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A Beginner's Guide to Advanced Storage

By Wesley Fenlon, Wirecutter

The Wirecutter's Wesley Fenlon helps us demystify the many different advanced storage options available today.

The Wirecutter is a leaderboard of the best technology and gear. Each choice is selected by hand after dozens of hours of reporting, researching, and testing.

If you need fast storage and lots of it for work or otherwise, there's still no substitute for a professional-grade RAID setup or networked storage. The Synology DS1512+ NAS and LaCie 5big Thunderbolt external RAID bay are the best combination of accessibility, price and performance. They're our favorite starter advanced storage options, because we are only offering an intro to this rabbit hole.

Do I need advanced storage?

Now, if you're like most people, and simply need to back up a few hundred gigs of family photos and documents to a cheap external hard drive, you don't need to mess with this category, which we're calling advanced storage. Today's USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt external drives offer great transfer speeds compared to the USB 2.0 drives of yesteryear. Go check out the Seagate Backup Plus, our favorite external drive, and call it a day.

But some of us need 10 terabytes instead of 2 or 3, or the ability to edit HD video from an external drive, or safer redundant backups than the average external drive can offer. This is where we enter into the world of premium storage, and this piece is meant to serve as a primer on what premium storage is good for and why the prices are worth paying (you're likely spending at least $1000 here).

What is RAID?

Most premium storage revoles around RAID, or redundant array of independent disks. Basically, it takes several individual hard drives and links them in such a way that they function as a single drive, adding speed and/or redundant copies of data for safety, but also adding cost and complexity. The three main types of RAID setup are RAID 0, RAID 1, and RAID5. RAID 0 works by concurrently writing a fraction of the file over multiple disks. This means faster read/write times, but with the caveat that if one drive fails, the whole array gets corrupted. This type of setup is better for non-critical data. RAID 1 just mirrors the same data on redundant disks so if one fails, you still have the other to back it up. You lose a lot of potential storage space in the process, and there is no speed gain, but it does give you a bit more peace of mind for important files. Think of it as a built-in, live-updating backup drive. RAID 5 is like RAID 0, but it requires at least 3 drives, and if one fails, the rest do not. That's because the data is recorded in a way such that if one drive fails, there is still information left on the remaining drives that can be used to recover the lost data. While RAID 5 is capable of running with a failed drive, it can only do so at a slowed rate. RAID 5 setups also require specialized hardware and are very expensive, even for professionals to justify.

If you're ready for a major storage expansion, these are some serious options.

How we did our research

After more than 20 hours of research and hours more talking to several experts, I came up with the Synology DS1512+ NAS (or Network Attached Storage), which is basically a RAID box that plugs into your home/business ethernet network. That means you can work as a web or media server as well. Our other pick is the faster, directly connected LaCie 5big Thunderbolt external RAID bay, which loses the ability to connect directly into a network, but delivers seriously fast speeds over Thunderbolt connections on Macs. And there's one more option I've thrown in: a simple alternative that counters the cost and complexity of both, which is a basic USB 3.0 drive bay, which is kind of like an Nintendo 64 that reads hard drives instead of game cartridges.

While researching all kinds of high-performance storage products, I found that there are a lot of options that are outdated, a lot that suck (as always), and a few that could be good or bad depending on your needs. No single product will be right for everybody, so I talked to photographers, hardware experts and video editors about the advantages and disadvantages of different types of premium storage. My time went into digging through the most popular products on Amazon, reading dozens of blogs and articles from amateurs and professionals benchmarking hardware and making recommendations to other hardcore users, and doing a ton of background research on what technology is actually useful to most people.

The experts I talked to helped with that part the most and made me realize that a lot of premium storage gets real complicated and is more appropriate for small businesses with IT guys than people who just need good, fast and simple. For example, there's 10 gigabit Ethernet, which is ten times faster than the Ethernet networks most of us are used to. But you're going to need some very specialized hardware to use it, and for 99% of people, it's just not worth the money or the hassle.

