Hard drives the single most important piece of tech we use as digital media professionals. When you think about it, every bit of work you do is saved to these mechanical/magnetic devices spinning at thousands of RPMs. You may spend hours, days, weeks or even months on a project – and all the time you’re trusting that the drives do not fail you. If you really let your mind dwell on it you may actually start to lose sleep!
Having regular backups is important enough (that’s for another day, another post) but how about starting with a quality drive system? I’ve seen too many people buy drives for their edit systems based on price and price alone, only to be burned and burned bad. It’s like shopping around for a heart surgeon and going with the cheapest guy.
I was told a story about an editor that was working on a big show for the Discovery channel for over 3 months, and 5 days before he was to master the show his drive system went down and all was lost. Every bit. There was no way to recover 3 months of work in time to make the broadcast date so they not only lost the job and all future work from Discovery, but 3 months of revenue that they had already worked for. Just pause and think about that. That’s the kind of thing that some companies can never recover from.
At Edit Creations we have a job that we do every year that lasts from January through the end of June (2 rooms, 5 days a week), creating multiple videos and various programs that all play at a show in July. Whenever we start to come down that home stretch I remember that story and start to get a bit nervous. I’m always making sure that our backups are in good shape.
This post is all about making sure the drives you buy are worthy of the work that you’re doing. Or more importanly, that you avoid the drives that are not.
Before I start, let me break it down a bit more. There are hard drive manufactures that create the raw hard drives (like Hatachi, Seagate and Maxtor to name a few) and then there are the companies that take those hard drives and create products that incorporate them. I will be discussing is the second group.
I have always been somebody that gravitates to people and companies that take pride in what they do. Having a passion for whatever you do means that you’ll turn out something better then the guy who looks at something as “just a job” or “just a way to make a buck”. There are companies like Apple and Jet Blue that provide quality products and service, because they take pride in what they do and what they put out there. They may not always be perfect or make the right decisions, but they do their best to right their wrongs. It’s evident from the moment you pick up a MBP and feel it in your hands. It’s a beautiful piece of hardware, and you can’t deny that, even if you are a lover of the PC. The same with Jet Blue. Take a flight with them and it’s very clear that they’re all about making your experience with them second to none.
The two companies I’m going to outline here do not fit this model in my opinion, and I have plenty of personal experience to back it up in both cases.
Offender #1 – Lacie
Products – Any of the “Quadra” drives
Back in 2003-2004 I invested in some of the then popular Lacie drives (they were just called Lacie drives, no quadra model name back then). The drives seemed nice on the surface. They came in multiple capacities, they were FW400, and later 800, the enclosures were a nice solid metal and if you were to hold one in your hand it felt nice and solid.
I started buying them when I noticed other editors were using them, and even started to see them during product demos and I figured if they were using them they must be good. I started to recommend them to my clients as well. I should have done my research though.
Over the next 2 years I purchased more and more drives, and eventually ended up with around 12 of them of varying sizes. Some with single drives, some with dual and one with 4 drives in a single case.
Over the next few years I started having a few issues. First, some of the dual drive systems would literally unmount themselves while editing. Our usual setup was to have one of them for the video drive and one for the project files (we were only doing DV25/DV50 at the time), and while you were editing one would just drop off from time to time. All of the media would suddenly go “off line” and we usually had to reboot to get it all working again.
The drives had their own dedicated FW800 card so they were not on the internal bus system, and thus there was no other overhead, just 2 drives hooked into a 3-port FW800 card.
Then we noticed that when doing long copies from one drive to the next (cloning a drive) we would be hard pressed to get it to finish. The drive would at some point stop copying the data, and the blue light on the front would just flash on and off while emitted a steady and slow tapping sound.
The final clincher was when the drives would just fail. The internal HD’s just started to crap out and we actually lost data (however we did have backups of everything). A quick search on google turned out tons of people having the same issue. The general consensus was that the drives were overheating. The drives are very tightly packed into an enclosure that has no fans and no air flow, thus no real way to drop the temperature aside from it transferring the heat through the metal case. Apparently, that wasn’t enough.
At the Chicago Final Cut Pro User Group I started talking to people and found out other editors had had the same problem. In one case a drive was only 6 weeks old when it died, and the editor lost all of the captured footage. I also had one client call me in a panic because I had previously recommended that he buy Lacie for his backup drive, but his drive was dead (in his case the power supply blew so we were able to save the data by taking the enclosure apart and putting the drive in a new case).
I happened to be going to NAB that year (2006) so I went right up to the Lacie booth and told them some of my stories, told them how it was all over the web and asked what they were doing to address it. Mind you, I did this in a very professional manner, since at that point I still assumed it was a problem they were working on. His reply was that “As far as we know there is no problem, so there are no plans to make any changes”. There was no interest in getting additional information from me or looking into the issue any further.
So there they were at NAB, selling drives to media professionals who make their living on keeping their data safe, pushing a product with a higher then normal failure rate.
At that point I made the decision to get all of our drives replaced regardless of cost. When I got back from NAB we listed all of our LaCie drives on eBay (the working ones anyway) and bought brand new G-Raid drives to replace them – but only after doing several weeks of research. That was probably one of the smartest business decisions I made that year. Suddenly we didn’t have any of the issues we had before, the drives generally ran faster and there were no more heat issues. Zero problems, even now. We have since moved up from the G-Raid drives to getting 2 G-SpeedXL Fibre Raids, and those too work flawlessly. The older G-Raid drives are used for travel jobs and a few are on our internal backup server running 24/7.
