Many video-editing teams are used to shuttling data around on hard drives or sleds, carrying the components of a project from department to department. This is simply a higher-capacity version of the “sneaker nets” used since desktop publishing arrived in the 1980s. The computing promise of sharing and accessing vast quantities of data across a network has always required a joint effort between IT professionals and the creative team, and at least usually involved management of a dedicated file server to handle distribution of assets.
Not every team has the luxury of an IT department backing them up, and that’s why the network attached storage (NAS) market has heated up. A NAS is essentially a hard drive (or more typically an array of hard drives) that includes a built-in file-sharing service. NAS manufacturers took the computer-based file server and shrunk it down enough to stick it inside a typical RAID or rack-mounted enclosure, giving teams the best of both worlds. Photographers are embracing NAS systems, too.
NAS devices range from basic units offering a few terabytes of storage and simple Ethernet connections to rack-mounted, expandable, enterprise-oriented functionality that can handle a full-blown real-time 4K workflow.
NAS systems often include wizard-based or no-configuration setups, can be accessed by apps or web browser interfaces, and can, in many cases, be configured to share files with the cloud or with remote users. High-end NAS systems provide multiple interfaces, so team members needing the fastest throughput can connect with standards like Thunderbolt 2, Thunderbolt 3 and 10-gigabit Ethernet, while users with more modest needs can connect over standard Gigabit Ethernet. Most NAS systems provide multiple interfaces, allowing users with high-bandwidth needs to connect directly with a high-speed cable like Thunderbolt 2 or USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, while other users can use the drive simultaneously.
Even simple NAS tools often provide more advanced controls for the experienced network administrator, much the same way that home routers can be used right out of the box or tweaked for different networking conditions by digging through menus of settings. A feature of many NAS systems is the ability to expand the capacity of the system by plugging additional drives into the NAS.
Connections And Speeds
There are two speed concerns when looking at a NAS: the speed at which the drives can read or write information and the speed at which users can connect to it.
Drive read/write speeds are a function of both the individual drives in a system and the way those drives are configured to work together. A unit with a single drive will only be able to transfer data at the speed of that individual drive, naturally, but a RAID system, which combines drives together for speed or for redundant backup, can, depending on configuration, operate much more quickly by spreading data across multiple drives. Since each internal drive only needs to read or write a part of the data, and since they all can operate at the same time, the overall throughput increases as the number of drives increases.
Conventional hard drives operate at around 100 megabits per second (Mbps) to around 300 Mbps, and SSD drives are in the 200 Mbps to 700 Mbps range. NAS systems that are comprised of RAID drives, especially those based on SSD drives, can easily exceed 2000 Mbps, which is 2 Gigabits per second (Gbps).
Gigabit Ethernet, which is the network connection often found on lower-end NAS systems, tops out at 1 Gbps—no problem when working with drives that are only moving data below that speed. High-end systems, though, that need to be able to keep up with the data transfer requirements of things like 4K video and ProRes files need a faster connection. Ten GbE (Ethernet operating at 10 Gbps) is becoming common on higher-end NAS solutions, and some of the rack-mounted products, like the massive 24-bay SSD-based Synology FS2017, can use an optional 25 GbE or 40 GbE card.
Thunderbolt is a popular connection standard in many high-end NAS systems, with the original Thunderbolt clocking in at 10 Gbps, Thunderbolt 2 at 20 Gbps and Thunderbolt 3 at 80 Gbps. USB 3.1/USB-C (10 Gbps) connectors are often found on NAS systems, as are several other less common cable standards. While Thunderbolt was designed as a direct-connection cable, it’s possible to use it instead as a networking cable, operating at 20 Gbps for Thunderbolt 2 and 80 Gbps for Thunderbolt 3 systems. This requires some careful planning, though, as only the MacBook Pro 2016 model, as of this writing, has more than one Thunderbolt 3 port.
This connectivity speed is important for more than just transferring video files to a workstation or editing directly off the NAS; it’s also key for use as a networked device. With multiple users connecting to a NAS, the faster the connection, the faster data can be shuttled between users. Ten users moving data at 100 Mbps is the equivalent of one user moving 1 Gbps, so workgroups should consider their total network demand when selecting a NAS.
Personal Clouds, The Cloud And Backups
Some manufacturers are using a term called “personal cloud” to refer to their NAS systems. This is a bit confusing, since the whole concept of the “cloud” is a data storage solution that’s infinitely scalable and doesn’t require management of the user. Upload your files to the cloud, and someone else deals with the headaches of data management and backup.
Clearly, since these drives are connected locally to a computer, they’re not really cloud devices. There are a few aspects of cloud computing’s benefits that you can get from these drives—the ability to back up remotely and extend the capacity by adding new drives, and the ability to access your files remotely—which are cloud-like, but this term is still confusing. A personal cloud lacks the scalability and data redundancy of the bigger cloud services, but retains the platform-agnostic access and always-connected data sharing.
For example, the small business-oriented WD My Cloud and My Cloud Mirror both provide traditional NAS services, as do the Seagate Personal Cloud drives, allowing for access or backup across a network, and the content stored on them is accessible anywhere via the My Cloud app. The Seagate device has built-in media serving, allowing it to stream movies, music or images to selected TVs and players. The drives can even back up photos and videos from mobile devices running the apps to the drives over Internet connectivity.
The ability of a NAS system to automatically back itself up to either directly connected local drives or to a data storage facility is a great one and a good feature to look for in any NAS. With multiple users adding content to a storage solution, the need to archive and maintain that data grows.
As mentioned earlier, some systems are expandable by simply plugging in an external hard drive, while some, especially the higher-end models, require additional expansion modules or additional NAS units of the same model as the original NAS.
With many cloud services, it’s possible to move to faster servers when the need arises. Even with a computer-based file server, it’s possible to get better network-sharing performance by purchasing a faster computer to run it, but that’s not the case with NAS units. The model you have is the model you have, and while you can improve performance somewhat by using faster drives, the speed with which the NAS operates is baked in. That means it’s a good idea to be sure of the specs and performance before you make a purchase.
Thanks to the use of NAS solutions in video editing, you can often determine their performance by seeing what level of editing the manufacturer claims they can handle without needing to know anything about transfer time or networking speeds. If the drive literature says it can handle multiple streams of ProRes 4444 video, it’s a faster model than one that says its users can do ProRes 422 editing, for example.
The QNAP Thunderbolt 2 and Thunderbolt 3 NAS devices are designed for high-end media production and allow for collaborative media editing on either Mac or Windows platforms. The Thunderbolt 3 models can even act as bridges between Thunderbolt and 10 Gig Ethernet, since Macs don’t currently ship with 10 GigE connectors.
Synology makes a number of NAS solutions (we’ve just reviewed the desktop-centric DS916+), including the high-volume FlashStation FS2017, a 24-bay SSD-based NAS RAID for the most demanding video production. The device has four Gigabit Ethernet ports, two 10 Gig Ethernet ports, expansion ports for 10 GbE, 25 GbE or 40 GbE ports, and USB connectors, allowing multiple users to connect at once, with built-in file backup, self-healing and support for up to 72 drives.
No matter your NAS needs, it’s a good idea to be sure that any selected NAS can keep up with your video editing requirements, plus some headroom. With cameras capturing in resolutions above 4K, it’s clear that the need for storage is only going to get more pronounced—maybe sooner than you think.