Help me go wireless.
August 23, 2012 4:28 AM   Subscribe

I want to be able to access my hard drives wirelessly, and I don't know where to start. Plus bonus question. Help!

I'm feeling pretty stupid here because I should know how to do this but I don't.

Here's the deal. I spend an incredible amount of time on my computer for work. I have a laptop and I deal with large files. I want access to these files wirelessly so I can move around.

Currently at my desk, I have about 4-6 USB hard drives (and two printers) connected to a USB hub that I plug into the laptop. I keep duplicates of all my files on these hard drives. Everything works just fine when I plug in. The hard drives are really mostly for backup. When I need a file, I copy it on to my laptop and work on it. When I'm done with the file or import new files, I copy them back over, on two different hard drives.

The problem is I don't sit at my desk very often, and this has really fucked up my workflow. Basically I will connect in an emergency - like when I run out of HD space on my laptop - and I will dump all my files in ONE folder and back them up on the drives to make space. But then I don't know where anything is. And now this is starting to happen very often - and my work is starting to get lost due to my disorganization.

So help me out and get me wireless, so that I can back things up and access them without having to sit at my desk. Speed is not a huge issue, I suppose, but I do want something reasonably fast. Ease of use and reliability are definitely two major factors.

Details that might be of help. All my hard drives are connected via USB. (I think my FW port is toast, so let's not go in that direction.) I have a Cisco E1000 router that I suspect might be a piece of shit. I am willing to buy some new equipment to get this done. I do not, however, have or want a second computer. I am running Lion.

Bonus Question: For those of you that deal with large, sensitive media files, how do you sleep at night? If I were to lose any of my files I would be royally screwed. So I keep duplicates. But I'm willing to go triplicates. I just.. don't know what else to do. I'd love it if there was a convenient off-site online solution, but I am in the terabyte range and I'm not sure that's feasible.

Double Bonus Question: I don't use RAID because.. I basically don't know what it is. Is it worth figuring out?
posted by phaedon to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
RAID is not a backup. It lets you slave together several drives so you can optimize them for reliability (two or more drives get some of the data, so if one drive fails you're ok) or performance (data is written across two or more drives, so the system can slurp them up at double speed).

RAID isn't a backup because it only helps with hardware failure- it doesn't do anything to fix file corruption, accidental deletion, historical versions, etc.

That said, RAID will likely be a component of whatever you do to create a good backup solution.

I'd suggest looking into a NAS (network attached storage) box on your network- either a drobo or a buffalo terastation, and setting that up as a file server. However, file transfers over wifi can be really slow, so you may find that this is just throwing hardware at your problem.

How big are your media files? Can you make a copy of your data and store it somewhere safely? If your current server catches on fire and the data is destroyed, how fucked are you?
posted by jenkinsEar at 4:51 AM on August 23, 2012

RAID has nothing to do with reliability or backup in itself. In fact some RAID approaches sacrifice reliability for performance and actually provide a lower guarantee of data integrity (i.e. worse odds for a catastrophic failure at some point) than a single standard drive. So no need to dig into to, just chalk it up as a technology for agglomerating several standard drives into one super-big drive that you could have gotten "off the shelf" just as easily by waiting 12 or 18 months.

The simplest approach to your problem, I think, is to just buy an old (or new, depending on your taste) wireless router that has USB ports in it and can do this as an out of the box feature. Mine is a six-year-old ASUS one that has this and lets you plug in a USB HD and act as a file server, albeit only publishing through FTP or Samba, but I'm sure newer ones are more modern.

You could also buy a new or used (or maybe you already have an old computer) 2nd computer and install something like the FreeNAS operating system on it, which turns a computer into a web-administered file server. I run it as a virtual machine getting 128MB of memory on a seven-year-old host machine and it performs just fine so I would expect that you could do a bare metal install of it on a pretty ancient system and it would still run acceptably well.

(You could also buy a completely new NAS hardware device as jenkinsEar suggests, which is basically a small-form-factor server with a commercial version of something like FreeNAS already installed and configured.)
posted by XMLicious at 4:56 AM on August 23, 2012

Response by poster: JenkinsEar: Mostly CR2 (~30mb) and PSD (~300mb) files. I don't really know what Drobo does.. I mean I already have the hard drives.. where do I plug it in? Do I need a new router? And yes I'm totally fucked if there is a fire.

