It seems that a day doesn't pass without hearing that someone has had a drive containing an important project, become inoperative, or that they've accidentally deleted or over-written their current project.
This is where data security rears its ugly head. When I say data security, I don't mean protecting your data from outside compromise - I mean protecting your data from the evils that lie within.
Nowadays it is reasonably rare for me to receive a project on a physical format, such as a removable hard drive or a USB stick. I generally receive materials as an internet transfer or over a wired network. However, not that long ago all projects were moved from studio to studio on removable FireWire hard drives.
The arrival of supposedly "rugged" hard drives gave users a false sense of security. Sure the design better protected against physical damage up to a point, but in my experience, nine times out of ten the damage is done when the drive is connected, either hot-plugged or installed, and is powered up. FireWire is capable of carrying 12 volts, which is a relatively high voltage in computer terms, and on more than one occasion I've witnessed FireWire ports live up to their name, by literally bursting in to flames.
Like a car engine, the most damage is done when you start it from cold - the lubricant hasn't had a chance to achieve optimum viscosity, and the cooling system can actually work against the efficiency of the engine. Back in the days when having a digital mixing desk meant having racks of proprietary DSP in an air-conditioned machine room, we were advised to keep the racks powered up, as the largest potential for damage to the delicate DSP hardware and the power supplies, was during power up.
Incremental Or Mirror Backup?
Any of you who use the autosave feature in Pro Tools will already be familiar with a form of incremental backup.
I have it set up to save every minute (if anything has changed), and to keep the last 100 versions. As long as your Session File Backups folder is itself backed up, you have an instant incremental back of your project. This has been a complete life saver more times than I care to mention.
This however is not an incremental backup of your media. It is completely possible to setup software to "keep everything", but when we're talking large media files, such as multichannel feature film mixes, incremental backups can become very large and indeed very confusing. I prefer to have two "backup zones" - nearline and midline. Nearline is entirely concerned with making sure that my data is never only in one place at any given time. Midline is where I move projects that are out of current circulation but may need to be accessed again soon. This brings a certain amount of manual management, but I find it's the easiest way to keep on top of things. There is a third category - Offline, which is where I keep projects in long term archive.
I run my backup system in a "RAID-1" style realtime mirror and use MirrorFolder by TechSoftPl. Real-time mirroring is implemented in a file system filter driver that performs RAID-1 type mirroring in software on a per file basis. It duplicates individual file I/O requests in memory and sends them to both source and mirror devices. That means same data is written to both source and mirror files at the same time whenever there is any change in the source file.
Other file operations like move, rename, delete, are also performed in the destination simultaneously. At any point in time the content of the source and mirror folders remain identical. if you have a large database file in your source folder and modify only one record in that file using the application interface of that database, the driver included with MirrorFolder will modify only that same record in the mirror database file simultaneously.
I prefer whichever backup software I use to simply backup the files in the same hierarchy and format as I am using. If I save a file as a .ptx file, within a folder, I want to be able to go into my backup, find that folder, and be able to open the .ptx file directly from the backup.
I don't want to have to extract that file from a proprietary format backup file or have to spend ages "restoring" from one big compressed backup file. Some people may say that the latter is more secure, but when you have to fully restore a backup, or even worse, an index file goes missing, it causes no end of problems. On large projects, this can also cause workspace management issues.
What Should I Look For In A Backup Device?
Network Attached Storage (NAS) systems are in reality small servers, most commonly running a form of Linux. These are two devices I have personal experience of - the Qnap TS-421 and the Synology DS213+.
These are both Linux based servers which run commonly available apps, both written by their own manufacturers and by third parties, such as the VirtualHere servers I use. They are far more than just an external multi-drive storage caddy. The Qnap has dual ethernet connections and both have sturdy enclosures and good power supplies. Being servers in their own right means that they can run anti-virus, backup software of their own, cloud support, be an iTunes server, even be your security camera hub.
This is Qnap's QTS interface, which is accessed through a web browser. It's a very intuitive interface, devoid of any needless tech speak. This really helps you set up your system to work exactly for your needs. What I love about both the Synology and Qnap is that there are a wide variety of third-party apps, and they play nicely with other forms of data management, such as GoogleDrive or Dropbox. Folders on the NAS drives appear as a network folder on your OS, and can be accessed by any software. My MirrorFolder software recognises that it's a network device and makes special provision for that.
Within the NAS interface, you can fine tune any aspect, from virus checking to enterprise standard backup, host your own FTP server, run a VPN (virtual private network), manage backups to the cloud, and even stream media. I've found that both the Qnap and Synology drives are fast enough to run a complicated Pro Tools session with HD video, over gigabit ethernet.
I have one other NAS, a four bay unit by Netgear. On reflection, this wasn't my best purchase. Although the unit is reasonably well made, it is massively let down by its operating system and its dependence on Netgear's cloud service, to remote access your NAS. If the ReadyCloud service goes down, so does your remote access. Although the Netgear system is compatible with third party apps like VirtualHere, their implementation is very unreliable. I would, therefore, going on personal experience and reports from others, recommend NAS systems by Qnap and Synology. Current equivalents to the models I use would be the Synology DS216+ II and the Qnap TS-453S.
You Need The Right Drives
Whatever form you choose as your backup solution, it is only as good as what you choose to store your data on. Most mainstream hard drive manufacturers have a NAS specific range. In the case of Western Digital it's the Red series, and for Seagate it's the IronWolf series. These drives are designed for long term reliability, generally at the cost of speed, but they bring a glimpse of what is known as "enterprise class" security to consumers.
