Backups! Backups for all!

by Josh Anon

There's been a bit of talk on here lately about hard drives, and once in a while someone will mention the word "backup." I think that backups are incredibly important, yet very few people have a good backup solution. As I'm sure everyone knows, the idea of a backup is simple: have a current copy of all of your work that you can retrieve should something bad happen to the main version. However, the devil, as they say, is in the details. How do you keep your backup current? How do you keep it safe?

Today, I'm mainly going to address keeping your backup safe. When first backing up files, most people start with a simple solution. Put a copy on a second hard drive (there's even an Automator action to help backup images when importing to a second drive). But what if you're in a hotel with your laptop and 2nd hard drive, and someone breaks into your room and steals your bag. There goes your backup! It also leads us to tip number one, keep your backup in a separate location. Ideally, it should be in a different spot all together, e.g. one copy at home and one at your office.

Now let's say that we're doing that, and suddenly our main drive dies. When we go to get our backup drive, uh-oh, it's gone bad, too! What could cause this? Well, it's sometimes possible that a manufacturer has a bad run of drives (or CD-Rs/DVD-Rs). It's good to buy different brands at slightly different times. It's also good to have an alternate, second backup.

The simplest type of a second backup you can have is via a RAID array. We've mentioned RAID here before, but put simply, RAID provides a way to automatically make multiple disks appear as one hard drive. It can be used for performance (you have two hard drives and alternate which one you write to) or redundancy. In this case, we care more about the best backup possible, and there are two primary backup schemes. RAID 1 is when a second hard drive is just used to duplicate the contents of the first, and RAID 5 is when three drives are put together so that in addition to copying the data, the drive can actually correct errors when reading the data back. RAID is becoming more popular, and you can set it up in many configurations ranging from drives inside your Mac Pro to multi-thousand dollar XServe RAID units. You could also have multiple RAID arrays, one for primary storage and one for backup. I personally use a Kano Technologies desktop RAID unit for my primary storage. The new Drobo device looks promising, too! RAIDs are also convenient because they appear on your computer like a normal hard drive--you can put a vault onto one or just duplicate your whole library.

Yet let's say some freak accident happens, perhaps someone gets mad at you and places a big magnet on top of your RAID array. Even RAID 5 can't protect against that! Burning your data to a more permanent form, like a CD or DVD provides a nice way to have an alternate form of storage. Unfortunately, burned discs are not nearly as stable as pressed discs (such as what Aperture comes on). Although there are some more stable discs, namely those made from gold, you probably want to burn a couple copies of each and replace the discs every few years. Plus, the sheer size of image files makes it hard to coordinate burning discs, and it's tough to figure out what discs have what images. Side note: if someone has time to write a plug-in for Aperture that'll automatically burn master files + a JPEG version to disc, spanning discs as needed, I guarantee you I'll buy a copy :) Despite the pitfalls of discs, I like the safety net of having a non-magnetic form of storage for my images.

Online backup solutions are becoming more common now, and two in particular stand out. The first, Mozy, now has a Mac client available and provides 2GB of storage for free. Unlimited storage is only $4.95/month. Their data is stored offsite, it's encrypted, and you can access your files from the web. Using Mozy is fairly simple. Register, download and install their tool, pick what files you want to backup, and click go. Unfortunately, it can be VERY slow to upload data to their server. They even warn you that your initial backup may take days. That also means that restoring data can take a while. Plus, if your machine is firewalled, you need to make sure to open up port 443. From working with Mozy, I think that it'll be fine for personal data, but I want something better for my images.


A pricer option, but one that I am quite impressed with, is Photo Shelter. Photo Shelter provides online image management, ranging from just a simple online backup of your file to being able to send a gallery to a user who can order a print without your doing anything. In fact, they have an Aperture plugin to help upload images. I will admit that I have just begun to play with Photo Shelter's free membership, limited to 50MB of storage (I've been meaning to try it for the past year or so), but I'm impressed enough that I think I will be purchasing a full membership soon and integrate it into my website. I'll let everyone know how that goes once I start setting it up more!

I've probably given you more questions than I've answered about backing up your work, but hopefully you all have a better understanding of your backup options. Personally, between using a RAID 5 disk for my primary storage, keeping a backup copy of my images offsite on another hard drive, and now using Photo Shelter, I am mostly able to sleep at night.