XMLicious: As I mentioned I don't really want to get a new computer.
posted by phaedon at 5:19 AM on August 23, 2012

Need to sync files? Look at Dropbox.

Need to share a hard drive on a network? Get a NAS or something you plug a drive into to make it NAS-like.

Backups: cheapest is backup to a USB drive, store at friend's house. Want automated? Use cloud backup.

There's tons of answers to these questions on AskMeFi, have a look!
posted by devnull at 5:24 AM on August 23, 2012

Use : Dropbox, Skydrive or Google Drive.
If you want to run backups + shared folders, use Jungle Disk.

Synchronised cloud folders are awesome, and as long as you've less than 7GB of stuff you need to share between computers, then it's free too.
posted by zoo at 5:29 AM on August 23, 2012

I don't do the sort of work you do, but I use a single-disk Synology "Disk Station" home server to give everyone in the house access to music files, and as backup drives for multiple laptops. We have 2 copies of everything - one on the home server, the other on a portable device. Works pretty effortlessly, backups are automated, but it does require that the portable devices have enough storage capacity to store their own copies of most things. Since you have more files than will fit on your laptop's drive, you might need a RAID 1 setup with a 2-disk NAS.

To address fire and theft possibilities, you have to store a copy off-site, which will almost certainly mean some sort of web storage like Dropbox. I haven't gotten very far into that.
posted by jon1270 at 5:32 AM on August 23, 2012

Best answer: Maybe CloudFTP?

I haven't tried it myself, I was at the Hypershop looking for ways to charge devices during a power failure (Hyperjuice), and stumbled over it, and have been poking at the page for a while (since I also have a tremendous amount of stuff on external drives). While this site is geared to Mac users, it is listed as being compatible to PCs.

At any rate, it looks fairly simple, and at a $100 is a cheaper solution than a NAS.

(Random review I found here).
posted by instead of three wishes at 5:44 AM on August 23, 2012

Best answer: One thing you haven't specified is the total storage requirement. You say 4-6 USB hard drives, holding duplicates, so I'm guessing around 5 TB would be sufficient?

NAS is the way to go. I'd recommend a Synology 4-bay. Load it with 4x2TB in their hybrid RAID and you'll have 6TB usable space. (Need more? Get a 5-bay with 5x3TB for 12TB usable space. The sky (re: wallet) is the limit.) Synology has a really nice UI that makes setting everything up extremely simple. You will be able to access your shares over AFP on the local network, and can set up DNS for remote access.

Use your current USB drives as external backup for the volumes/folders you create.

If possible, try to configure your setup such that you can run a gigabit wired connection to your router when at your desk.
posted by casaubon at 7:19 AM on August 23, 2012

By the way, just noticed that the Cisco E1000 only has 10/100 ethernet. I would definitely get something with gigabit ethernet. A NAS sitting on 100Mbit is not fun.

I like my Asus RT-N16.
posted by casaubon at 7:26 AM on August 23, 2012

The line around "new computer" is pretty blurry, honestly. For example, a router is a (small, single use) computer. If you're looking at a router with built in NAS, it's a slightly more complicated but still small and limited computer. A dedicated NAS box is a bigger, better, but still very specialized computer. Or you could take a cheap desktop computer (what my grandmother would recognize as a computer) and install NAS software on it and end up with a slightly different specialized computer.

For functional and relatively easy to use I would go with one of the last two options. Either buy a prebuilt NAS box (slightly easier, but more expensive) or buy/build a cheap desktop computer and install some NAS software like FreeNAS (already mentioned) on it. This will sit in a corner and act as a gateway between your data and your network.

Re: RAID. There are two options that home users really use, 0 and 1. RAID 0 makes two drives into one bigger, faster drive. Your NAS might do this automatically or you can just continue to treat your drives as a whole bunch of normal drives. RAID 1 makes two drives into one drive which stores the same data twice. If your only worry is hardware failure then this is good, although obviously you need twice the storage space, i.e. twice the cost. (There are other kinds of failure, as pointed out above--user error, where you saved the wrong file on top of the file you really needed, or some kind of physical catastrophe where your house burns down and all your drives go with it including both backups...)

