's picture

Yes backup has to be automatic otherwise no one will do it

Antti Mutka's picture

I shoot them --> images go from the card to to my laptop --> laptop gets backed up to two different loca drives --> Edited session with both RAW and PSD files gets achived to two different mirrored drives --> final web jpg and full res TIFFs go to the cloud.

Also if I shoot client work tethered I backup all RAW files in 15min intervals to a external SSD.

Requires some manual work and has a point of failure in that all files are locally stored for a while but it is a cheap and pretty robust solution for me at the moment.

Good job with the 3-2-1, but your NAS component has a major downside. Here's your test case: turn off your router, unplug the USB3 drive from it and plug it into a computer. Can you read it? Most likely not, as the drive is formatted in EXT4, which isn't natively supported on Windows and Mac computers. If you're lucky you'll spend an hour or two setting up a virtual machine with a Linux LiveCD and hope you can share the drive back to yourself.

Yes, home routers 'can' share out a drive like a NAS, but it's not a full featured device.

Had a VERY similar experience earlier this week with my RAID drives. It was a sobering reminder that they're not a backup solution (and luckily I wasn't treating them like one!).

Which NAS brand do you use? I'm considering adding one to my backup strategy as well.

Andrea Re Depaolini's picture

QNAP and Synology are very good brand regarding NAS, just make sure to fill them with NAS-specific Hard Drives such as Western Digital RED or RED PRO series

Alex Cooke's picture

I use WD as I like their drives, but I'll defer to Andrea Re Depaolini's expertise here; he's the IT guy. :)

«…but if your connection speed precludes its use….»
Just to make it clear to those who may be unaware, the Internet speed here in question is your ‘upload’ speed, not your download speed.

Your Internet “connection speed” has two values; download and upload. Most ISPs will quote your download speed to you. If you are not on a fiber connection, your connection is probably asymmetrical, meaning that your download speed is NOT the same as your upload speed.

Most non-fibre telco connections give a relatively low upload speeds. Most residential non-fibre cable connections, although much better than telcos, usually are no higher than 10-15Mbps upload. Even with a 1Gbps download speed, some cable providers limit uploads to no more than 35Mbps (which isn't too shabby, but expensive).

Fibre connections tend to be symmetrical. This means that if your advertised download speed is 100Mbps, then your upload speed is probably 100Mbps, also.

The point is that many purchase a 250 Mbps download connection for ¤299.95 per month (plus modem rental, fees, taxes, for upward of ¤330), then wonder why their backup is taking so long. The answer is that their upload speed may still be as slow as 10Mbps.

Alex Cooke's picture

Exactly why I pay for a 60/6 connection. I'd give anything for symmetrical d/u speeds.

Tony Clark's picture

From the beginning, I've stored everything on matching externals. As drive space has gotten cheaper I buy larger drives, 250GB, 500GB and now 1TB drives. Like CF and SD cards, I never have all the images on one big card but write to two in camera. If one fails, I simply replace and backup from the matching drive or card. I believe in redundancy and so far it hasn't failed me. Luckily, I've had one drive fail and it's since been replaced.

A duplication of data is not a backup. A backup is duplication of storage units. RAID is one storage unit, whether RAID1, RAID5, RAID50, RAID10, or RAID0. It is one storage unit. You may argue that RAID1 contains two copies of your data, but it is still one storage unit, so not a backup.

Using your logic, Google drive is a multi-layered backup solution because there are several copies of my data scattered on several servers in several countries. The thing is that it is still one storage unit. If a nefarious actor was to hack Google and take the AAA services down, thus preventing anyone from accessing their data, —yes, highly unlikely, but run with me on this— then my one and only storage unit is gone, regardless of the fact that it contains over a dozen copies of my work.

RAID1 is the same way. More than one copy of data, but still one storage unit, and should it go down completely —by overheating, being dropped off the desk, a liquid spill, et al— it does not matter that it has two copies of your data. You have just lost the single storage unit.

Besides, before he said, «I do not count the RAID configuration as a backup,» he had already said, «RAID isn't a backup solution….» Whether one calls it a backup, a backup system, or a backup solution, the important thing is, “copies of the data on different storage units, in different locations.”

He made that quite clear without any confusion, I think, even to the point of explaining why multiple local locations are necessary, and why off-site is necessary. His only confusing term was “local”. He ought to have used the terms, online, near-line, and offline. …Except, in today's world of every-body-is-a-tech-user, people may get the confused by the terms, ‘online’ & ‘offline’ storage, not to mention, ‘near-line’. Additionally, his solution only included one online, and two near-line storage solutions, (one nearer than the other).

