Storage breakdown

Anthony Caruana
8 August, 2013
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How much data are you storing? Do you really know? And how do you share that data? Is it backed up? When you start thinking about all the different information you store – movies, documents, photos, email, financial records in accounting systems – it becomes apparent that most of us are holding on to more information than we realise.

There is a range of storage products on the market for you to choose from, so how do you know what’s right for you? 

 

Here’s a quick inventory from our own home. Our iTunes library is approaching 1TB of data – most of that comes from TV shows and movies we’ve purchased. Now that we’re in the high definition era, a movie is often in excess of 4GB and a TV homework assignments, hundreds of images used in articles we’ve written, about 300GB in the iPhoto library and many other bits and pieces.

All up, we’re holding in excess of 5TB on various storage devices by the time you throw in applications and operating systems.

Coupled with the massive amount of data that’s growing quickly, is the fragmentation of that data.

It’s stored on hard drives built into our Macs, on the iPhones, iPads and iPods in the house and on a couple of NAS devices. And let’s not start on the dozens of USB sticks we’ve accumulated over the years. We’re not even sure what they’re storing.

According to research firm Gartner, the average storage per household will grow from 464GB in 2011 to 3.3TB in 2016. To be honest, we think that estimate is rather conservative. With the arrival of 4K televisions, where full-resolution content will only be delivered digitally, and as optical drives such as DVD and Blu-ray start to fade away, we expect to see households and businesses getting smarter about how they manage their data.

If that sounds like a lot, other research suggests that we’re accessing tens of terabytes of data each month. Although a lot of that is transient, such as streamed video that we watch once, web pages we visit and other single-use content, that volume is increasing each year and the amount of that data we store is following suit.

So, the question then becomes what storage solutions are the best fit for your burgeoning data collection? Given that there are hundreds of storage products to choose from, how do you know what’s right for you?

 

Mobile Worker

There are many challenges for mobile workers. Even though your MacBook might be a great workhorse and your iPad and iPhone perfect for consuming content and staying in touch, you still need to think about your data.

The first challenge is ensuring that your critical data is backed up. The two easiest solutions are a cloud- based storage solution or an external hard drive.

Cloud solutions are great, but they rely on you having access to the internet. For most of us this isn’t a major issue, but if you’re working in a remote location or overseas, where data roaming charges can be expensive, then you may want to consider an external hard drive.

D-Link’s DNS-313 is a 1-Bay SATA network storage enclosure that houses a 3.5in hard drive for music, photo and video network and internet sharing.

Backups can be easily handled using an external drive. And, if you have a larger drive back at the office that you normally use, it’s not a problem as Time Machine can work with multiple drives. This was introduced as a new feature in Mountain Lion.

If you’re in the office and have more than one drive connected to your Mac for Time Machine, your backups will cycle between each of your designated backup locations. When you travel, just take the portable drive with you. Time Machine will automatically back up to it every hour.

With portable hard drives, you’ll be looking for devices that don’t require a separate power supply; they’ll get their power directly from the USB or Thunderbolt port they’re connected to. They use 2.5in hard drives – the same sort as many notebook computers with SSDs now becoming popular.

If you have reliable access to the internet, then there are several options when it comes to protecting your data. However, the myriad different cloud storage services really come down to two types of services: file synching and full back-up services.

The file synching options are well-known. Dropbox (www.dropbox.com), Skydrive (skydrive.live.com) and Box (www.box.com) are among the most popular. All work on a similar principle. You tell the application which folder contains your critical files – typically a subfolder within Documents – and it synchronises the folder’s contents to an online repository. If you set up the same application on another Mac and use the same user account you can have your data automatically synchronise between a notebook and desktop Mac.

If you’re after a more complete backup, then you can look at services such as CrashPlan (www.crashplan.com) or Carbonite (www.carbonite.com). These allow you to back up entire systems, not just specific files or folders.

 

With CrashPlan, you can configure your backups to multiple locations, such as other computers on a local network or family and friends' computers.

 

An online backup solution offers another benefit over Time Machine and other similar options. As the backups are kept offsite, you’re not vulnerable to losing data if your home or office is damaged or inaccessible. In an extreme situation, like a fire, your Mac might be destroyed. If the backup is in the same place then it’s likely to be lost as well. With a cloud service, you could potentially replace the hardware and then get your data back with relative ease.

Having now sorted out how to protect your data when travelling, you need to ensure that you have a plan for sharing what you’ve stored. This is where USB memory sticks are useful.

In the old days of floppy disks, people used the term ‘sneaker-net’ to describe the network used to share files. You’d copy data to a disk and then walk to the other person and hand the disk over. USB sticks are this generation’s floppy disk.

When you walk into a local electronics or stationery store you’ll probably see hundreds of different options. We’d suggest avoiding the cheapest units, as they’re sometimes not the most robust devices. Over the years, we’ve seen our fair share of USB sticks fail and it’s almost always down to two things. The cheaper USB thumb-drives are built to a price. Either the electronics fail or the bodies break.

