The way things are going, you could safely bet that you’ll always need more storage, never less. Nobody wants to transfer data every few months once their drives run out, and it is not always a good idea to put everything in internal drives because then it is totally dependent on your computer.
What do we do, then?
The stop-gap solution for low-budget editors and studios is to invest in a DAS. In this article we’ll compare 10 Thunderbolt RAID storage solutions for price vs specifications so we have a better idea of how the market stands.
If you don’t know what RAID is, please read AFRAID: A RAID Primer.
What is a DAS?
DAS stands for Direct-Attached Storage solution. This is nothing but a fancy word for a desktop external storage solution that directly connects to your computer. You could divide external solutions into the following groups:
- Portable – they don’t need an external power supply.
- Desktop – they need an external power supply. These are DAS solutions. DAS is designed to be used by only one computer.
- NAS/SAN – these are DAS-types with one fundamental difference. They have Gigabit Ethernet connectivity because they are designed to be part of a network of computers.
Formerly, USB 2.0, Firewire and eSATA used to be the choice connection options for DAS solutions, but not anymore. Today, the two most important standards are:
- USB 3.0
What is the difference between USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt?
It’s too early to call a winner. It’s not even clear if there should be a winner. So far, tests have favored Thunderbolt as far as speed is concerned. But it isn’t supported on all systems, and that is a huge negative. I don’t understand why Thunderbolt drives don’t come with USB 3.0 or at least eSATA options.
As far as speed is concerned, USB 3.0 has a theoretical maximum of 5 Gbps (which might expand to 10 Mbps in the future). This works out to be 625 MB/s. I think it’s fair to say you can’t count on more than 500 MB/s over USB 3.0 at present.
Thunderbolt is theoretically capable of 10 Gbps (20 Gbps in the future). This works out to be 1,250 MB/s, or 1.2 GB/s. I think it’s fair to say Thunderbolt is capable of sustaining 1 GB/s, and this is huge for large file transfers and real-time playback.
The choice is not that simple. The actual speeds depend on many factors, and even conducting a fair side by side test is tough. It’s a lose-lose scenario. By the time you’ve got to the ‘bottom of things’, something newer will have hit the market.
Bottom line: If you’re on a Mac, and a newer one at that, I believe Thunderbolt to be a good short-term investment. Otherwise, forget Thunderbolt until it catches on and the prices come down. Remember, there’s no shame in opting for USB 3.0 today and Thunderbolt tomorrow. The whole point of a DAS is that it is temporary, and must return its value and more in a short period of time.
Go for the money, not the glamor.
Comparison of Thunderbolt RAID storage solutions
For the purposes of this article I have selected 10 Thunderbolt RAID storage solutions (actually, it’s only 9, the 10th one is USB 3.0). I’ve chosen the following models:
- Promise Pegasus
- LaCie 2big
- Areca ARC-8050
- G-Technology G-RAID
- BUFFALO DriveStation Duo
- Drobo 5D
- WD My Book Thunderbolt Duo
- Seagate Backup Plus
- Sonnet Fusion DX800RAID
- CalDigit T2
Here’s a detailed comparison chart (click to enlarge):
- *The price is ‘normalized’ to 4 TB 7,200 rpm drives, but only if they don’t come with the package. For 8-bay enclosures, I’ve only added the price of 4 drives (Areca) or subtracted the price of 4 drives (Sonnet). Prices are not meant to be accurate. Please refer to the manufacturer’s specifications for actual values and prices.
- **This model isn’t available yet.
- I’ve included a NAS+Thunderbolt option, the Areca ARC-8050, simply to point out the differences. I’ve included a USB 3.0-only option, the Buffalo Drivestation Duo, for similar reasons. Please note that the chart might not be totally accurate. Please refer to the manufacturer’s specifications for actual values and prices.
- All 2-bay storage solutions tend to be in the $500 range for 4 TB.
- RAID 0 for a 7,200rpm 2-bay system should sustain 200 MB/s, which is fine for Redcode and CinemaDNG playback. It is not enough for multitrack real-time editing, or playing back image sequences like TIFF, DPX, etc. RAID 1 speeds tend to be slower than one drive, which is a bummer.
- Brands that have traditionally only supplied consumer-oriented external solutions tend to use 5,400 rpm drives. E.g., WD My Book, Seagate and Buffalo, etc. Western Digital has a Velociraptor Thunderbolt solution, but it stops at 2 TB. These drives are perfectly fine for basic editing work with most consumer and intermediary codecs. These drives tend to power down when not required, and are sometimes variable speed drives (like the WD Green series).
- 4 or 5-bay solutions hover in the $1,000 range. The more the number of drives, the greater the read throughput in RAID 0, 5, 6 and 10.
