Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, is famously credited with saying “you can never be too rich or too thin,” although for the photographer and videographer, that maxim might better be “your computer can never be too fast or have too much storage.”
Creating the bits and bytes of a digital photography or videography workflow is the everyday business of a creative, but finding a place to store them all is a constant struggle.
For many years, this storage struggle was due to the ever-increasing resolution of digital cameras. Cameras with two megapixel sensors begat pro cameras with four megapixels, which in turn ushered in 8 MP cameras, and so on.
Although the resolution of most digital cameras seems to be hovering these days at around 20 MP for general still photography and just below 50 MP for high-resolution cameras, the volume of these images is ever increasing.
For videographers, file size is still in the rapidly increasing state that digital photography saw in the early years of resolution increases. 4K footage has a much larger file size than HD, and 8K again creates a major increase in the amount of data generated on a shoot.
There are countless storage solutions available, but we’ve been evaluating two of the newest Thunderbolt 3 solutions designed for the high-volume creative, the G-Technology G-SPEED Shuttle SSD and the Drobo 5D3.
Both take a different approach to storage, and both are good solutions for photographers and videographers. One of the reasons to look at these two devices in tandem is that they form a Venn diagram of functionality for the photo and video markets.
The Drobo 5D3 addresses the needs for redundant storage that can increase capacity over time, and the G-Technology G-SPEED Shuttle addresses the need for massively fast storage for today’s video standards.
Both solutions can be used alone or in tandem to create a powerful, fast, redundant network that will protect against hardware failure and allow for increased productivity.
Both of the drives were evaluated against a G-Technology 8 TB Thunderbolt 2 RAID, which is fast enough for real-time 4K editing on an iMac Pro. While the G-Tech 8 TB is using the older Thunderbolt 2, that connection can still maintain a theoretical maximum of 20 Gbps. That’s half the speed of the Thunderbolt 3 40 Gbps, but both are fast enough for daily video work. The main advantage of Thunderbolt 3 is that it can be used for simultaneous power, video, audio and display signals at the same time. (Find out more about Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C on our website: digitalphotopro.com/gear/more-gear/behind-the-technology-pt-2.)
Drobo’s family of products takes a different approach to storage than a traditional RAID drive, using a system it calls BeyondRAID. Like RAID, Drobo devices spread data across the installed hard drives in order to protect against drive failure. Unlike RAID, though, any one of the drives in a Drobo unit can be swapped out and replaced with a larger-capacity drive at any time. The unit will automatically rewrite the data across the whole device to accommodate the new drive.
This allows for a dynamic increase in storage as either the need arises or the price of bare drives drops, and drives don’t have to be inserted in matching pairs. Our test five-bay 5D3 has five 3 TB drives, but I could, at any time, pull one out and swap it with something like a 5 TB or 6 TB or even 10 TB drive.
Because of the need to spread the data across the complete set of drives, swapping out a 3 TB drive with a 10 TB drive doesn’t necessarily result in 7 TB more storage; it often is more efficient to add a pair of smaller-capacity drives (like two 5 TB drives) than one single higher-capacity drive (a single 10 TB, for instance.) An online calculator (drobo.com/storage-products/capacity-calculator) is available to figure out drive capacities.
The Drobo 5D3 features a Thunderbolt 3 interface for ultra-fast data transfer—at least ultra-fast theoretical transfer. There are two things that limit the speed of Drobo units, aside from the speed of the connectivity.
The first limitation is that Drobo’s drive-replacing superpower has the side effect of being less efficient than a comparable RAID system. Five drives in a RAID 0 configuration would outperform five drives in a Drobo 5D3, simply because RAID is optimized to work with a set of same-size drives and the Drobo system is optimized to be able to work with whatever drive you stick in a slot.
The other limitation, naturally, is the speed of the drives, as is the case with RAID. Since Drobo will accept non-identical drives, if a system is configured with one slow-speed drive and four high-speed ones, the Drobo will operate at the speed of the slowest drive.
We put three 3 TB drives into the Drobo 5D3, with the goal of making it a backup device for our working Filemaker editing system. We selected 7200 RPM desktop-type drives (as opposed to 10,000 RPM drives or SSDs) because this gave us a good mix of affordability and speed.
Setting up a Drobo drive is always a bit cumbersome. More than once I’ve had to wipe the drives and start over. To work with the Drobo, you’ll need to download and install software and will usually need to reboot. To manage the Drobo, the company provides a desktop app, and once the drive is configured, it’s a no-brainer to use it.