Ciaran Lee
2007-08-15 07:55:17
I use Amazon's S3 service which provides unlimited data storage for 15c per GB per month. JungleDisk make a really nice mac program ($20 for lifetime multiple-machine license) for automating backups to S3. You should check it out it's very impressive
Steve Robertson
2007-08-15 08:07:15
I use PhotoShelter for the backend of my customized web site and would highly recommend it to others. Take a look at my web site to see an example of how well it can integrate with your own web site. They are also very responsive to suggestions and constantly adding new features.

In regards to backup storage, I am in the process of buying a new Mac Pro as soon as Apple ever gets around and gives us a decent upgrade along with an XServe. I am torn between filling out the hard drives on the Mac Pro or putting my digital photos on XServe or even using XSan technology to allow multiple workstations to access the photos on XServe. Any ideas would be appreciated. Thanks.

Joe Samuels
2007-08-15 08:56:54
I used film for fifty years before I moved to digital photography. When it comes to digital back-up, I'm content if I'm at least as safe as I was when I relied on my film archives. It's all a question of acceptable risk.

I think I'm in as safe a position as I was with film if I have both a separate Aperture vault on an external hard drive near my computer and a full bootable back-up on the same drive. Then, in another location (at the other end of a big house), another Aperture vault and a bootable back-up of the whole drive. Immediately after I've imported a new set of images and have done the initial adjustments, I update the nearby Aperture vault. At regular intervals, I also update the bootable back-ups of the whole drive, and the far-away Aperture vault.

Josh Anon
2007-08-15 09:03:43
Ciaran, that S3 backup tool is interesting! I will check that out more.

Steve, good to hear someone with more experience using it praising Photo Shelter :) I've had an XServe + Xraid unit before, and they are LOUD! For basic use, I am more a fan of having multiple internal drives raided together. But if you could get an XServe and set it up in a closet somewhere (running cable as needed), that would be a good solution.

Joe, are you at all worried about a big fire or some magnetic issue disrupting your images? It sounds like you are as safe as you were with film, but it seems like you have an opportunity here to just be a little safer :)

2007-08-15 13:08:20
S3 is interesting up to about 30gb. Then it's really hard to beat Mozy at $4.95 unlimited storage. Streamload for example starts off with 25gb free but charges $9.95/month for 250gb and $29.95/month for 1 terabyte.

Thanks for the heads up... I'm off to try Mozy!

Cliff Cheney
2007-08-15 13:15:57
I noticed that SmugMug provides unlimited storage for Pro subscribers. I have been meaning to use their Aperture plugin to automate some sort of offsite backup. Anyone tried this?
Richard W. Matthews
2007-08-16 08:05:30
I'm a semi-pro photographer. I read this blog regularly and this is my first post. I just figured I would post my expierience with both PhotoShelter and SmugMug... both of which I have used their respective pro accounts for over a year. SmugMug is very nice and does alot, thier customization is more difficult to understand than photoshelter's but it does work. Their customer service is OUT OF THIS WORLD good! Like Really amazing. Never took more than Half and hour to respond... ever, and I had lots of questions. The Photo Ordering service is good and keeps getting better. Now I am currently using PHotoShelter and I Love thier service... Lots easier to use... My website is fully integrated... and I had to do very little actual coding (check it out under "portfolio" on my website). Their online photo organization is really great. I used it as a back-up for my aperture library. The only real problem I have is that I have to upload both the Raw files and the JPEGS. This is because their Raw processing engine does not recognize apertures Fixes or edits... and so, when making a gallery from the Raw file... my customers see an unprocessed Raw file. So I just put my RAW files their for storage.. and re-upload an exported JPEG for making customer galleries... It would be nice if they made the galleriers from the prieview JPEG that aperture make... so I wouldn't have to upload twice as many images... but other than that... I love their service... I know my images are safe... and I never have to worry about them again. What I would like to see is them to integrate phpture into thier service... so I can browse my images.. just like they were natively in aperture... just use the photoshelter service as a vault of my library... and be able to make customer galleries from there. Hope this helps... if you guys have any more questions... please contact me. I'd love to share my experience.