Home > Digital Photography Tutorials > ALL ABOUT HARD DRIVES


January 2nd, 2008

An important part of photography technology these days is the media on which you store and access your images. Although some photographers are diehard DVD burners, I primarily archive my images on hard drives. I only use DVD’s for delivery; everything else is on hard drives in triplicate. I do get a lot of questions about hard drives, so I’ll answer them in this thorough post on hard drive technologies.

Solid-State drives are definitely the future. On a Solid-State drive Flash memory is used instead of, or in addition to a spinning disc. There are some hybrid 2.5” notebook drives coming on the market that have built-in flash memory. There are also notebooks being developed that run off of flash memory instead of a spinning hard drive. Vista has a feature called Ready Drive that allows the use of flash memory to speed up the system. The windows OS caches lots of data on the flash memory and accesses it from there instead of from a slower spinning drive. This also saves some battery life. I’m testing an Express 54 Card reader with a compact flash card set up with Ready Drive on my M-Tech laptop.

Hard drive technology seems to be out pacing file size. Moore’s Law so far appears to still be in effect for drives, but not file size. I don’t fill up a new drive as fast as I used to. I’m more likely to be replacing them for faster drives before they fill up.

Drive speed hasn’t dramatically increased in the way other components have. An old IDE ATA 100 drive from 1995 isn’t really that much slower than today’s top drives and a 1995 SCSI drive isn’t that much slower than today’s top Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) drives. There have been plenty of great improvements but amazingly speed just hasn’t been that huge. It may not be physically feasible to have rpm speeds faster than 15k and still be reliable enough to work for at least 3-4 years. This is where solid state flash drives may have an advantage in the future.

Storage space doesn’t cost what it used to, so we need to change the way we think about purchasing it. Traditionally it was wise to only purchase as much space as you needed for a short time. I don’t see it that way when it’s only $0.20 per gigabyte. It’s best to buy more than enough space to last 3-4 years. The time it takes to migrate your data to a bigger drive is more valuable than the cost of the drive as this can be time consuming and stressful. You do want to replace those drives after 4-5 years of use because they wear out over time.

I categorize drives by the way I use them. This defines the type of drive, the drive setup, and makes backup and maintenance easier.

#1 Operating System Drives – These need to be ultra fast and modest in size. Anything over about 74 Gigs is plenty big. On my “Boot Drives” I only load the OS and the programs I run.

#2 Cache Drives: My Cache Drives hold the Cache files for programs that have selectable cache locations, like Bridge, Photoshop, and Lightroom. These drives also need to be lightning fast and can be relatively small, though Bridge and Lightroom Cache files are getting bigger so I recommend 150 gigs or more for these drives.

#2 Work Drives- These drives store files that are in process or need to be accessed regularly. I keep approximately a year’s worth of work on each of my active work drives. They need to be reasonably fast and reasonably big anywhere around 300-750 gigabytes depending on your needs.

#3 Archive Storage Drives- These drives store my images for the long haul. They need to be very big and very reliable, but don’t need to be fast.

Internal ATA, SATA, and SATA II- The simplest way to upgrade is to replace small drives. I keep getting asked about external enclosures, when by photographers with just 1 160 gig drive inside their workstation or server. Max out the internal space and power first. Externals are for drives that disconnect or for more storage than can fit inside your machine. Computer cases have power, fans, and fast connections already built-in. Why pay to duplicate these assets? Replacing an old internal drive boot or cache drive will also have the advantage of speeding up the machine. To replace a boot drive use a utility that clones the old drive. I recommend Carbon Copy Cloner for Mac and Acronis for Windows.

Serial Attached SCSI(SAS) The fastest thing out there, they run at 15000 RPM and have seek times around 3.5ms. Not too many motherboards support SAS so PCI cards are usually necessary. These drives are small, loud, hot, and very expensive, but they are smoking fast. I use 2 of them in a raid O on my primary workstation. The server motherboard has support but I don’t recommend them at this point.

SCSI- Still fast and reliable, but a little outdated. I would recommend looking at SAS for anyone considering a SCSI solution. I won’t spend much time on SCSI because I don’t think it’s of much interest to mainstream photographers. 2.5” SCSI and SAS drives are getting popular in the server world once again, but not mainstream.

Enclosures: Look for enclosures with good cooling, quiet operation, and good bridge board storage controllers like the Oxford-OXUF934dsb. Not all Firewire enclosures use the same controllers and it makes a big difference in performance. There are numerous enclosure options available from cooldrives.com.
Wiebe-tech also has enclosures and useful tools for connecting and working on drives; like the dock shown below.

External SATA- This is the fastest method of connecting drives in external enclosures, but it’s a little tricky compared to Firewire. I only recommend these if you do not intend to disconnect the drives often because of hot swapping issues. Some e-SATA solutions hot swap, but others require a shut down and reboot. Add-on PCI cards with E-SATA connectors are necessary if your motherboard does not have e-SATA. There are 3 kinds of SATA connections and they each have several names, which, as I said, is a little tricky.

Firewire 400(1394A) and 800(1394B)- I like firewire for drives enclosures that I turn on and off and move around. They are relatively fast and hot swap with no problems. I use these for offsite backups. I also have one that I back up all my operating systems on every two months.