Professional photographer Eric Cheng, who naturally takes a lot of photos (and also works at Lytro) really helped me frame my research for this piece and keep it practical. "One thing that's really important is that drives are huge these days," he told me. "I have a Mac Pro at work, it's got six bays in it, and I don't have that much data. Certainly less than 6 TB. I have four 3 TB drives in it configured as two stripes. One backs up to the other. I use Crashplan. It's versioned, it's all internal. I know I have versioned backup right in my machine, I don't have to think about it."

Sometimes the best solution is the easiest one: Just put a bunch of hard drives in your desktop computer and don't fuss with anything else; back up the data to the cloud and rest easy knowing you've got both speed and security. But maybe you have a laptop, or your tower's full, or you have some other reason to want to go external. Time to look at our options.

Network-attached storage: Synology DS1512+ ($800, plus drives)

Synology's DS1512+ is the five-bay grown up version of our favorite small NAS drive, and Synology's known for having the best management operating system around.

The DS1512+ is a NAS (Networked Attached Storage) box. In plain speak, it's a Networked Storage box that can hold up to five hard drives–although it doesn't come with any of them, so that $800 is JUST for the box. Again, the "network" in network-attached storage means it connects to your computer via Ethernet cable rather than directly plugging into a USB port (which it can't). As such, you'll want to have a wired network in your home already before you invest in a NAS. Network-attached storage excels at holding tons of data and making that data available to every device in your house, but it's not as fast as a directly attached hard drive (way more on strengths and weaknesses in just a sec).

The DS1512+, like many NAS boxes, can run some programs and act as a server. The Synology Diskstation's brains are a circuit board with a dual-core 2.13GHz processor, a gig of RAM, and its own operating system called DSM (DiskStation Manager). DSM is a very user-friendly interface with big icons and windows for managing files and running applications. And it can run a lot of applications, like a WordPress website or a Bittorrent client or a home theater video server.

For $800, the Synology doesn't come with any pre-installed hard drives–just the enclosure to put them in (and that built-in processor and RAM).

You should buy a NAS box if: You want to set up multiple drives in RAID for mass storage and redundancy, want to share files between multiple computers, or want to take advantage of other network connected features.

NAS Pros

  • Files can easily be shared among multiple machines on a network
  • More power efficient than using an old computer as a media server
  • Disks can be set up in a number of RAID configurations to prioritize speed or redundancy
  • With link aggregation (using two gigabit Ethernet ports) write speeds hover around 200 MB/s. Write speeds for large files is about 100 MB/s over one Ethernet cable (easily fast enough to stream uncompressed 1080p video).
  • Read speeds and gigabit Ethernet are easily fast enough to stream 1080p video over a home network, and Synology's software includes a home theater media server app.
  • Software offers lots of features and power user options.

NAS Cons

  • Expensive; this enclosure costs $800 and doesn't include any hard drives.
  • 200MB/s over the network is much slower than what a directly attached drive set up can achieve.
  • You need a wired gigabit Ethernet network in your home to use effectively.
  • Can't attach directly to a computer and access the files like a standard USB/Thunderbolt external drive.
  • Only offers file-level access to data, as explained by Eric: "Directly-connected storage features block level access to data. NAS boxes are file level access, which is slower for random reads across files, or in the same file. NAS boxes are great for big files, but terrible for small files." This is why it can take days to move many thousands of small files to a NAS.
  • If the enclosure dies, it may be difficult to move the hard drives to another storage configuration and access the data. File systems make migration complicated.

Can a NAS handle serious video editing?

Apple's website carries this warning for Final Cut Pro users: "Even in cases where the data rate of the Ethernet standard exceeds the data rate required by the video format you are using, dropped frames can occur. This can happen because Final Cut Pro will often need to access more than one stream of audio/video media at a time. Additionally, the available bandwidth on an Ethernet network must accommodate the overhead required by networking protocols, as well as any traffic on the network generated by other users or by automated processes. In most professional workflows, Ethernet will not provide sufficiently high sustainable bandwidth for the smooth transfer of video and audio data needed by Final Cut Pro."

