Here is an introduction of a new gadget I have acquired last week. It is a Network Attached Storage by Western Digital called My Cloud EX2. In addition, this post outlines my general thoughts on data storage requirements for home networks. There is a slight possibility that the following comments are off-topic for a photography website, but taking into account that a photographer should not leave his images unprotected from loss, here is a presentation of different solutions.
Data Storage Optimizations
In the early years of personal computers, data storage has always been directly integrated in the computer case. For a very long time, this has been sufficient to store both operating system files and other data. In recent years however, increasing amounts of data demanded more efficient options. I have been using external hard disc drives for a long time to store large quantities of data such as my music collection. An outsourcing of large data collections can increase both the performance of a PC and data security for the following reasons:
1. Performance: A personal multimedia collection can easily require several terabytes of storage capacity while a computer operating system typically requires 16-20 gigabytes (Win 7). Given that most files in a multimedia collection are not used very often – such as a music album that is played just once in a while – the space consumed by a multimedia collection is only rarely accessed. By contrast, the files of an operating system are loaded every single time the computer starts up. Therefore, keeping a multimedia collection on the same drive like the operating system is inefficient because it combines a large portion of disc space that is rarely needed with a much smaller portion that is permanently needed. So far, this is of no great concern. However, the computer does not store consolidated and continuous packages of file categories, but saves these files distributed over the entire storage. This dispersion of files – called fragmentation – even affects files that relate to the same application or belong together for other reasons. With the computer fragmenting files all over the physical storage, response time is reduced because file fragments are intersected with large fragments of other files. As soon as a file shall be read, the read head of a hard disc drive must find all fragments which noticeably slows down the response time. It is understandable that this effect is further increased if the files regularly opened are fragmented among rarely used files 100-1000 times larger than the core applicatons.
2. Data Security: Another consideration is that a computer does not only keep multimedia files and operating system files, but also important documents, passwords, emails, and other work files that must not be lost. Unfortunately, there is a permanent risk of data loss and there are multiple factors to be addressed. According to Kroll Ontrack, the worlds largest data recovery firm, around 26% of all data is lost because of user errors such as unwanted file deletions. But also hard disc drive failure can occur because of material degradation or impact. Drive failure related to degradation is more likely for a drive permanently in operation than for an external drive only occasionally in use. Last but not least, loss of data can occur due to software corruption or virus attacks.
Storage efficiency and data security should be good reasons to check your storage system. To increase the performance of a computer, it is advisable to use solid state drives (SSD) as the internal storage. These devices are incredibly fast in both reading and writing. Solid State Drives do also fragment files but as they operate without moving parts, their response time is not noticeably affected by fragmentation. The downside of SSDs is that they are usually quite expensive and do not feature as much storage space as HDDs. For that reason, the internal storage should only contain the operating system and associated files (Windows, Updates, etc.), applications (Office, etc.) and other files that can benefit from quick loading times. Largescale data such as a multimedia collection should be stored on an external hard disc drive.
To increase the data security, it is strongly recommended to create backups of all files that should not be lost. Any directory of files the user finds important should be copied to another individual (!) hard disc drive. A backup can be done manually in certain intervals, but can also be done automatically by a special setup called RAID (redundant array of idependent drives). RAID requires at least two individual drives (mostly HDDs for space reasons) and will distribute file duplicates in a way that everything can be restored in case that a single drive fails. The easiest RAID system will simply store identical data on each disc (RAID 1 Level). It would go beyond the scope of this post to explain all levels of RAID, but it is interesting to search the internet for more technical articles on the RAID technology. In addition, data security can further be increased by turning the external drives off when not in use. This is to minimize the risk of user errors and virus attacks.
Another current trend of modern homes is to have multiple and mobile devices to be used for different purposes. Some devices might primarily be used for office work (stationary workstations, notebooks) while others are designed for entertainment (HTPC, TVs, tablet computers, game consoles). With a selected computer storing the central multimedia collection, a home network can be established to grant other devices access to media files. However, these files can only be accessed with the storage computer turned on. In case that the storage computer is turned off, it can be activated by an incoming network signal (Wake On LAN), but is then only running to provide other devices access to the multimedia collection which is inefficient again because the other hardware components are also running, consuming power and making noise. A far more effective solution of this problem is a Network Attached Storage which is basically a mini-computer that is connected to the WLAN network router of the home network. The entire device is optimized for fast and efficient data access, data security and silent operation.
Therefore, I have decided to replace my various external HDD drives for a Network Attached Storage Device. After a week of internet research, I found that the Western Digital My Cloud EX2 would be ideal for my requirements. This device offers 2 bays for hard disc drives, an included RAID-controller and a network connection. I finally purchased the Western Digital NAS for around USD 420 – 2 hard disc drives with 2 terabytes each included. Here are some pictures I took during unpacking the NAS.
The Western Digital MyCloud EX2 comes in a dark gray case and shows a precise build quality. The clean design includes three blue LED indicators at the front, one to display the standby/on status and two to indicate the activities of the single drives. The drives included are Western Digital Red models that are specially designed for operation in storage servers. With their relatively low rotational speed of 5.400 rpm, noise is almost imperceptible. The Cloud comes with a switching power supply, a network cable and an instruction manual. The network cable is connected to the NAS on the back of the device, just like the power supply.
As I am not a professional when it comes to network settings and remote access devices, I have actually expected the setup to be challenging. In fact, the Western Digital My Cloud EX2 was surprisingly easy to set up. It took me not longer than a minute to connect it with my WLAN network router. With the power connected, the Western Digital Cloud automatically started up and dialed into my home network. On my network computers, the new storage instantly appeared in the network folder and was ready to go. Nevertheless, I have installed the recommended software package to use the entire scope of functions (status display, RAID controller and others).
The Western Digital Cloud offers several storage concepts: RAID level 0 splits documents into stripes and stores them on both drives in an alternating order. This increases read and write speed, but results in a loss of all data if one drive should ever fail. Data can also be stored without RAID, but I prefer to use RAID level 1, a redundancy concept where all content from one drive is simply mirrored to the other drive.
If storage extension is desired, there are two USB 3.0 connectors on the back of the NAS to connect additional drives. The Western Digital My Cloud EX 2 is an independent computer device with a 1,2 GHz processor included and 1/2 gigabyte memory. It features Wake-On-LAN and media streaming to any compatible device. So far, I am totally happy with My Cloud EX2!