We also prefer to not get devices with complex mechanisms for ejecting the connector. We’ve seen quite a few of these break under heavy use.

 

For the Home and Office

Many small businesses see storage as a necessary expense, but fail to put the proper planning into determining their current needs and allowing for the future. As a result, they end up with important data stored in multiple places with some storage devices filled to the brim and others sitting almost idle.

We’ll be honest – this is almost exactly the position we were in a few years ago. We had several high-capacity external hard drives with some filled and others underutilised. For example, the drive holding our iTunes library was at capacity while the drive with the iPhoto library was only 30 percent utilised.

How can you resolve this?

We’d suggest starting with a serious audit of the data you have stored on your Macs and other storage devices. The easiest way to do this is to check the size of the Documents folder for each user on each Mac. If each user has their own iTunes and iPhoto library, make a note of those sizes as well.

If you have external hard drives connected to your Macs, record how much capacity each has, how much space is used and what is stored. We like using an app called WhatSize! for this job. It interrogates hard drives and tells you which files are the largest and where they are. However, there are several other utilities that do the same thing.

Now that you have some data about what and where all your files, photos and media are, you can make some decisions and plan a comprehensive storage strategy for your home or office.

The ioSafe Solo G3 is a fireproof, waterproof and shockproof hard drive, compatible with Time Machine.

In most cases, we’d recommend considering a storage device that uses RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks), which allows multiple hard drives to be used in tandem. With RAID0, two disks are effectively seen as one larger disk. So, a storage device that holds two separate hard drives can be treated as if it really has one large drive. So, two 2TB drives appear like a single 4TB drive.

With RAID1 devices, there are two drives as well, but the contents of one are automatically mirrored to the other. That way, if one drive fails, no data is lost. A pair of 2TB drives appear like a single 2TB drive

We’ll skip past RAID2, 3 and 4 as they’re rarely used. RAID5 is used when a storage device uses three or more hard drives. The data is arranged so that every bit is duplicated but the capacity of the drives is also concatenated. The total available capacity in a RAID5 array is the sum of the total capacity of the drives minus the capacity of one drive. A RAID5 array with three 2TB drives appears like a single 4TB drive. Four 2TB drives delivers 6TB of capacity.

The Drobo 5N connects to a network or Mac via a Gigabit Ethernet cable and holds up to five, 3.5in SATA hard disk drives or solid state drives.

RAID capability used to be only available in Network Attached Storage devices, but we’re seeing RAID appear in Thunderbolt capable devices as well.

By choosing a large storage device you can accomplish several things. First, you’ll know where all your data is. That helps with both finding things and managing backups. Another benefit is that you can back up all your computers across your network to a single location as Time Machine can work across a network. There’s no need to buy a separate drive for each computer.

 

Students

We suggest students need to consider a couple of different storage solutions. First, there’s the need to easily share files between computers. While shared network folders and email attachments work quite well, having a USB stick with a few GBs of capacity is handy for transferring projects – particularly files with lots of video and high-resolution images.

Although most schools have processes in place for ensuring that classwork is backed up, students use their computers in ways that are unexpected by school IT departments. We’d suggest that a decent portable hard drive with 500GB of capacity is a great supplement for a school notebook.

This will provide enough space for students to back up their own data, hold a reasonably sized iTunes library and any other personal data that ends up on the computer. We’d suggest that portable hard drive that can be powered directly for the USB port, without the need for an external power supply is ideal.

G-Technology’s G-DRIVE slim features USB 3.0 connectivity, Time Machine compatibility and 500GB of storage.

Set the drive up with two partitions – one for backups using Time Machine and the other for miscellaneous data. That will ensure that things don’t get messed up and disorganised.

It’s important to test the drive out thoroughly before relying on it. Some portable drives rely on getting extra power by using two USB ports. This can be a pain on many portable Macs that only have two USB ports that are on opposite sides of the computer. As well as using up all your ports, you can end up with an annoying mess of cables.

 

Types of Storage

Choosing the right storage technology for your Mac, if you’re planning an upgrade or for external storage, can be tricky. There are many different decisions to make and many of the things you need to consider are quite technical and poorly explained. Here’s Macworld Australia’s quick guide to storage technology.

 

Hard drives

Western Digital’s My Passport Ultra is portable and secure with integrated hardware and software encryption, USB 3.0 and Dropbox connectivity.

Hard drives have been around for several decades. For those of who remember vinyl records, the technology that hard disks use is quite similar.

A hard drive is made up of platters that store data as a series of positively and negatively charged regions that are read by a head that moves over the disks as they spin to read the data.