But don't rule it out completely. Yeah, the NAS is better for mass storage, but you can consider the option of copying video files from the NAS to your hard drive while editing, then moving the finalized projects back to the NAS for long-term storage. And as Eric Cheng told me, the speed of your scratch disk matters the most. With Ethernet link aggregation, editing small projects with network files may work. And for Eric's photography needs, network-attached storage works just fine:

"What you need [for video] is a fast scratch drive. You definitely need a direct-attached disk or an SSD for your temporary files and all the scratch stuff that gets generated by your video editing programs…With something like [Photoshop] Lightroom, Lightroom is so slow you can't tell where the data is anyway. If you have it on a NAS box, it just doesn't matter. SSD and NAS for Lightroom are the same, for the raw data [but] not for the library. It's ridiculous."

In other words: indexing all the slow files for the library is slower when that data is all on a NAS, but for actually manipulating the data it's the photo software, not the network-attached storage, that proves to a hindrance.

But if a NAS is what you need, the DS1512+ is a great one

The DS1512+ can hold five hard drives for of up to 20 terabytes of storage, and Synology has its own RAID solution called Hybrid Raid for optimizing how it uses space on all of your disks (Synology also offers customizable RAID settings, if you're into that). 20 terabytes is a lot of data, even if half of that space is going to redundancy. But Eric told me why the five bay is worth the money:

"The difference between the four and the five bay, I think is quite large. If I went to four drives, I'd want two disk redundancy, and that doesn't leave much room to grow. I'd always want to be able to put that third drive in, which is huge. It's 50% more storage given the same number of redundant drives. It's also expandable…It seems like for the price difference, you get quite a bit."

A comparison of the Synology DS1512+ and the four bay DS413 shows some major differences. The DS1512+'s processor is twice as fast, its gig of RAM can be expanded up to 3GB, it has two Ethernet ports that can be used together for faster transfers, and it can be expanded with more drives in a secondary enclosure if you ever need more than 20TB.

Eric has some extremely strong praise for Synology in general, too: "Everyone else I know who's in this space (meaning professional photographers and guys who have amassed big, big collections of data over the years) has started using them. I totally endorse it. The endorsement really is that everyone I know who gets one is selling it to all their friends."

My own research reflects the same thing: People love Synology's hardware and software. TechSpot, a venerable authority on all things IT, scored the DS1512+ a 90/100 and especially praised the software: "The difference between DSM 3.2 and DSM 4.0 is massive — in both design and functionality. We commend Synology for creating such impressive management software, which remains unmatched among rivals in our opinion."

I also talked to Tim Higgins, who tests tons of network-attached storage forSmallNetBuilder. He says that both Synology and QNAP make great hardware–you can't really go wrong with either–but the universal praise for DiskStation Manager makes Synology an easy recommendation, and the equivalent QNAP TS-569 Pro costs $100 more.

A cheaper model that isn't as fast or capable, but still solid

Our budget pick for a NAS, the Synology DS213, is $300 and holds two drives, configured in a RAID 0 or 1 or non-RAID set up. It's rated for about 100MB/s across a single ethernet port, and isn't nearly as capable as the DS1512+, but it is a good starting point for a basic but still competent NAS.

Direct-attached storage: LaCie 5big with Thunderbolt ($1100) (Mac only)

The Lacie 5big combines Thunderbolt and RAID 0 hard drives for extremely fast, voluminous storage.

For direct-attached storage, I wanted to recommend something with a Thunderbolt port because it's the fastest, easiest connector available now. The Thunderbolt market is still growing, and the connector is only now beginning to show up in PCs. But it's the best we've got right now, which is why I think the Lacie 5Big with Thunderbolt is the DAS to get–this is a box purely built for speed, and in my experience, the vast majority of photo, video and graphics arts professionals work on Macs.

For $1100, the LaCie 5Big with Thunderbolt comes with 10TB of storage in five drive bays (there's an upgrade option for 20TB), and with all of those drives operating in RAID 0, it manages write speeds of over 700 MB/s. That's really fast. For comparison's sake, our favorite external drive writes at about 150 MB/s over Thunderbolt and around 90 MB/s over USB 3.

Speed is not the strong suit of NAS, and the way network storage treats files is fundamentally different than having them on an internal hard drive. But direct-attached storage works more or less like an internal drive–it's just connected through USB/eSATA/Thunderbolt. For mass storage without the complexity of something like the Synology, direct-attached RAID storage is the answer.