USB and USB2- Too slow for my needs. I would add a firewire card if your machine is lacking the connection. Note: firewire 400 is fasterusually much faster then USB 2.0 despite what the specifications say.

NAS (Netwark Attached Server) These are enclosures that plug into a network via eithernet. They have their own small computer and a simple networking software built into the enclosure. The system gets a little complicated for administration and maitenance. I prefer to have my drives hooked up to a computer and I have plenty of computers, so I don’t use NAS. Gigabite eithernet is fast and these do have the advantage of being easily accessible from multiple machines.

RAID 0 (striping)- I use RAID 0 for all my Boot, Cache, and Work drives. RAID speed improvments are very specific to the hardware, software, and task. For example; OS startup time might be cut in half, yet Application start up time is the same as a single drive OR Read time is slower then a single drive, but write time is 40% faster. I’m a glutton for punishment and I’ve had plenty of Nasty RAID 0 issues. The speed benefits are often marginal: 20-40% on just few operations. I’ve spent far more time fixing Raid problems, then I’ve probably saved, but I still use them because I’m a speed freak(I have a real problem).
A Raid 0 (Striping) splits information up and writes it to multiple drives. The chance of drive failure increases with every drive you add and putting the data back together is impossible. RAID 0 is useful for speed OR size. The size factor is often overlooked. If you want to keep 2TB together for some reason, then you can stripe 2 1TB drives together. There are software RAID setups available straight from the OS and hardware options on some motherboard. A PCI Raid card can also be added. Every configuration and operation is very different. A complicated backup system is necessary for RAID 0 systems. I have a nightly backup setup for every RAID 0. The risks are great and the benefits tough to quantify. I certainly don’t recommend the use of a RAID 0 for the novice, but if your hard core you should test one on your systems and the applications you use.

Make sure to look into Stripe Size for your specific use when building a RAID 0.

RAID 1 (Mirroring) Useful for protecting against drive failure, but a nightly backup is better for protecting against user errors, viruses, etc.

Raid 0+1(sometimes called 10) requires 4 drives, but you get the RAID 0 Speed with mirroring and less risk. It’s 2 drives together, mirrored by 2 drives together.

Raid 5 requires 3 or more drives and is a good solution for big storage needs, like 2TB all in one place. The data is split up in a way that a single drive can be replaced and the RAID can be rebuilt. I’ve never been a big fan because it’s so complicated and requires so many drives.

Defragmenting Drives is absolutely crucial. Scheduling automatic defrags once every two weeks is a good idea. Defrag can be done using tools built into any operating system, but I use AusLogic Disc Defragmenter on my windows machines and Disk Warrior for Macs. Never let your drives get too full. The minimum to safely defragment a hard drive is 15% free space, but I recommend leaving 20-30% free space. Don’t expect hard drives to run forever because they don’t. If you hear an ominous clicking or they act funny, you don’t have much time until your drive dies.

Note: Make sure to set the jumpers on the hard drive for correct operation. Some drives have performance options for speed vs. sound, etc.

Recommended Drives:
Serial ATA 300 (SATA II):
UPDATE: Seagate’s 7200 series of Drives with 32MB of Cache are now my top pick: 1TB Review
Seagate 32MB Cache Drives at Newegg

Hitachi’s 7K1000 Drives http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16822145166
did top my list for an all purpose drive. The 500GB, 750GB and 1TB have 32mb cache and benchmark almost as fast as previously top rated WD Raptors. The Hitachis spin at 7200 RPM, so they are quite, cool, and reliable. They come in sizes up to 1TB, but the 750 gig at $180 are the best deal. I’ve been very happy with Seagate Perpendicular Recording drives for Work and Storage in the past, but the Hitachis are now the drives I recommend.

Serial ATA 150 (SATA I) Western Digital RAPTORS are the only ATA drives to spin at 10000 RPM. They NO LONGER the fastest of all ATA drives. They have been around for a while and are tried and true. They come in 36gb, 74gb, and 150gb, so they are best suited to use for Boot and Cache use. I now recommend the Seagate 32MB cache models over Raptors.

I hope this “short” post has cleared up some questions photographers have about hard drive technologies. Don’t take any chances with your life’s work, store it right.

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  1. Anonymous
    January 4th, 2008 at 05:56 | #1

    This is a comprehensive article on drives. I am a photography freak and tend to transfer and delete files by the tons onto my drives.Over time i found clicking on thumbnails took longer than before and the reason was very heavy fragmentation. There seems to be no consensus on how serious an issue it is. I personally feel its extremely crucial and allowed to grow it can play the role of a disk eating disease even on large drives as it hardly takes time to fill up huge drive with stuff!

  2. Michael Voigt
    January 30th, 2008 at 23:06 | #2

    Wow, that is a lot of great info on drives. Thank you for including Mac software alternatives for all the tools!

    I cannot wait to see the speed on the MacBook Air with the SSD to show just how much faster SSD is.

    One thing to consider with SSD is the size of your OS:

    Vista Home Basic needs 35 GB

    VIsta Home Premium / Business / Ultimate needs 55 GB

    Mac OS needs 9 GB

    and Ubuntu Linus needs 4 GB

    Windows XP only needs 1.5 GB

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