The difference in my opinion is that the people at G-Technology (now owned by Hatachi) only put out the best products they can. They test their drives rigorously and guarantee the number of streams you can get in real time while editing.
I remember before I decided to go with them I called their office and asked to speak to an engineer (not a sales guy). I explained my situation, told him the other vendors I was considering and asked him why I should choose their drives over the others. Their drives were more expensive then the other ones I was looking at.
He explained to me that they are constantly testing the different hard drives that they put into the units because not all drives are equal, and that from their testing the only drives that consistently lived up to their performance benchmarks were Hatachi drives (at that time there were not part of Hitachi so they could use any drives at all). He said that while they were more expensive drives, they wanted to be sure what they sent out reached the standards they had set, and that other vendors could just take whatever drives they could get the best deal on that month and toss them in.
He also mentioned how they were big on keeping the drives cool so that they would last. For me he pushed all of the right buttons, and I bought 2 drives right over the phone for testing, and later purchased several more.
One more note about Lacie. Not that long ago I ran into a past employee of Lacie. As soon as I realized he used to work there I asked him about the heat/drive failure issue. He admitted that they were aware of it, and that internally there were people who wanted to address the problem, but that it was ultimately ignored by the higher ups. He said that one of the reasons he ultimately left had to do with quality issues that he felt were not getting addressed.
To be fair, Lacie does make other drives and some are probably very good. I have one of their rugged mini drives and I do like it. It’s well made and is priced right. I don’t use the drive for mission critical tasks so I felt OK giving it a try. But in general, a company that does not respond to their customers complaints is not a company I want to do business with.
Offender #2 – Granite Digital
Products – Swappable Drive Bays
As I’ve mentioned in some previous posts about archiving, up until the last year or so we’ve used a system of hard drives as our long term archive. We used a removable drive system and trays that allowed us to buy off the shelf IDE (now SATA) drives and backup entire projects with ease. We would then keep a catalog of every drive (using a great program called CD Finder. Don’t let the name fool you it does a lot more then CD’s. We still use it to keep track of our LTO tapes.) so that pulling things up later would be quick and easy. It was cost effective, efficient, and at least for a time it worked out great. Until we started to pull things off the drives.
We had purchased 3 FireVue drives from a company called Granite Digital and the products were a bit disappointing right from the beginning. Again, I didn’t do the research that I should have.
To make a very long story short, what we realized as time went on was that the drives had some sort of error transferring data and would, on occasion, prevent files from properly backing up or in some cases they were backed up fine but would not restore. Files would be too corrupt to open at all, or in the case of QT files there would be both audio in video “digital hits” that made the movies useless. We started using ChrnoSync to try to retrieve files from the drives without any errors using the “verify” option, but what we ended up with was a list of errors, which confirmed the problem. If we repeatedly tried to get the files we could get some of them successfully, but there were some that just wouldn’t transfer and were lost.
To their credit tech support was very helpful, at least to the point of telling us all of the things on our end it might be. From OS problems, cables, software and on and on. We have 3 different units on 3 different machines and they all had the same exact issue, but somehow they were able to say with absolute confidence, that the problem could not be their drives. This is a quote from one of my exchanges from tech support.
“I can appreciate your concerns but would have to totally disagree as to the reliability of our hardware. That’s not to say you don’t have a bad component that could create problems but rather to say our stuff works as good if not better than most.”
Well, I disagreed then and still do.
Companies that take a defensive attitude when confronted with potential problems are doomed to fail. Nobody is perfect and no company is perfect. Most people know and accept this, but then it all comes down to how the company responds to mistakes. In this case every solution offered had to do with my system being flawed, which in the end it was not.
Their tech support finally wore me down and I stopped asking for their help. I sometimes wonder if that’s part of the plan.
We are currently in the progress of migrating all of our drives to LTO tapes using the Series-A Backup Drive from Cache~A. The only way we can even get some of that data off the old hard drives is to remove the drives from the trays and create a direct connection with a IDE to USB adaptor. Then it all comes off smoothly.
On top of this issue, one of their rack mountable units was $600 and when I received it it was made of very cheap bendable metal (it felt like it was cut out of a single piece of tin and bent into a case using pliers), it didn’t fit right in the rack, no cables were included and on the back was a single FW port, meaning you couldn’t even loop anything else off of it. Except for the smallest portable devices where space is an issue this is unacceptable in my book.
I emailed the company and never received a reply, but instead received a package a few weeks later with a cable and a new back plate to replace the one built into the unit. OK, not bad – but why wasn’t it right in the first place?
I’ve singled out 2 companies that I’ve had bad experiences with. The good news is there are a lot more good then bad companies out there.
I would suggest you deal with companies that specialize in creating drives for media professionals, and have a good, accessible tech support staff. Don’t be afraid to call them on the phone and ask the hard questions before you buy. When you’re having trouble nothing beats being able to pick up the phone and get immediate help. This has been my experience with G-Technology and AJA specifically. Two companies with first rate tech support and really great people.
Remember, if you’re a media professional the hard drives you use are the fort knox of your data. Everything that you do comes down to those files be safe and accessible on your hard drive. This is no place to cheap out, and a little extra money spent here can go a long way towards avoiding much more costly disasters.