You should buy a DAS box if: You want a lot of external storage that's as fast as possible, don't care about the features of the Synology DS1512+.

DAS RAID Pros

  • RAID 0 is the simplest way to get both speed and volume. Blocks of data are "striped," splitting blocks of files across multiple drives, so a file can be read faster than one hard drive could manage on its own.
  • RAID 0 has no management overhead and gets faster as multiple drives are used.
  • Thunderbolt isn't available to everyone, but is still far more convenient than enterprise-level solutions like mini-SAS.
  • RAID 1 gives up speed but offers a solution for protecting large amounts of data from drive failure. Blocks aren't striped, but are mirrored from one drive to another. Keep in mind RAID 1 does not excuse you from a true back up system which will protect you from user error (deleting a file on accident will nuke both copies instantly on a RAID 1 setup) or from fire, theft, etc if something happens to the whole box.

DAS RAID Cons

  • A single SSD will be about as fast as a RAID 0 array and much cheaper (but also hold much less data).
  • It's costly and complicated to get multiple RAID options, like RAID 5, which stripes blocks and has parity across drives. Requires specialized hardware.
  • A dead drive in RAID 0 means total data loss, since RAID 0 offers no redundancy.
  • RAID 1 and 5 offer redundancy, but no real speed advantages.
  • RAID 0's speed advantage comes from multiple drives working together. More drives the better, but also more expensive.
  • RAID 5 requires all disks to be the same size, or space on larger disks is wasted

Can RAID direct-attached storage handle serious video editing?

Yes.

The items above are really just general pros and cons, because each type of RAID is different. The LaCie 5big doesn't offer the full flexibility to choose between all those different RAID options, which I think is okay–it's focused on performance and simplicity. In RAID 0, Storage Review found that it wrote files at about 720 MB/s and read them at 640 MB/s, fast enough for Final Cut Pro users who normally rely on internal storage. And with RAID 0, you avoid one of the big annoyances of RAID 5 Eric warned me about:

"[RAID 5] requires the same size drives. And if you don't [use same size drives], you only get the smallest drive's worth from every drive. Which is pretty awful, and you can't grow them, either."

Important note, though: with RAID 0 you also risk losing all of your data if one of the drives goes belly up. RAID 0 is the best way to get a speedy setup, but you'll likely want another solution, like Crashplan, for backup. The 5big also offers the option of putting two of the five drives in RAID 1, which would cut down on speed and total storage but give you a whole disk dedicated to redundant data.

I talked to veteran tech journalist and senior editor at PC World, Loyd Caseabout NAS and RAID options, and he made a couple good points. "For casual editing (i.e., if you're just doing family videos or Youtube stuff), the [512GB SSD] setup I have works well…If I were doing something more involved, I'd start with a local RAID setup, running off a motherboard controller. That's not optimal for doing pro-level, 4K editing, but I had a RAID 0 array running when I did some Blu-ray discs for a couple of high school teams."

Loyd also said Thunderbolt was starting to look interesting, since it's finally becoming viable for PC users. But I think his first point, about using an SSD, is worth taking to heart: if you have a desktop computer and can add storage to the tower itself, it's going to be much cheaper and easier than buying a big RAID box.

If you want no-nonsense storage en masse, the LaCie 5big with Thunderbolt delivers

With the 5big's Thunderbolt connection, you bypass the complications of more complex RAID setups, though you do give up some flexibility. CNET's Dong Ngo, who's reviewed more storage setups than just about anyone in the game, gave the 5big 4 out of 5 stars, and his review sums up the strengths and weaknesses of the device really well.

"The 5big Thunderbolt…is the first five-bay storage device on the market that doesn't support RAID 5. And the reason is cost. To support RAID 5, the storage device itself has to be a hardware RAID device, which is generally expensive to build. The RAID 5-capable six-bay Pegasus R6, for example, costs some $2,200 for just 12TB, while at the same price, the new 5big Thunderbolt offers 20TB. That said, the 5big Thunderbolt…relies on the operating system for RAID support. This is called software RAID, and in the case of Mac OS, only RAID 1 and RAID 0 are available. Technically, the 5big Thunderbolt should also work with Thunderbolt-enabled Windows computers, but for now LaCie provides no software drivers or support for any platforms other than Mac OS."

