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I’ve been waiting for this day to come, but I’m finally switching to a Thunderbolt storage system for my photos and other data. There are a lot of fine options for mass storage on the market, and some crappy ones. Here’s what worked for me.

My Reason For Switching Storage Systems

A little over a year ago, my RAID enclosure failed. It’s a miserable feeling. My system at the time was a single RAID enclosure made by Oyen Digital. It’s worked fairly well, at least until one day when it didn’t work at all. The $50 repair bill wasn’t the problem.

The problem was that the chip required to repair it that would work with the formatting of my drives was no longer manufactured. I was lucky that Oyen Digital still had a few RAID controller chips around for repair. Without that chip, my drives wouldn’t be able to retrieve the data encoded by the chip.  Sure, Oyen Digital had a new chip to use and could offer me a working unit, but it wouldn’t read my data.

I had a few USB drives around for photo backup. That changed after I felt the pucker factor of potentially losing my images, I posted an update on my RAID failure and my plans to do a better job of protecting my data.

I have a much better system for data backup, though I admit the Amazon Glacier backup wasn’t as feasible as I would have liked due to bandwidth issues for uploading several terabytes of data.

The Oyen Digital RAID enclosure works on a custom eSATA port that I had installed on my iMac by Other World Computing. When I bought this iMac, I had it drop-shipped from Apple to OWC so they could make the modification and do some other customization.

Although this iMac has Thunderbolt ports, there wasn’t much in the way of Thunderbolt RAID systems. The only product I found was the Pegasus RAID and it was so overpriced that I didn’t give it much thought. Even last year in my update post, I wondered why there weren’t any other Thunderbolt enclosures on the market?

It’s A New Day For A Thunderbolt Storage System

It’s a year later and now we have choices for storage systems. Oyen Digital makes a Thunderbolt version of the same enclosure I’m using now. OWC has a Thunderbay product with a pair of Thunderbolt ports so you can daisy-chain them together with other Thunderbolt devices. Pegasus is still overpriced.

There are other choices on the market now. Drobo has Thunderbolt, but I really don’t trust Drobo systems. I spent some time looking very closely at Synology storage systems and was tempted to get one for a while. They have some very interesting services that let you access your data from the Internet, sort of like having your own Dropbox system anywhere you go.

Although that’s an interesting feature, I decided it wasn’t a necessity for me. The Synology system is Network Attached Storage (NAS), which also means it wouldn’t be as fast as a Thunderbolt storage system. When I weighed my needs, I decided that speed was more important to me than external access and other features of the Synology system.

With that in mind, I just ordered a 16-terabyte Thunderbay enclosure from OWC. They also have larger and smaller units, but this one was appropriate for my needs.

The Thunderbay unit has no RAID controller chip, unlike the Oyen Digital enclosure. It operates as “Just a Bunch Of Disks” (JBOD). That means it’s up to me to use software to configure them in a RAID system, if that’s what I want.

Software RAID

Stories of disk failures and rebuilding RAID systems have gone up and down over the years. All drives will fail, so the intent of RAID is to spread the load across the array along with data that helps you recover if one of the drives fails.

That was fine when drives were below the 500GB mark, but then someone came along claiming that the process of rebuilding a RAID system after a disk failure would cause the other drives to die from Unrecoverable Read Errors in larger drives.

That freaked out a lot of people, myself included. The notion was based upon the mathematical probabilities using statistics provided by drive vendors. Then someone else came along and claimed that was BS because the math was wrong and real world experience showed success with rebuilding RAID arrays with large drivers. So who do you trust?

I trust my backups. I also trust my disk monitoring systems, which is why I’m going with SoftRAID for Mac instead of a proprietary controller chip.

Ideally, a hardware chip provides faster performance than software RAID. Ideally, that chip won’t fail. Experience shows me that it can and will fail, and you’re screwed if it dies. Software RAID may be slower, but it provides me with consistency. I can load it on a different Mac or a different enclosure and still access my data.  All RAID seems to be proprietary, so my selection priorities are based upon what happens when things go wrong.

SoftRAID also offers some disk monitoring utilities that you won’t get with a proprietary chip or Apple’s  Disk Utility RAID. That lets the software do a better job of monitoring the health of my drives and predicting when one is about to fail.

Is it perfect? Nope.  No storage system is perfect because every drive is guaranteed to fail. All you can do is hedge your bets to avoid the repercussions of data loss.  I’ll use my old enclosure as a JBOD backup system after I’ve made the conversion, so the RAID chip in the enclosure won’t matter.

I also have another pair of 4TB drives mirrored as my current backup, so I’ll have plenty of capacity for generations of backups.

My home is still the single point of failure. Off-site backup is a pain in the ass.  As much as I’d love to protect my data no matter what happens, I think I’ll have bigger problems on my mind if something destroys my home and all the data inside it.  That’s the risk I’ll accept for now, though I’ll keep an eye out for other solutions in the future.

Saving The Old Photos

If you haven’t experienced the pucker factor of a disk failure or data loss, please don’t wait until it happens.  I was complacent and poorly prepared when my enclosure failed. Fortunately, I got lucky. That doesn’t happen for everyone. Spare yourself that anguish by having a good backup of all your data.

That way, you can still review your photos from years ago and pull out one you overlooked.

 Thunderbolt Storage System

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