Computing thoughts from washed-up photographers

Computers are a necessary evil for photographers. We are lucky insomuch that most of our pictures exist on film which we nonchalantly chuck into a cupboard and promptly forget about. It works pretty well: we've never lost anything (not that we'd care overmuch if we did).

Digital photographers have it hard, by comparison. There's this constant, unspeakable dread that if one doesn't backup to five different drives in 3 geographically ocean-separated regions ten times a day, a time will come when one wakes up to find it all gone. It's no wonder digital photographers are an uptight lot. Poor, miserable people. Such stress on the psyche.

Unfortunately, we have to use computers as well. Our work forces us to and the photography makes it a must, even for film users. Digital creep occurs in the sense that digital cameras and digital images are now so pervasive even we are not immune. 

Old setup. And yes, we did finally buy a real desk. No, the thing with wheels is not the computer.

Old setup. And yes, we did finally buy a real desk. No, the thing with wheels is not the computer.

We use Windows-based computers now after switching away from Apple computers in 2012. Why? Well, let's just say that Apple wasn't interested in building the kinds of computers that we wanted. It is just scornful and embarrassing, really. Just recently Michael Johnston on his blog 'upgraded' to a Mac Mini manufactured in 2013 as his best option. Wow. Better him than us. 

For serious work we never build, nor have some fly-by-night enthusiast build, any computer for us. This is not some Space Invaders gaming machine. We want a computer that never fails, never does 'weird stuff', is designed for 24/7/365 uptime, has cooling designed by BMW (for real) to keep that CPU under 50 degrees Celsius at maximum load, is easily upgradeable, comes with NVIDIA Quadro graphics and fast Xeon processors with error correction memory. If anything were to go wrong we want a 3-year standard next-day on-site technical support warranty. That means if something breaks, a technician comes to the house to fix it for free worldwide. Only a workstation from one of the three big makers comes with all of this. A premium desktop - as all workstations are - is very expensive, but one can expect to get almost a decade (or more) of use out of it due to the ability to upgrade every component at intervals. Workstations also offer dual CPU options which will just kill any gaming rig in multi-threaded operations like editing the wedding vids etc.

Some people prefer laptops. We prefer desktops: we have had our fill of lugging giant laptops around that act as desktop replacements. One can always remote into the desktop from a small laptop via a vpn etc. if one is away from home. 

Getting back to backups. We attended a recent lecture where the speaker encouraged the use of RAID as a backup strategy. Ahem. RAID is not, not by any means, a backup strategy that one should adopt as first line unless...(see below). The point of RAID is continued uptime in the event of a drive failure (RAID 1, 5, 10), speed (RAID 0, 10) and increasing virtual storage space by striping multiple drives to form a single large volume. In RAID, if one were to corrupt an original image or delete it, that action is immediately mirrored on the RAID slave drive. Adios backupos. Additionally, in many cases, a RAID is always on and connected to the computer. As a backup strategy, Donald Trump would call this out as, "Bad, very bad". Why? In this day of 'ransomware' where a nefarious entity locks one's computer and data until a ransom is paid, having all one's backups connected ensures one's doom. Simple, offline backups will foil any 'ransomware': just wipe all connected drives and reinstall from the safe, offline backups. 

Where RAID starts to become necessary is for folks who have massive data storage needs that exceed typical hard drive capacities. As typical drives can be found in 8TB versions commonly a RAID will be necessary for above that in storage space. To those we say, "Stop being a digital pack-rat hoarder-person and delete some data!!" Okay, little joke. The good news is that a RAID will work here, but just like using single drives for back up, the RAID must be backed up as well. That is, one must have at least two RAID backups and one of those, or another, should be kept offsite in case the house blows up. Things are starting to look pretty expensive now aren't they? We say, "Switch to film!!" The way of the cheapskate.

One should endeavour to keep the backup strategy simple. Have two rotating local backup drives and one offsite backup. Done. We use Crashplan for both local backup and cloud backup. As soon as the local backup completes we disconnect the drive. We don't think about it: the software does that for us. It is also good practise to keep one's data on a different drive from the OS drive. This helps if the OS were to go belly-up: reinstalling the OS drive will not affect data.