I got in touch with LaCie to ask if they do plan on supporting Thunderbolt-capable Windows machines. They responded with "LaCie is working closely with Intel to ensure its entire Thunderbolt Series is certified for use with PCs." If you're one of the rare PC owners with a Thunderbolt port, compatibility is probably in your future, but there's no telling when it will happen.

Ngo also wrote that "though it lacks RAID 5, the speedy 5big Thunderbolt is still worth the hefty investment, and is a better buy than competing devices." In CNET's demanding mixed file copy test, the RAID 0 5big actually outperformed an OCZ Vertex SSD and was came in second only to the Promise Pegasus 6 in transfer speeds. When used as a standard external drive, the 5big topped the charts with 213 MB/s writes (moving a mixture of lots and big and small files around).

As mentioned above, StorageReview's pure disk speed test saw write speeds of over 700 MB/s. Remember that's in RAID 0; if two of the drives are set to redundant RAID 1 mode, they'll be slower–moving data at 150 MB/s or so.

The Competition

To pick a direct-attached RAID drive, I started by shopping around Amazon and Newegg looking for high performance, high volume storage. I was surprised by how few options there were that offered both of those things. A lot of drives were still using outdated USB 2 and Firewire connectors. Others, like the G-RAID with Thunderbolt and Western Digital VelociRaptor Duo, were new and fast, but only held one or two drives–not enough for mass storage. A lot of RAID enclosures, which don't come with drives included, are made by smaller brands and aren't reviewed by the pros. And while those enclosures can be affordable and reliable, they aren't built for speed like the Lacie 5big.

There were a couple similar devices I spent more time considering, however, after reading reviews and looking at what hardcore users on message boards often recommend. Ultimately, the Lacie 5big won out.

The Pegasus R6 is a strong competitor, but costs $1000 more than the 5big. It's essentially a 6-bay RAID box like the 5big with similar speeds, Thunderbolt, and the option to do RAID 5.The price difference just isn't worth that extra RAID option (epsecially given the limitations of RAID 5 mentioned above).

The smaller Pegasus R4 4-bay RAID box is basically the same as its bigger brother. But it was considerably slower than the 5big in CNET's review (they gave it 3.5 stars out of 5).

I spent a lot of time considering the Drobo 5D RAID, which is more affordable and built to be extremely user-friendly. It directly attaches over Thunderbolt or USB 3 and holds up to five drives. It's $850, though that doesn't include any hard drives. Drobo has one great thing going for it: their BeyondRAID feature, which offers flexible management of disks instead of rigid RAID settings. It's similar to Synology's Hybrid Raid. But this is a direct-attached box.

Sounds like the best of both worlds, but ultimately the hardware isn't built for the kinds of speed the LaCie is–speeds max out around 250 MB/s over Thunderbolt. Which is pretty fast for a lot of uses, but not approaching the speeds of a the 5big or Pegasus which can handle R/W of 700+ MB/s. Reviews of the device have been positive, but ultimately Drobo's support track record scared me off. Eric Cheng told me "that Drobo, by specs, looks awesome…[but] I think support is a big issue on Drobo. Their boxes are probably fine. I know people who have used them successfully for long periods of time. But I also know everyone I know who's had to deal with their support has jumped ship…If something goes wrong, you kind of get dropped."

Want a RAID box but don't have a Mac? Here are some PC alternatives.

Thunderbolt offers a real advantage when it comes to speed and simplicity. USB 3.0 is a whole lot better than USB 2, but it's still slower. Maximum PC compared the two and found some definite performance advantages in Thunderbolt benchmarks. Thunderbolt is slowly making its way to PCs, too, and LaCie's statement that it's "working closely with Intel to ensure its entire Thunderbolt Series is certified for use with PCs" is encouraging.

But for now, if you want a PC-compatible RAID box, you have a lot of options to consider.

