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Longterm storage: NAS + HDDs + CrashPlan Unlimited (for ARM devices) vs. costly Amazon Glacier [cost analysis]

17 May 2014  |  Tags: , , , , , , ,

OK, it's not really fair to call Amazon Glacier “costly”. However, it might not be your cheapest option for storing a few terabytes of data for a few years (or more)....

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For large-volume data storage with a target lifespan of 2 years or less, Glacier can be a great option. It costs just $0.01/GB per month at this time of writing. — The costs can definitely add up, though. To store 2TB (2,000GB) it would cost $240/year, and there's no longterm discount currently. While they may drop their prices at some point, the current costs are still too high for most consumers needing to store more than a few hundred gigabytes longterm.

  • If you're storing a few hundred GB, then chances are a NAS is not worth the cost to you.
  • If you're storing a lot more than that, to get the best of both worlds, the best option for this is to get a network-attached storage device (NAS) and back that up to CrashPlan for $60/year unlimited instead of paying Amazon $0.01/GB every month.

A NAS is a box of hard-drives with a lightweight computer embedded to ideally mirror your data across multiple drives (using RAID technology) for redundancy in the event of one or more drives failing. It can run some basic software (such as CrashPlan for offsite backups, or BitTorrent Sync for your own secure Dropbox-like syncing folders), and also, if a drive has a failure, can recreate that drive's data onto a freshly inserted drive using the data already sharded across the other drives that are still operating. Cool, huh?

The case for Glacier

Cost: $0.01/GB per month ($120/year per TB, 1000GB)

If you're storing data for less than 2-3 years, or not very much data at all, then Glacier is probably going to be cheaper. If you're archiving lots of photos, videos, or other large files, you'd most likely want to invest in a NAS and back that up to CrashPlan as your cloud storage option. — If you already own a NAS, then there's no need for Glacier unless your new data is too large for the NAS's existing storage configuration. (but you could also expand that by buying larger drives!)

Amazon Glacier (logo)

It's possible that Amazon Glacier could drop significantly in price in the future. Storage technology keeps getting cheaper and more efficient, and people are already questioning how Glacier is able to operate at such a low cost. Some speculate that they are using the offline cold-storage of optical media (BDXL).

It may be that Glacier is simply purchasing bulk HDDs from manufacturers and powering them down when not in use. An enterprise quality drive retails for ~$100 per-terabyte (at this time of writing), and Glacier is charging $120 per-year, per-terabyte. If they make several optical backups of your data on Blu-ray optical discs (at just pennies per-disc) and store those safely somewhere else, their monthly fees would cover their entire hardware cost entirely within the first year for that customer's data. — There are many more factors in reality to consider than just these basic numbers, but there is definitely a profit margin hidden there somewhere. My overall point is just that storage can be cheaper, and Glacier is not your only option.

Beware, Glacier also does have a penalty of $0.03/GB for data removed before 90-days has passed! I'm assuming that this covers their costs of making the Blu-ray discs, but it's definitely due to the service not being designed for solely very short-term use.

Tip: If you're on a Mac and want to backup your computer to Glacier, try Arq.

The case for the NAS

Cost: ~$300-$600 upfront, +$80/per HDD (+ $60/year for CrashPlan cloud backups)

Note about Crashplan: If you are backing up very large files (>200MB each), Crashplan may not work on the NAS. Its Java software is suboptimal and requires a significant amount of RAM and CPU to encrypt and transmit files to its servers. Most NAS units have limited CPU and RAM, so proceed with caution. Smaller files (<50MB each) such as documents, photographs, and archives should be no problem.

If you need to store a lot of data for at least 2 years, a NAS is the way to go. CrashPlan is just $60/year (and even cheaper if you buy 2 or more years upfront) for their unlimited offsite backups of your NAS's data. The CrashPlan software can be installed directly onto many of today's modern ARM and Linux-based NASes, if configured as a “headless client”.