Mark Van Noy's picture

From an IT perspective no RAID level is considered a back up. It is considered fault tolerance. RAID is only a consideration when discussing server uptime. The backup discussion is separate. For example, one of the file servers I manage is running RAID 6 with a nightly differential backup performed by a completely separate system that also uses disk in this case. File restores come from the backups. RAID 6 just means that I can have two drives fail simultaneously without the server going down. Thus I can hot swap out up to two failed drives on a live system and let the RAID array rebuild itself with zero down time. While RAID 1, the simplest form of RAID that provides fault tolerance, does provide that fault tolerance by performing a simple duplication of data, it was never intended to be a backup.

Of course, the real gotcha in this conversation is that when RAID was originally envisioned no one involved ever conceived of consumer level devices supporting RAID in any form.

In my opinion, the conversation about backups is slightly misguided. We really need to be discussing risk. For example, the oft cited off site backup sounds great. However, if the backup is done to a site that is in the same geographical region then a natural disaster could easily wipe out all the local data and the off site backup. The entire risk discussion can take you down quite a deep rabbit hole because the final decision needs to be how many nines of reliability do you need after the decimal? The cost/benefit for 99.99% reliable uptime is substantially better for most people than the benefit of 99.9999% as there are serious diminishing returns on investment.

If anyone is still reading, please, I implore you, never use RAID 0 for your photographs!

Jon Kellett's picture

Also, use a NAS that supports ZFS or BTRFS and learn how to use things like CoW and snapshots. Also, don't forget to scrub :-)

Allen Morris's picture

You can quibble over semantics all you like, but you'll be screwed if you use RAID as a backup. The misinformation is being spread by you here; listen to the experts.

RAID as a backup is the equivalent of placing all your eggs in one basket. "Hey, look at all the backup eggs I've got! If one's rotten, I'm fine!"
*Drops the basket*
"...oh I understand now."

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. There is an important practical difference between data redundancy and backup, and you're inability to understand this or defer to those describing it just to prove a silly pedantic point could seriously cause you or others a lot of hurt.

Allen Morris's picture

"I don't need an expert to provide the definition of a word."
Good luck with that pompous attitude. Nope. You're wrong here, and obviously any "reasonably educated English speaker" should understand the difference between simplistic laymen definitions and specialized terminologies.

Look, I can find stuff online too!

It's okay to be wrong sometimes.

Let us make a few things clear….

① “Backup” IS a technical term, so a TECHNICAL definition is needed.

② The definition you gave,
«a copy or duplicate version,… retained for use in the event that the original is in some way rendered unusable,»
Excludes RAID as a backup, as RAID was not designed to create “a duplicate… for use in the event that the original is in some way rendered unusable.» It is a duplicate for the purpose of preventing downtime should a hardware component fail, leaving the original data usable, (except for RAID0, which makes no duplicate, and was designed for speed & capacity).

③ The definition you gave,
«a procedure to follow in such an event,»
means that whether by “backup,” he meant “a copy of a file for the purpose of recovery,” or “a backup solution, backup plan, backup procedure, backup system,” can be taken by context, as a ‘backup’ is also defined as a backup procedure/plan/solution/system by your own admition.

④ to reiterate my last point in this conclusion, a duplication of data, such as in a RAID1, is not the same as a backup, as its purpose is NOT to mitigate data loss, but to mitigate hardware loss and allow business continuity.

⑤ …And when it was said that, “I do not count the RAID configuration as a backup,” in context of the previous statement that, “RAID isn't a backup solution,” and the rest of the statement which goes on to state, “…it simply makes it very easy to get back up and running if a drive fails,” that the use of the term, ‘backup,’ was in the sense of, ‘a backup solution.’

It is called, “language comprehension,” or ‘logics,” and the author of the article needs to make no clarifications for those who know how to comprehend context.

Allen Morris's picture

This is a succinct description of technical processes, placed in appropriate and practical usage context, and based on logic and a comprehension of relatively complex systems.

This will not end well...

Allen Morris's picture

succinct to any reasonably intelligent adult.


Allen Morris's picture

Bob, are you actually incapable of understanding the difference between common definitions and technical terms?

Here’s a definition for you:

Technical: relating to a particular subject, art, or craft, or its techniques.

Allen Morris's picture

All this energy arguing over your inability to understand technical terms would be better spent creating an off-site backup, by the way.

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