The truth is, there are so many RAID options that it's tough to account for them all. Eric gave a positive mention of Sans Digital, which sells a wide range of RAID boxes. Their TR4UTBPN Tower RAID looks like a solid buy at $180 and is well-reviewed on Newegg–it supports USB 3 and eSATA, can hold four drives, and offers hardware RAID with a lot of options. But the fastest speed you're going to get out of it is about 200 MB/s, decent for large volume file storage but not for any heavy duty work. At 200 MB/s speed, you're dealing with files about as quickly as you would with the Synology NAS.

At $180 for an empty enclosure, the Sans Digital is also far less expensive (and therefore less powerful) than the $800 Synology Ds1512+. If 200 MB/s speeds sound good to you, think hard about the advantages of a NAS and the features it offers. Remember, though, that direct-attached storage is much better at dealing with large quantities of small files, while the NAS has way more features on its side.

A moderator on the RED forums (home to pro video guys who shoot at 4k or even higher) recommended a cheap Sans Digital box alongside a hardware RAID controller for a PC. Buying a RAID controller can add hundreds more to the cost of your setup, and it also adds another degree of complication, but it improves performance by taking over processing your computer would normally do itself.

There are a lot of other unknown brands floating out there that the experts don't review. Plenty of these USB 3 and eSATA RAID boxes will give you access to a directly connected array of drives in the 200 – 300 MB/s range. If the LaCie 5big is simply too large an investment, consider shopping around for a RAID box like the SansDigital–just know that you'll need some enterprise-level hardware to hit those really high speeds without Thunderbolt.

Tom's Hardware can fill you in more on that, with pieces like this roundup of SAS RAID controllers. And if you're really serious, educate yourself on the differences between hardware and software RAID.

Hard Drive Dock: StarTech USB 3 Docking Station ($64)

If you have a ton of naked 3.5-inch hard drives sitting around, the Startech is a no-fuss way to deal with them.

This is as easy as storage gets: You connect the docking station to your computer, you plop a hard drive into it, and it treats it like any other hard drive. Consider this the alternative that shouts out "Wait! Do you really need to spend a thousand dollars on this stuff?"

The $65 StarTech docking station plugs into your computer via USB 3.0, and then you plug a raw hard drive into it, and you can access it just like it was plugged in inside your computer.

I asked Loyd about docks, and he wrote "I'd want to go with a 2-bay solution. It's a bit more flexible (e.g., for cloning drives)," so I did some hunting and picked the $64 StarTech USB 3 Docking Station. Since most of the single-bay drives cost about $40, another $20 or so for a dual-bay seems like a fair price, and it's a drop in the bucket compared to the premium options above.

To be clear, a dock like this isn't made for setting up two drives in RAID, or even using them for long periods of time while externally connected–you'd be better off putting the drives inside your tower, if it's a desktop–but they're great for expediently copying lots of data to drives for transit or storage.

I ruled out a ton of hard drive docks for using outdated USB 2.0 ports, and a ton more for being the more common single-bay rather than dual-bay models. The most popular brand, Thermaltake, has racked up tons of negative reviews on its new USB 3 models. On Newegg, one of their USB 3 docks averages only 2 stars out of 41 reviews. I'd stay away from those. Thermaltake's popular models, like the BlacX, are now too old to recommend–they were great in their day, but there's no reason to buy USB 2 now. It's too slow.

I found the StarTech by hunting for well-reviewed dual-bay docks on Amazon and Newegg, then comparing their user reviews. The StarTech won out over another dock, the Cavalry Retriever, for supporting 4TB hard drives. Customer reviews for both were overwhelming positive, though.

As a brand, StarTech has raked in positive customer reviews across the board. On Amazon, nearly all of their hard drive docks average between 4 and 5 stars. And their dual USB 3 dock hits all the right notes: it supports 4TB drives, is affordable at $64, and has a 4 star average on Amazon (though only from 28 reviews). While not many professionals review hard drive docks, LegitReviews tested out a similar model (it just adds in support for old IDE drives) and found that it posted R/W speeds over USB 3.0 of about 150 MB/s. They note that "the addition of an eSATA port would kick it up a notch and improve the transfer speeds," but other docks I've seen with both USB 3.0 and eSATA can only use one port for one HDD and one for the other (which is why I ruled out this Vantec model). Given the ubiquity of USB ports, I think it's the better way to go.