Which Thunderbolt storage solution is the best?
There is no cut and dried answer, since each solution has its own market. The needs of filmmakers vary a great deal. There is also the question of availability, since not all of these models are available in all countries. When available, they might not be at the same price points your see here. Lastly, just because the service is good in one country or region doesn’t mean you’ll get the same level of service in another country or region.
Here are some lines of thought to get you started:
If you want a storage solution for real-time playback, your choices are fairly limited. It is a simple process to estimate your drive speed requirements for playback and then work your way backwards. Use Deconstructing RAW and the Costs of working with 2K and 4K uncompressed footage to get going.
A 2-bay solution is small and consumes less power. If you’re working with drives on a project-by-project basis, it might be a good idea to take things one enclosure at a time. Eventually, if you’re a freelancer or studio, you will accumulate many such drives, which may or may not play well together five years from now (five years is a large time-gap in computer technology terms).
A simpler but more time-consuming alternative is to estimate your yearly footage requirements, and then design your storage according to that. For large studios or centers, the choice boils down to a NAS or SAN. If your yearly requirements are in the 4 to 6 TB range, then you might be able to use just one Thunderbolt or USB 3.0 storage solution and have all your data in RAID (5, 6 or 10) for an uninterrupted workflow. You will still need additional backups, there’s no escaping that no matter what your storage solution.
I’m going to run with this last option.
At this point in time, if you’re a small-scale filmmaker, going by yearly trends, like I am, then the following ‘calculations’ (or miscalculations!) might help you:
- I usually shoot on a C300 at 50 Mbps. My shooting ratio varies greatly, but I’d say a 5 minute end product might require 2 to 3 hours of footage, including B-roll. I tend to estimate 5 hours of source material (I don’t want to max out my drives, ever) per project. This works out to be about 100 GB.
- I tend to keep three (actually four) copies of my source material – Two in RAID (RAID 0 or 1, both work for 50 Mbps) for the editor, one at home, and one at the office. That’s about 400 GB per project. Since I can’t buy 100 GB drives I’ll have to at least make sure I have 4 x 1 TB drives for a project.
- In the coming year I expect to shoot at data rates higher than 50 Mbps. E.g. CinemaDNG or Redcode is easily 150 MB/s, which works out to 2.5 TB of source material per project, or a total of 4 x 3 TB = 12 TB of storage for one project.
- By next year I might be able to reuse some of the extra office/home drives, or I may not. It depends on what it contains, who it is for (if it’s a big client it’ll stay reserved) or what new technology is around. Sadly, I can’t make that call today.
- I’m estimating I might be working with close to 50 TB, at least, for everything, for the coming year. I might end up using less than this or more. There are too many variables.
- 48 TB divided by four is 12 TB. I could look into a 24TB Thunderbolt DAS for my editing RAID system. This will most likely be in RAID 10 (I don’t like RAID 5 or 6, but others find them okay).
- There is a serious decision to be made: Should I go for one big solution, or two smaller ones? The smaller ones will let me continue working if one fails. The bigger one is a bigger risk as well!
- So, how’s a 12 TB Thunderbolt solution in RAID 10? It’ll give me 6 TB of space. For backups, I can customize the size on a project-to-project basis.
- Is there a solution in my chart that meets my needs? I’ll have to eliminate all of the dual bay solutions because if I’m working with RAW I’ll need the speed. This leaves me four choices: A Pegasus, a Sonnet Fusion, an Areca or a Drobo.
- I’m not very keen on Drobo’s proprietary RAID so I pass on that. The Sonnet is out of my price range. That leaves two.
- The funny thing is, in my country, none of these models are available locally. If I import them, I won’t be covered by warranty, and I probably won’t get good service.
- Deep breath.
For my needs, the Areca ARC-8050 seems like a solid deal. It has the advantage of the Gigabit Ethernet connectivity option which might be a life-saver if the Thunderbolt port fails, or if I don’t have access to an Apple-supported device. I work on both PCs and Macs, so I know I can carry it to a friend’s place if it came to that.
However, it doesn’t fit in with my strategy. It’s overkill, and isn’t strictly a DAS (though I can use it as one). I really have to ‘commit’ to it.
I also have to look at DIY NAS builds at this price point, which is what I’m doing. But if I had to buy, I’d go for the Areca ARC-8050. Nothing comes close price-wise, and the reviews so far are good. If you’re on a Mac station and feel comfortable with Thunderbolt, then one can’t fault the Pegasus.
What do you think? Am I justified in looking for a custom DIY NAS or DAS solution? How do you handle your media or storage requirements? Are you looking for a Thunderbolt drive?