A NAS generally costs between $300-$600 USD upfront (plus the cost of drives), and often has an extended warranty available at an additional cost. I have the Drobo 5N (~$470), but there are a few great options available from Synology and other companies as well.

My Drobo5N
My Drobo 5N, tucked away in a corner.

NAS benefits:

  • Currently much cheaper to operate for large-volume storage situations
  • Has resale value, vs. Amazon Glacier just costing money
  • Can run software with additional services (such as CrashPlan and BitTorrent Sync)
  • Can be used by multiple users locally on a LAN, simultaneously
  • No “usage costs”, such as Amazon's charges for I/O operations.

The cool thing about the Drobo 5N is that, aside from it looking cool, it has a multicore ARM processor, backup battery built-in (for power failures), optional dual-drive redundancy (in case of two simultaneous drive failures), and it allows you to mix-and-match drives of various sizes by default. — Sure, you have to pay for electricity to run it (as with any other NAS)… but, unless a drive goes bad (or the NAS itself has a breakdown), you'll basically just need to install periodic software updates and it should just keep running. …Let's hope!

Buying HDD's (hard-disk drives) for your NAS

I only buy Western Digital 'Re' drives because they have a 5-year warranty and are enterprise grade. These may be overkill, but who wants to deal with bad drives? I've only had 1 die out of maybe 12 total.

Western Digital Re (logo)

If you want to save a little bit of money, go with Western Digital's “Red” drives … as they have a 3-year warranty and are designed specifically for NASes. They're usually about 25% cheaper, too.

Personally, I'll pay a little more for drives that will last longer and have longer warranties, but it could be that the Red drives are actually a better value in the end. However, before you buy cheap drives, do yourself a favor and read this. — Tip: As I've stated before when setting up a Drobo or NAS, always order your individual HDDs from different resellers and/or at different times!! If you receive all of your drives in the same box, and that box has been beaten up or dropped by the shipping company, your drives could all fail simultaneously!! (They could also have all been produced in the same “bad batch” at the manufacturer. Check the manufacturing dates on each one.)

Cost analysis

While the NAS may seem like an investment, it can break and become worthless. Amazon Glacier doesn't have any hardware to maintain, but you get no resale out of the NAS and its monthly costs compound quickly. — Also, since Glacier can't run the additional software services that the NAS can (which you may want), you may need to pay extra for those services to be provided by a third-party while using the Glacier service alone.

Even with the cost of CrashPlan (an “unlimited” cloud-storage backup service) pegged at $60/year, you would be actively paying over $180/year more that that forever just to store 2TB on Amazon Glacier at their current fixed price structure. Every single year… Amazon Glacier costs the same until they lower their prices! You could instead just setup a NAS, back that up to CrashPlan, and in 3-5 years, you would be saving money each year by comparison. (and… even at that point, the NAS hardware can still be resold!)

Glacier vs. NAS cost graph (2TB storage)
As the chart demonstrates, after 2 or 3 years you'll hit a point at which your NAS hardware costs (combined with its residual resale value) will be below what you would have spent to store the same amount of data on Amazon Glacier. — From there, the NAS setup is a better value.

Even though a NAS can cost several hundred dollars upfront and require some configuration, you will eventually save money as long as Amazon keeps charging a fixed $0.01/GB per month for Glacier. Even enterprise-grade 1TB drives are currently only ~$0.10/GB upfront to purchase, and they pack a 5 year warranty. Since all of the hardware that you buy can eventually be resold, and you can always jump on Glacier at any point with little effort anyway, why not give the NAS setup a try instead?

Hacker bonus points: Raspberry Pi

Want something cheaper? You can put CrashPlan on a Raspberry Pi, and also make it into a NAS! — The performance will be more or less terrible for both features (compared to the multicore ARM performance of the Drobo 5N, for example), but hey… a Raspberry Pi computer costs just $35!

Raspberry Pi

If you like building stuff on your own… this could be a cool project for you. Good luck!

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