Better backup: For that size, you want some kind of cold storage...slow but cheap, for files you don't access regularly but need to keep. Amazon just came out with Glacier, which looks interesting (although cheap is relative), or you can go with the old school way where you put a copy of your data in a bank safety deposit box every so often.
posted by anaelith at 7:32 AM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agreed with casaubon on both accounts - my Synology 4-bay setup is quite nice, and was a worthy upgrade from my old Drobo (which still works, just not nearly as fast or as stable as the Synology); another brand to consider is Qnap - if you really get into comparisons those two are the names that tend to pop up the most. And if you're working on 300 meg files, the jump from 10/100 to 10/100/1000 is quite noticable, especially if you are saving something to your NAS and pulling the next project off of it to work on.

Only other suggestions I typically include when telling people about how easy it is to back up a Mac are:
- Time Machine (built in/free, why not use it?)
- SuperDuper! (free/$27.95; my sister-in-law's MacBook hard drive crashed, and two years later she is still looking for pictures and stuff she lost, my MacBook's hard drive crashed, and 6 minutes later I was back up and running as if almost nothing happened)
- Dropbox (online storage, great for mission-critical stuff... as soon as you hit save, it is uploaded to Amazon's S3 servers, with revision history for 30 days)
- CrashPlan (free/free/paid - allows for local or off-site encrypted backups for free, you only pay if you want storage space on their server, but if you have a computer at home, you could back up to it, or to a friend's computer for free.)
posted by GuppieXX at 7:42 AM on August 23, 2012

Yeah, as anaelith says, pretty much anything that would actually be able to do this is just going to be a second computer packaged in some smaller form factor as a sort of sealed black-box device. That's what a NAS is which is the conventional off-the-shelf commercial solution to provide this functionality. Even my aforementioned six-year-old wireless ASUS router that has USB ports and serves the drives' contents as an FTP server and Samba share is running a trimmed-down embedded Linux in its little 32MB of RAM.

If the footprint/size is what concerns you with the idea that you're going to be buying a second computer to do this don't think in terms of getting something the size and shape of a desktop computer: buy one of the suggested off-the-shelf NAS devices or if you want to save some money and recycle just get hold of a junky old laptop with a broken screen on eBay or somewhere. Or one of this new breed of super-miniature, super-cheap computers like the Raspberry Pi.
posted by XMLicious at 7:57 AM on August 23, 2012

A few questions:

Do you use Windows, or Mac.

How much data do you have across all of those hard disks? My guess is that you've accumulated them over time and that some of them are pretty small.

My general recommendation is to get a small NAS, or a storage capable router, and consolidate to as few high-capacity hard disks as possible while still leaving yourself room for growth. Avoid RAID if at all possible, but use some sort of automatic copy to another hard disk for backup. I could make a more specific recommendation if I had answers to the questions above.

The suggestions of Dropbox, et al, don't seem appropriate since the OP doesn't have enough space on his main computer to store all their files, and they are expensive for off-site backup of large amounts of data.
posted by Good Brain at 1:13 PM on August 23, 2012

Response by poster: Ugh, this situation is kind of infuriating. Thanks for all the advice. To answer some questions that I already answered in my OP: I am running Lion on a Mac and I am in the TB territory when it comes to disk space.

One thing I feel sort of certain about is using Crash Plan as a tertiary backup.

As for NAS, I don't fully understand why I can't stick to dumb USB externals. In fact, I could have two high capacity USB drives mirroring each other, and as soon as they fill up, keep one in my office, and take one to an off-site location like a bank safety deposit box.

Then I can buy two new USB drives and do the same thing. All the while backing everything up on Crash Plan. Of course, I may have to make some adjustments to my CR2 files to take less space.

Please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like the good thing about NAS is that if offers lots of "services" and is good for sharing across a network to multiple people. Well I don't need multiple people access, what I want is to interact with the files like they are on a mounted drive. Not a web interface.