Remember, of course, that USB 3 and these docks are not fast enough to support live HD video editing from a docked drive. eSATA isn't either. But professional video editors I know work off internal storage and then use hard drive docks to backup their data to more 3.5-inch hard drives. And then those drives go on the shelf. If you're working with a lot of HD footage, the hard drives fill up fast, and being able to plug-and-play naked 3.5-inch drives beats out dealing with drives in external enclosures. Cheap. Easy.

The dock also supports 2.5-inch drives, which means you can slot an SSD into it. Eventually high-capacity SSDs will make technology like the LaCie 5big Thunderbolt irrelevant, but right now the drives are simply too expensive per gigabyte for mass storage, which is why I haven't recommended buying a boatload of them for the fastest storage around. When SSDs hit 1TB without costing an arm and a leg, they'll change everything.

A heads up on having fast internal storage: Samsung SSD 840 Pro ($500 for 512GB)

As Eric Cheng told me–quoted way back up in the NAS section–a fast scratch disk is the most important factor when it comes to photo and video editing. While only something as fast as the LaCie 5big is practical for live editing, you can always edit on local storage and then move the completed files over to a NAS or external drive. It's a cheaper, easier solution, and the best choice for the job is an SSD.

The Samsung SSD 840 Pro is the high-performance SSD to get, and a 512GB model costs $500 on Amazon. $1 per gigabyte or less is a fair price for SSDs, and 512GB should be enough space to work with plenty of HD footage without worrying about a full disk. We're working on a bigger piece explaining why, but you shouldn't get into advanced external storage without nailing your internal storage situation first.

Doing it yourself: Recycling an old computer into a home server.

When I asked SmallNetBuilder's Tim Higgins about network-attached storage, we talked about the advantages of building something yourself rather than paying for a NAS box with a processor and RAM and so on, because Synology is basically selling you a specialized computer.

"I think one of the things that people don't realize, or have forgotten, is that yeah it's perfectly viable to use an old laptop or an old computer," he said. "People think the only way you can share files is with a NAS. I've got an old nettop (remember netbooks-for-your-desk?) I use to share files.

The thing about Windows…is you can install anything on it. I run a Squeeze server cause I've got a bunch of Logitech boxes around. But if you want to run Plex, any number of media servers, the best thing you can do is have a little Windows machine…There's a lot to be said for an older machine, especially now, especially with some of the processors they have in laptops today and with USB 3. It's pretty decent. You could throw a decent amount of storage on a couple USB 3 ports on a recent laptop and have a good server…It doesn't take a lot to run a NAS. You can saturate a gigabit connection with a dual-core Atom [processor]. Even with the older Atoms you can get over 50 MB/s. Blu-ray uncompressed max is 40 megabits (5 megabytes) a second."

Our own Nathan Edwards recently wrote a guide to building a home serverand running it with FreeNAS, which is something you can do with just about any old computer you have lying around. No, it won't be fast enough to do live video editing from, but it could be an easy way to share media around the house without spending a dime.

Wrapping Up

If these options have inspired you to set up a whirring tower of data in your closet, packed to the gills with hard drives, this is really just the tip of the iceberg. There are enterprise-level options like mini-SAS, which is basically eSATA on overdrive, and 10 gigabit Ethernet, which would require new networking in your house. You can buy a hardware RAID card for your computer for hundreds of dollars and hook it up with something like SCSI. But the truth is, new connectors like Thunderbolt are making those old stanbys outdated. They're just as fast, if not faster, and they're simple.

In a few years, we may be able to do away with RAID altogether thanks to larger solid state drives. But for now, a NAS gives you flexibility, and a Thunderbolt-based RAID box gives you speed. These are the best ways to get into premium storage without a thousand hours of tinkering time or an IT degree.

This story originally appeared in The Wirecutter, published 2/28/2013 and reprinted with permission. You should visit their site for the very best iPhone 5 case and the best iPad case.