Hard drives come in two form factors: 3.5in and 2.5in. This refers to the diameter of the spinning platters. The larger units are typically found inside desktop computers and larger external hard drives that require a separate power supply to operate. The 2.5in units are found in notebook computers and external drives that can be powered directly from a computer’s USB or other data port. Disk capacities vary widely with hard drives, with 3.5in drives delivering up to 4TB now and 2.5in drives capable of holding up to 2TB.

 

SSD

Solid State Drives, or SSDs, are the new kids on the storage block. In a sense, they’re a transitional technology that delivers the benefits of flash storage, such as performance and power efficiency, in the same form factor as a hard drive, so that you can install an SSD into the same situations as a hard drive.

The main challenge around SSDs is the cost per GB. While a 500GB 2.5in hard drive costs around $60, a similarly sized SSD will cost closer to $500. However, the performance boost that comes from that SSD is significant. When we swapped the drive in a MacBook Pro for an SSD recently, we saw operations such as starting applications, opening large documents and simply rebooting the Mac take just 10 percent of the time.

OWC offers a number of DIY hard drive kits and solid state drives for the MacBook, iMac and Mac mini ranges.

SSDs are still relatively new and the manufacturing costs means that the price per GB is still fairly high. Capacities max out around 512GB but we’d expect that to rise in the next year or so. Apple’s most recently released MacBook Air has managed to double the capacity since the previous model without a cost increase – a sure sign that Moore’s Law is still alive and well in the storage business.

 

Flash memory

We’ve all got a bunch of flash memory devices lying around on the desk, in our bags, on key-rings and in drawers. Flash memory, particularly in the form of USB sticks, has become this decade’s floppy drive.

However, it’s flash memory that has found its way into SSDs and become a key element of our everyday storage. Back in the 1990s, we purchased a 4MB CF card for just over $400. Today, devices with 1000 times more storage cost just 1 percent of that price.

Flash storage is solid state – that means that there are no moving parts. It that way it’s similar to the RAM in your computer, although RAM loses its data when your computer is off. Flash memory retains data when the electricity is cut.

 

Apple’s Fusion Drive

Apple’s Fusion Drive is a hybrid system that uses both a traditional hard drive and a 128GB SSD. The term ‘fusion’ refers to the way Apple uses the two devices as if they’re one physical drive.

Given that large SSDs are still expensive and hard drives offer slower, although more capacious, storage, combining the two offers some significant benefits.

We all want our most regularly accessed data to be on the fastest possible storage. The Fusion Drive automatically shifts data to the SSD segment of the storage based on how it’s used. When files aren’t used as often, they’re automatically shifted to the spinning hard drive, which is slower.

This type of technology has been in enterprise storage systems for some time. It balances the need for the fastest possible access to data with the relatively high cost of SSDs. It does require some smarts to move data around so that you don’t notice, but there are some great benefits.

 

Security

Encryption is a security mechanism that ‘scrambles’ data using a key. The only way to unscramble the data is to use the same key. It’s analogous to the codes we used as kids to create coded messages. As long as the other party had the key, they could read your coded messages.

For encryption to be effective you need to ensure that the keys are hard or impossible to guess.

 

FileVault

Introduced with OS X Panther and found within the System Preferences’ Security and Privacy folder, FileVault encrypts a user’s entire start up volume.

Apple’s FileVault has been around for several years. When it was first introduced as part of OS X Panther, it only encrypted each user’s Home folder. But since the introduction of FileVault2 with Lion, the entire start up volume is encrypted using the administrator’s login credentials as the encryption key.

All data is encrypted and decrypted transparently and on the fly. Once FileVault is enabled, you don’t need to do anything special.

As other users are added to the system, if you have multiple logins, the Administrator needs to authorise those accounts to have access to the encrypted data volume. If a user is not enabled for FileVault unlock, they will only be able to log in after an unlock- enabled user has started or unlocked the drive. The drive then remains unlocked and available to all users until the computer is shut down.

If you forget or lose the Administrator password when you set up FileVault, a second key is created when you first encrypt your drive. Apple offers a secure service for holding this key in case you lose it.

 

Encrypted USB sticks

USB sticks with 128-bit AES encryption, such as the SanDisk Cruzer Fit, protect your data from prying hands.

USB memory sticks have become a ubiquitous part of our everyday computing landscape. However, it’s important to remember that whatever we put on them can be accessed by whoever has the device. Some manufacturers now produce sticks that encrypt you data with a software utility that delivers the encryption/decryption key as it’s needed.

You might not think this is important but there have been many instances where valuable data has been accidentally shared through people losing or forgetting USB drives in public computers.

However, another alternative for Mac users is to create an encrypted disk image on any USB drive. Your need to format the device as ‘Mac OS Extended (Journaled)’ and then create a new image on the drive with 128-bit AES encryption. You’ll need to create a password for accessing the encrypted disk image but it’s an easy way to secure data.

If you’re shopping around for a device that uses hardware encryption make sure that it’s Mac-friendly. There are many devices on the market but some are Windows-only.

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