Maybe in the long run this is not cost efficient? But for right now I can't afford to make any mistakes switching to some technology that I don't fully understand. All the reviews I read online about NAS make the claim that for the uninitiated, setting up a NAS might be overwhelming.

As for wireless, the suggestion that I think fits closely to what I want is CloudFTP, mentioned above. But I don't want to get some toy that might break from a company that hasn't been around too long. So if anyone is still following this thread - feel free to take up my concerns, but for now it sounds like the best option for me is to stay wired, get organized, move a copy of my drives offsite, and use Crash Plan.
posted by phaedon at 6:48 PM on August 23, 2012

Best answer: There's actually a fair amount of intelligence even in something like an external USB hard drive; it has to know how to do some degree of auto-configuration when it's plugged in to a computer, based on the characteristics of the computer, and it also has to be smart enough to handle things like what to do if it gets unplugged while in the middle of a writing or reading operation and how to negotiate with other devices that are sharing the USB hub and port.

The basic reason why it gets a bit more complicated when you connect it to a network or wireless network is probably that while USB is designed so that there's just one computer connected and in charge of everything, on a network there can be any number of computers, so for example there needs to be some security stuff so that any hacker driving by your house or getting through your ISP's and router's safeguards over the internet can't just take control of the hard drive. The device also needs to know a little bit more about managing its own connection to the network than it would just being a USB device.

It's a bit odd that you trust these cloud services more than you do the NAS devices; serving files over a local network is much more well-developed and well-tested technology than what the cloud services are doing (though honestly their technology is pretty solid at this point too.) If you really want to make everything wireless but worry about being unfamiliar with new technology you might be better off paying the premium to buy a full 2nd computer with the same OS as your laptop and just learn how to share drives over the network in Lion.

Even just leaving the drives as they are and going with CrashPlan, though, it's unlikely that you won't have to learn anything new at all. But there's the slight advantage that their tech support team is dealing with customers all trying to do the exact same thing as you whereas other solutions are more general-purpose, as you have observed.
posted by XMLicious at 8:50 AM on August 24, 2012

Best answer: Thanks for the added detail, I missed the bit about Lion in your original post.

Don't get hung up too much on terminolgy. NAS stands for "network attached storage," and originally referred to rack-mounted monsters, rather than some little box that would fit on a home bookshelf. In a lot of ways, a NAS is just a super-optimized and simplified file server, and these days, many home routers are capable of serving files from a USB drive. That CloudFTP is itself a sort of NAS, though one targeted at sharing files with iPhones and iPads.

My suggestion is: Replace your router with an AirportExtreme and buy a 2-3tb external drive. Take the drive, hook it to your computer, format it as Journaled HFS+ and consolidate all the files from your external hard drives onto it, then move it to the USB port on the Airport Extreme, share it out on your network and use part of it as a target for Time Machine backups. You can also use a USB hub and use the Airport Extreme to share your printers.

Install Crashplan and buy their unlimited cloud backup plan and pay for their seeded backup service, which lets you send them a hard disk with your data so you don't have to upload a TB over your internet connection. Configure it to backup your local user folder and your data files on the network share to the cloud.

Optionally, get a second large hard disk and periodically copy of all the files on your network share over to it.
posted by Good Brain at 12:35 PM on August 24, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks guys. I don't "trust" cloud services as a primary back-up, but I think the technology is there now to store terabytes of information. I mean, I guess we'll see.

Definitely going to retain two copies, one on and offsite. And maybe I will go the second computer route, as I'm hoping Apple will make significant changes in their imac and macpro lineups in September.
posted by phaedon at 10:21 PM on August 24, 2012

If you go for a brand new computer, another option of course is to get yourself a new laptop and use your current one as the file server with the USB drives attached.

One other little note that might be handy if you don't already have some way of doing this: there's a Unix utility called rsync which is designed to compare two different file trees and synchronize them by copying only the pieces that are different, using only the absolute minimum bandwidth that's necessary.

It sounds like rsync is included in OSX now and at the very least there are tutorials all over the net for Mac users. (So, there might be other alternatives for the Mac which do the same thing, but rsync is the standard tool on Linux for this.)
posted by XMLicious at 8:31 AM on August 25, 2012

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