Learn the Most Efficient Ways to Store Your Data with Take Control of Your Digital Storage

Tc digital storageAs the amount of data we store continues to grow, figuring out where to put it and how to access it becomes more complicated. It’s not just that we need to find space for our increasingly large collections of photos, videos, music, and apps—we want it to be available whenever we need it, and be sure that it’s safe from hackers and thieves.

Jeff Carlson, my co-host on the PhotoActive podcast, has written a book with all the answers: Take Control of Your Digital Storage. After decades of working with Macs and accumulating massive collections of photos and videos, Jeff has pulled together a wide-ranging book about Mac storage that contains just the help you’re looking for. Among many other topics, this book covers:

  • How to choose a new (internal or external) hard drive, SSD, or hybrid drive
  • Determining how much storage space you need
  • What you need to know about APFS, Apple’s new filesystem
  • Formatting and partitioning disks using Disk Utility
  • How to repair a misbehaving disk
  • RAIDs: what they are and how different types compare
  • What to do with a hard drive when it has outlived its usefulness
  • When to use a flash drive or SD card
  • How to create and use disk images
  • Deciding among local, network, and cloud storage for various types of files
  • What a personal cloud is and why you might consider using one
  • Strategies for freeing up extra disk space

I strongly recommend this book; it helps you understand the differences between the various types of storage media, and helps you set up your own storage strategy. Get Take Control of Your Digital Storage.

The Data Storage Conundrum

We all need to store data: our documents, photos, music files, video files, and more. As time goes on, we have more and more data to store. In addition, we need to backup all that data. I have often said that is not a question of whether a hard drive will die, but when it will.

As such, developing a strategy for storing data can be complicated. You have data on your computer, and if you have a large music and/or video library, you most likely ha additional data on an external hard drive. In addition, you need backups for all that data. The best backup strategy includes multiple backups: one or more Time Machine backups, clones of your startup drive, and redundant backups of your media. Because never forget that one back up isn’t enough: you should always have at least two, in case you lose your original data and you find that your backup is corrupted.

I have a 27″ iMac with a 256 GB internal SSD, and a 4 TB external drive for my media. I also have an additional 2 TB drive for other data: software installers, archives, and other miscellaneous files.

I use two Time Machine drives to back up my startup drive and my music library. I have two redundant backups for my media drive; this means that my music files are backed up both by Time Machine and these redundant backups. My video files, mostly rips of DVDs and Blu-rays that I own, are only backed up twice. As for that extra 2 TB drive, it, too, has double backups.

All this comes at a price. I have lots of hard drives. I have a total of five units, four of which each hold two hard drives. Two of these units are connected to my Mac by a Thunderbolt, and the other three are USB-3 drives.

I would love to simplify this. I would love to have, say, one unit to store all my data, and another unit to back it up. But it’s not that simple. I’m not comfortable with a RAID unit, because the data is not recoverable unless the hard drives are in the exact same RAID unit. In addition, RAID units are noisy. Since they have so many drives, and processors, they need fans. All of the hard drive units I have are fanless, and the only noise they make is that the hard drives spinning. My drives in the shelf unit with boxes in front of them to dampen the noise.

You can buy enclosures that hold multiple drives and don’t use RAID, or configure a RAID unit as JBOD, or “just a bunch of drives.” In that case, each drive appears as a single drive on your computer, whereas a RAID unit shows all of the storage as if it were one drive. But these devices have the same problem: they have fans, and they are noisy.

Another option is using network drives. They would allow me to use either a RAID unit or a multiple-drive enclosure in a location other than my office. However, the limitation of network speed would be problematic at times. Gigabit ethernet may sound fast, but when you’re copying a lot of files, it’s not. Both Thunderbolt and USB-3 are much faster. As such, any device that is connected to a computer will copy files more quickly. This isn’t a big problem for, say, incremental backups, where only new or changed files get copied. If these happen over the network in the background, it doesn’t slow much down, and since these generally run at night (with the exception of Time Machine backups), I wouldn’t notice them anyway. But when you do need access to large files, it is slow. In addition, I would have to run an ethernet cable into another room, because Wi-Fi isn’t fast enough.

So what’s the solution? For now, I haven’t found an ideal solution. Perhaps larger hard drives will make all of this easier: instead of meeting, saying, two 4 TB drives, one 8 TB drive would be enough. So I could cut the number of drives I use in half. But I still need at least two separate drives for Time Machine backups, and at least two separate drives to backup my media files. So I’m not even sure that larger drives will make that much of a difference. Because of the fragility of hard drives, storing data really is a conundrum.

Review: WD MyCloud EX2 Network Storage Device

There are lots of cloud storage services you can use: iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, and more. While these are generally easy to work with, and great for sharing files with others, you may not want to store your files on someone else’s servers. Western Digital’s My Cloud EX2 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) lets you create your own personal cloud, as well as have a home repository for files and backups.

You may be familiar with network attached storage devices (NAS); these are (to simplify) networked hard drives, which can be complicated to set up and manage. My Cloud EX2 is a type of NAS, but with a much more user-friendly interface. It doesn’t have all the features of a true NAS, but, if you want a device that’s easy to set up and use, the My Cloud EX 2 (and the other versions that Western Digital makes) is a solid device with a rich feature set.

Setup is just a few clicks, and, during this process, you also set up a “personal cloud” account. This allows you to connect to the My Cloud EX2 remotely, from a different computer, or even from an iOS device, using Western Digital’s apps. (There is no fee for this service.) You can add users to this account, and set their permissions – which files and folders they can access – from a web interface. The device’s software manages the network address translation, so all you need to do to access it remotely is connect it to a router.

After the initial setup, you fine-tune your device through your web browser. This allows you to set up RAID configurations (Raid 0, RAID 1, Spanning or JBOD; just a bunch of disks), You can add, remove, or edit users and groups; manage shares; configure cloud access; add apps, and more. While the Mac Cloud EX2 is very user-friendly, it’s still a complex device, and there are lots of settings available in the browser configuration pages.

Mycloud settings

You interact with the device in several ways. There’s a WD My Cloud desktop app, which you can use to view, upload, and download files. You can add files to the device by dragging them onto this app’s window; or you can mount the shared volume in the Finder, and add and manage files in Finder windows.

Mycloud

You can also access files using the My Cloud iOS app, whether you are on your network or remotely. You can view and download files, email them, and send email links so others can access them without being able to see your other files (similar to the way you share a public link to a file in a Dropbox folder). You can also link other cloud accounts, from Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive, to this app, and transfer files from those cloud services to your personal cloud. And you can stream music or videos stored on the device.

One of the most practical features is the ability to use this device for Time Machine backups. My iMac is set to back up to a local disk and to the My Cloud EX 2, while my MacBook Pro backs up only to the remote disk. (You may not know it, but you can have Time Machine alternate its backups among multiple disks.) You can also connect an external USB drive to back up the files on the device.

The device has lots of other features, such as the ability to download files directly, via HTTP, FTP, or P2P. It lets you add apps, such as Plex Media Server and others. You can access media files via iTunes Home Sharing, though I found this to be unreliable. And you can access photos using a dedicated iOS app.

I was impressed by how easy this device was to set up and use. I’ve barely scratched the surface in the features I use – for me, it’s just for backups, and remote file access so far, but there’s plenty more that it can do. The My Cloud EX2 is an affordable way to add storage on a local network, have a backup disk for multiple Macs, and to have a free, personal cloud, without the limits of cloud services.