Our various disk speed measurement apps show the Drobo has read speeds around 210MB/second and write speeds around 200MB/second, respectively. Faster hard drives would have accelerated this transfer speed, but at a naturally higher cost. The Drobo 5D3 has a bare-enclosure price of about $680, and the 3TB drives were about $90 when we purchased them, bringing the total system cost to around $1,000. That price provides an expandable offline asset drive with enough speed to run video editing directly from the Drobo when needed.
If you’d like to give your Drobo a speed boost, the 5D3 can use an SSD to create Hot Data Caching, a technique of speeding up data transfer by keeping the most commonly used data on a fast SSD.
Built-in battery backup protects the drive in the event of a power failure, allowing a long enough time to safely shut the unit down. This is a great touch, and something I’d like to see in more drives.
G-Technology G-SPEED Shuttle SSD
If we made a car analogy with these drives, the Drobo 5D3 would be a minivan, albeit a minivan with a massive engine (something like a Honda Odyssey with its 3.5L V6 engine), with its flexibility and expandability for any situation. The G-Technology G-SPEED Shuttle SSD, by comparison, is a Formula 1 race car, with an emphasis on speed, speed and more speed.
The G-SPEED Shuttle SSD is a bit bigger than the Drobo, with a carry handle designed to make the whole system able to move between workstations or between shoots.
The G-SPEED Shuttle SSD comes with up to 16 TB of solid-state hard drives (which is the capacity of the unit we evaluated) with a claimed top speed of 2800 MB/sec. That’s not a typo, it’s just a phenomenal amount of data throughput that’s capable with both high-speed SSDs and with Thunderbolt 3. Out of the box, the system ships with RAID 5, though it can do RAID 0, 1, 5, 10 and 50. At this speed, it’s possible to edit 8K footage in real time (with no proxy media) on high-end editing systems.
The G-SPEED Shuttle SSD also requires an app to work with the Mac, but there’s zero configuration necessary. Download the app, plug in the drive and turn it on.
The speed of the drive is astounding (more on that in a moment), and there was absolutely no lag when working in Final Cut, Premiere or Resolve. While 16 TB won’t be enough space for most large-scale projects, it makes a perfect working drive. This is where something like a Drobo comes in handy—offload non-crucial files to its expandable storage and work on the S-SPEED Shuttle SSD with the files you need for the project at hand.
The G-SPEED Shuttle SSD is available in an 8 TB and a 16 TB version, with the 8 TB costing $5,000 and the 16 TB $7,500. Naturally, you can find 16 TB drives for a tenth of the price, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anything faster.
To test the relative speed of the drives, we created a 650 GB folder full of 4K video clips, something that’s feasible to generate on a single shoot. We copied this folder from the internal SSD of the test iMac, which runs around 2000 MB/sec., to our production 8 TB RAID, the Drobo 5D3 and to the G-SPEED Shuttle SSD.
The copy operation from the iMac to the G-Tech 8 TB drive completed in about 28 minutes. The same information copied to the Drobo in just over an hour. The Drobo in our tests only was about 30 MB/sec. slower than the G-Tech 8 TB raid, so this begs the question, “Why did the Drobo take longer to copy?” The BeyondRAID redundancy of the Drobo is likely the reason, with the data being spread across the five drives more slowly than the 8 TB RAID could with its two-drive RAID 0 configuration.
That doesn’t mean that the Drobo will be twice as slow as the desktop 8 TB RAID we use but that large-scale copy operations will take longer. I found little difference between editing a 4K video off of the Drobo 5D3 or off of the 8 TB raid.
Remember, too, that we chose middle-of-the-road drives for the Drobo 5D3. We didn’t opt for SSD drives in the enclosure, and we also didn’t install the SSD for the data acceleration. These additional upgrades would have made for a much faster system.
Next, I copied that same folder to the G-SPEED Shuttle SSD, and the copy completed in just a hair over six minutes (6:15), which is astounding. Since the SSD in the iMac operates a tad more slowly than the SSDs in the G-SPEED, I’d expect drive-to-drive or unit-to-unit copies to be even faster.
I advise creatives to avoid relying on a single point of failure, and this is especially true with drives. I’ve had RAID systems fail on me, I’ve had SSDs fail on me, and I’ve had Drobo fail on me.
The performance of the Drobo 5D3 would allow it to be either a production drive (backed up to another drive) or the expandable backup system for my production workflow. Thanks to the speed of the Drobo, it’s more than capable to handle daily photographic tasks and, with the right drives, more than capable of handling most videography tasks as well.
The G-Technology G-SPEED Shuttle SSD is just mind-blowingly fast and in a league of its own. You’re unlikely to find an off-the-shelf video system that’s on par with this and certainly not in a transportable enclosure. For video editors looking for the best in performance, this drive is it.