Technique: Digital asset management II

I’ve been pretty busy the last month as I was moving within Singapore and I took the opportunity to engage in a major reorganisation to increase efficiency and to transform the family/home office standards to a greener form… This journey led me to an unexpected discovery…

Singapore is a great place, it is warm, humid and has lush tropical forest. It is basically as much a place to live, to work in and to feel being on holidays all year long (at least for those like me who grew up under moderate climate, asks Singaporeans: there’s not better dream that to spend their holidays in a snowy place like Switzerland… ). Now what is good for me is not always good for electronics, camera and lenses… Until now, we were living in an expat condominium and since our arrival we kept the study room as a relatively controlled room with 24/7 air conditioned… Not very economical from a financial and an ecological point of view, but not an option since the room was exposed south-west: from midday to sunset we could enjoy a scorching sun…

Now we are in what is called in Singapore an executive maisonette in a HDB development, old but charming, and we are limiting the use of air conditioned by having ceiling fans in nearly every room. However that is not ideal for the precious lenses and cameras so we installed a couple of large dry cabinet which allows us to control the atmosphere for limited power consumption (8W each when in operation) targeting humidity to 45% in the cabinet (vs. 80-90% ambient). So far we are very happy with the result. (In Singapore I would recommend to purchase via TK foto, prices of Digi-Cabi the brand available in Singapore are strictly controlled so ending up paying the same everywhere I tend to favour TK foto for my purchases of new stuff).

Next is the question of data storage. So far we used to have drive arrays (3 of them) for backups as well as for our home entertainment library (music, video, books, etc) as well as Time Capsule for backups of laptops. The units were setup in RAID5 which provides redundancy in case one drive fails but also mean that 3 drives (one per unit) were not “effectively” used… Plus as experience shows that when one hard drive is failing another drive in the same array is also likely to fail (they generally all have the same age in one unit as they been purchased at the same time) and often the 2nd drive fails during the reconstruction of the array after the first drive has been replaced leading to a complete loss of the whole array… As we were getting tight with storage I’ve decided to move to a proper NAS (Network attached storage), which I hinted in my previous post, put behind one of the new Apple AirPort Extreme. I’ve opted for a Synology DS1813+ which gives 8 bays, can be formatted with a 2 drives redundancy (RAID6) and can be expended by the addition of two 5-bay units. I’ve installed 8x 4Tb disks which gives 24Tb if storage (I could still increase by 40Tb with the optional extension if I need to). So plenty to backup 6 Macs with Time Machine (for which I allocated a third of the storage capacity) and all our photo libraries and multimedia libraries with room to spare as both are expending at a frightening rate…

From an efficiency point of view, I divided by 3 my power consumption for storage, reduced the physical space by at least a third, gained one level of fault tolerance and increased my capacity by a third (I was using 2Tb drives in my previous arrays).

Now there are a few experiences which might be relevant to you if you’re considering going the NAS route.

First bandwidth: I had 2 options: one 8-bay (DS1813+) and one 12-bay (DS2413+) units, I’ve opted for the 8 bay because it was delivering the most throughput with 200MB/s write and 300MB/s read. The reality is: unless you have a very muscled router you will by far not reach the advertised throughput (I’m taking about wired network, not wireless which has lower performance). But the reality also is: I’m not sure it makes a real difference, unless you’re working with video files. For photo even the big RAW files of a Canon 5D mark III it’s quite sufficient. I don’t regret buying the 8-bay vs. the 12-bay version even if the reasons to choose so were faulty.

Second backups: There are documented solution to automate online backup (in particular with Crashplan) directly from the Synology station. I have not yet installed it but that sounds a very promising solution (backing up both the Time Machine and Photo storage in the cloud means that really everything is backed up off-site, good for paranoids like me).

Third compatibility: You cannot place your iPhoto or Aperture libraries directly in the NAS. That is very wrong and could lead to loss of image, data corruption and various other bad things. On top of it you might not realise it before it’s too late… The reason is that iPhoto and Aperture rely both on the Apple file system (HFS+) as it has a well defined behaviour. All existing NAS out there won’t support this format and thus the file system of the NAS will not behave exactly as the Apple one. Over time this leads to loss of data with iPhoto or Aperture. The solution is to use a “Referenced Library”. The library remains in your local drive but all your original files sit somewhere in the NAS. The library file in itself is not small but much smaller than all the original files and can be easily managed locally, additionally local drives being much faster than the NAS (regardless what option you take) your software will be more responsive.

Now you might ask me: what if I’d like my wife to access the Aperture (or iPhoto, or Lightroom) library as well? Well, first it is a VERY VERY bad idea: none of these programs support concurrent access to the same library: you cannot have more than one machine accessing the file at any given time otherwise you might break the library, lose data and eventually not being able to repair the library. Even if you are super disciplined to not accessing these files at the same time, an accident is always possible where you end up having the library open at the same time corrupting your data. You want to share your library? Make a copy of the file and share the copy, don’t share the same physical file. With the referenced files it is however possible to share the same file as long as you don’t write to the same file (which is seldomly the case, except if you write IPTC data directly to the photo) at the same time. What happens in that case is that files are accessed in read mode only which can be concurrent without risking to damage your image files.

What about switching to Lightroom which does not rely on the Apple File system? I considered it but basically you end up with the same model: the Lightroom library is only referencing images and not more than Aperture it cannot be concurrently shared. So it’s not better nor worse than Aperture.

Still I was curious and I installed a trial version of Lightroom 5. I was shocked.

Back when Lightroom version 1 came out it was like a breath of fresh air, there was close to no option to manage digital assets at the time and all of a sudden we had an integrated system with a gorgeous interface, easy to use, powerful, the work! Nearly ten years later it has not changed much… But it does not compare well to Aperture: Lightroom loses a lot of screen real estate for its interface whilst Aperture is all the opposite: the photo has the first place not the interface. It made me realise one interesting, but now obvious, thing: similarly to Lightroom, the changes in Aperture’s interface have been only subtle through the years. However because there’s not been a major new version released since 3 years, like many others, I started to have the feeling that Aperture is getting old, no longer supported by Apple (if you look at the number of updates every year it is in fact far from being abandoned by Apple). I now realise how well it was designed in the first place and there is little need to change something that works for the sake of changing it… Yes I wish for certain new features to be available and I trust they will come (especially as 2 of the 3 pro apps from Apple have now been updated: Final Cut X and just today Logic Pro X)…

As a fantastic lens is not made bad from one day to the next when its successor is even better (no no, it’s not a hidden reference to the Canon EF 70-200/2.8 IS Mark II), Aperture 3 continues to be an efficient tool to edit your photos and make them beautiful even it it has not changed much for many years…

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Note for those based in Singapore interested to purchase a Synology product, do visit MemoryWorld which has a great service. I made the mistake to opt for the competitor of MemoryWorld selling Synology (name starts with the letter A…) to save 100 dollars and realise that the service offered by the other company is inexistant… I have known MemoryWorld and been happy with them for years and I should have gone back to this reputable shop. You never stop to learn:)

Technique: Digital asset management IIChristian C. Berclaz
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