I have had a pair of WD Red drives on in my Synology DS213+ for four years non stop, with no issues, and a 100% clean bill of health every month when my NAS checks them for errors and sends me a report by email. It's become a bit of a sad joke that the first email I've received every new year, has been from my Synology...
Storage Devices Are Useless Without Reliable Power
You can have the most reliable multi drive storage system and backup regime, but if the power supply fails or spikes while it is in operation then nothing will save you. At best it'll store a partial file, but most likely is that your current data will get corrupted and it will also quite likely damage existing data as well.
In the UK, a 4TB desktop external hard drive will cost you £100. For that same amount of money you can get a 1000VA Uninterruptible Power Supply, which would be capable of supplying most rigs with uninterrupted power for more than enough time to safely save and shut down.
Such UPS's also have a USB connection, which is really useful for connecting to servers and computer systems. NAS systems and computers can run software that monitors the health of your UPS and can be programmed to execute predefined routines in the event of a power failure.
I can connect the USB from the UPS to my NAS and it will monitor the health of my UPS system. If there's a power failure, it can keep an eye on the situation, and if things get to critical levels, it can shut itself down safely, and send a network signal to any listening machines, to do the same. I also have it set up so that it will email me in the event of a power failure.
Don't Just Protect Your Storage
It's important to also think about where the data that is being backed up, is coming from in the first place - your DAW. Your main system is where the magic happens, so it makes sense to protect its power supply as well. There's no point backing up data if it's corrupt at source.
My NAS systems, internet access and network router are in a separate room to my main system, so for practical reasons I run two UPS's - one in my "network cupboard" and the other in my studio
What else in your studio do you need to ensure stays working? I'm talking about the infrastructure that supports your data security regime and indeed your workflow. To give you an example - here's what else I UPS protect in my studio setup -
- Monitor Screens
- Control Surfaces
- Powered USB Hubs
- Network Hubs / Switches
- Network Router & WiFi
- Internet Connection
- Audio Interface (Not Bus Powered)
- "Guest Power"
- Headphone Output
Basically anything you need to maintain normal operation and perform a safe shut-down. If your monitor screens switch off during a power outage, you can't do anything. The same applies to your control surfaces and audio interfaces - anything your system relies on to input and output data.
If your backup regime involves ethernet and internet connection, these two mechanisms have to be protected. If you use a powered USB hub to provide enough power to iLoks or bus powered devices, then uninterrupted operation relies on these being protected as well.
What I refer to as "Guest Power" is a four-way outlet that protects equipment that is not part of my usual installation. Maybe a project has come in on a "desktop" style hard drive, which has its own power supply. Maybe you have a different control surface or audio interface or piece of outboard.
Lastly I've included a headphone output. Your audio interface might have a built in headphone output, but then your headphone monitoring in your studio might depend on some form of powered distribution or amplification. If being able to hear what you're saving is important to you, then your headphone distribution also needs a guaranteed power supply.
The aim here is to ensure minimal disruption in the event of a power interruption. Most preventable human errors are done in a state of panic. If you have the ability to calmly make sure your project and data are safe, it ensures that the data you're making safe is in a much better place to pick up from. You can then go and investigate what's caused the outage, safe in the knowledge that your work is safe.
Thinking Long Term
Let's go back 22 years to 1995. What long term backup systems have we seen since then? Here's what I can recall -
- Zip Drive
- DAT Backup
- 8mm Tape Backup
- Magneto Optical Disc
- CD-R / RW
- DVD-R / RW / RAM / DL
- BD (BluRay) R 25 / 50
- USB "Stick"
If a client presented you with a backup from 20 years ago on one of the above formats, I'm guessing that the only one most of us could easily open, regardless of the platform, with a reasonably guaranteed success rate, would be the USB key.
When you think about it, the benefits of using a pair of USB keys for long term storage are obvious - this kind of storage has proven to be one of the safest forms - it can withstand water, extreme temperatures and even harsh impact, and the format has remained the same for over twenty years, with no sign of obsolescence.
For just under £30 you can get a 128GB USB stick. If you've got something that's really important to you, buy two USB drives, back up your project to both identically, and store them in two separate secure places. Take a screenshot of the contents and email it to yourself.
Another benefit of doing this is that the file modification dates and the metadata contained, can be very useful in establishing intellectual property. If you make a backup of all your session file backups as well, you can completely plot the development of your project, thus proving where and when a piece of sound was created, and who has the intellectual property rights.
Think Off The Shelf
There's no point having a foolproof backup system if it's mounted on a flimsy shelf that could collapse, or underneath a water pipe that could break. Think carefully about where you locate your backup solution. Make sure it can stay cool, with adequate air flow. Make sure that the shelf or cupboard the equipment is in, can more than handle its weight. Maybe or "should do" is nowhere near good enough.
The biggest mistake I made with my first UPS was to locate it temporarily on low pile carpet tiles. Even though the pile wasn't very deep, it was enough to partially restrict the airflow, which drastically reduced the life of my UPS.
So that's data security. Now that our day to day personal and work lives have become so dependent on safe data storage, I've been finding that there's no one solution that can keep all your data safe, automatically, without you having to think about it. This is where the problem lies. The most common cause of data loss is human error. I'm afraid I can't offer a magic solution for the human condition - it's down to discipline and organisation.
If like me your income depends on keeping data safe, then although the initial setup costs might seem relatively high, compared to picking up a 4GB desktop hard drive online as and when you need it, the potential losses to you, and also your client, far outweigh the necessary investment.
If the least it saves you is a sleepless night, then, in my opinion, it's still worth it. Hopefully in me telling you all the pitfalls I've encountered, you don't have to make the same mistakes. Best of luck, and as always, please let us know your experiences in the comments.