Goodbye, Google Photos: How I switched to my own cloud service

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Google made me build my own cloud storage at home
We've grown so accustomed to cloud services that it's kind of weird to think how in the good ol' pre-smartphone days we had to resort to memory cards, Bluetooth, and infrared readers to store and migrate data between different devices. 

Among all cloud storage services that revolve around photos, Google Photos shines as the brightest star, arguably offering the most complete experience. The ease of use, intuitive features, and most importantly, the unlimited free storage at a slightly reduced quality made it an unquestionable choice for many, including me. 

For years, I’ve methodically and religiously backed up all my precious photos and videos to Google Photos, relying on the fantastic cross-platform service to catalogue, index, and archive my photos. On top of that, I have tens of shared albums which are both populated by me and my significant other, enriching the Google Photos experience that much more. All was good in the world.

Yet, as many good things often do, my blissful usage of Google Photos hit two roadblocks in late 2020. Firstly, I ran out of storage, and secondly, Google did away with the unlimited free storage, announcing it will start counting it against the pesky 15GB storage cap. 

Also get this: Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, Drawings, and Forms would also count toward the quota. Seeing that I'm sitting at 98% of storage before the shift, it's certain that an urgent solution was necessary. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not cheap — I’d gladly pay for cloud storage, as that's essentially what I ended up doing. But which plan to choose, and more importantly, what if there is another, better option?

While at the moment I can squeeze within 200-250GB to hoard all my photos and videos at original quality on Google's own servers, it would feel quite claustrophobic there, so the necessity for more was definitely up there.

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Starting at $9.99 a month, Google One’s 2TB plan was the only one that seemed decent, but calculating the cost over the upcoming couple of years, I was dead-certain there was a more affordable and viable solution in the long run. 

Pair that with my recently-acquired desire to become less reliant on Google’s services and stray away from the company's products as much as possible, and the line was drawn. I needed a NAS.

Enter a local NAS

What’s a ‘NAS’? 

I'd go out on a limb and assume few and far between are familiar with the geeky abbreviation, which stands for ‘network-attached storage’ and is, bluntly said, hard drive(s) that are accessible over the Internet or the ethernet. That's basically every cloud server. 

Think of a NAS as an efficient computer with tons of storage that’s connected with your Wi-Fi router and readily hosts all of your files, allows you to backup your phone’s camera roll, host a Plex/Emby server with all your media, run a torrent seedbox 24/7, mount folders for basic storage expansion of your PC/Mac, create full device backups/ utilize Apple’s Time Machine, and do tons of other cool server-related things. You can even play with virtual machines, host your own Wordpress blog, and even have your own chat and mail clients that back themselves up on your NAS. Your data, your rules, safely and private.

After a brief research of the current state of the market and a chance encounter with a killer deal on a pair of 4TB Seagate IronWolfs, I ponied up and got myself an entry-level Synology DS218play, though it should be noted that I was almost settled on a QNAP NAS to the last moment. It Ultimately, the overall interface and software suite of Synology’s DSM operating system tipped the scales in its favor. The grand total for the whole shebang? Around $500, give or take. Admittedly, the stark price difference in comparison with the seemingly cheap cloud storage is definitely there, but hear me out — the positives outweigh the sticker price shock.

My Google Photos came in at 92.97GB, which comprises around 6 years’ worth of photos and videos I’ve mostly taken with various phones. Add to that my local collection of nearly 120GB of photos and videos that I’ve taken with my mirrorless camera and you get a pretty decent chunk of data that’s both irreplaceable and hard to move around that easily. What’s more, a recent newborn addition to the family almost certainly meant that my own data is only about to grow in size — and importance.

Four terabytes of storage might not seem as much as I make it sound, but should be more than enough for the foreseeable future, giving me enough headroom for potential expansion. You might recall that I got a pair of 4TB hard drives, so you might wonder why I don’t have 8TB of available storage. 

As anyone sane, I opted to insure myself against hard disk failure, which is as common as the sunrise, and run my shiny new system in a RAID-1 setup, where one of the hard drives is essentially mirroring the other. This makes data recovery in the case of a hard drive failure easy and convenient by just popping a new hard drive in your NAS.

The cloud experience

How does all of this translate in terms of user experience? Pretty good actually. After the initial setup and certain accommodations were made, the experience isn’t that different from what Google’s app suite delivers. Synology’s Moments AI-powered app is extremely similar to Google Photos with the only downside that it doesn’t offer easy, on-the-fly image editing, which is no biggie. A more fleshed-out app dubbed Synology Photos is coming later this year, and the general opinion is that it will further shorten the gap with Google Photos. Meanwhile, good riddance, Google Drive, the Synology alternative is just as good and intuitive. What’s more, Synology has its own Office suite that's a good enough replacement of Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides.

As you might imagine, as intuitive most NAS devices are these days, there was a certain learning curve to the whole setup and whatnot, but as a person that loves tinkering and understanding how stuff works, that came as an added bonus. Weird, I know. I brushed up my existing and developed some new skills as far as networking and server equipment are concerned, which is definitely a useful set of skills to have in today’s day and age. Call me old-fashioned but there’s something so reassuring and calming when it comes to the soft purring and metallic whisper of a pair of hard drives, especially when you know it’s your most precious data that’s residing on them.

Initially, there was some wonkiness involved as the server hadn't settled in and the performance was iffy as it had to re-index a full library of more than 50,000 photos and videos. However, once that was completed, the system feels as zippy and useful as it gets. 

Most interestingly to me, despite the Synology DS218play's humble specs, it doesn't slow down or lag even during to or more simultaneous processes. The home Emby server is actively running all day whereas two or three phones are constantly backing up stuff and I've had no issues with performance so far. Surely, if you push it too hard, the true colors of this entry-level device would easily come to the surface, but I've adapted my usage to not let that happen

Surely, despite what the pandemic proved, we can't spend all of our lives inside, and rest assured those computers inside our pockets always need to sync something with the cloud. That's why it's vital to have a reliable piece of hardware that does the job even when you're out and about. The only difference here is that instead of my home Wi-Fi, I had to rely on mobile data, which could be troublesome if large files are involved and could quickly do away with my monthly data allowance.

Synology Photos

With all that talk about Photos, I guess Synology's up and coming Photos app deserves a mention. It's in beta, currently, but to me it feels like an excellent alternative to Google Photos and other similar cloud galleries. Most importantly, it natively supports the iPhone's Live Photos so it allows me to relive those precious moments that are otherwise lost. It also has both a camera roll and a folder view, allowing you to change the timescale and see all of your photos simultaneously. Geotags and EXIF data are also present here. 

The only thing I really miss are the Google Photos-style Memories that remind you of past moments, but that's just a minor qualm. The synchronization process is usually fast, though that'd depend on your network equipment when you're at home and your max upload speed when you're out and about. Generally, I opted not to upload images and videos while I was away from home, as the original quality meant a single picture could run me around 10MB, while a minute-long video is hundreds of megabytes.

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Never put all your eggs in one basket

Of course, having your all precious data all on one device is a recipe for disaster. RAID, no matter how useful, is not a backup and shouldn't be considered such in any case whatsoever. It's merely a hardware failsafe that deals with hardware mishaps; the chances of two or more hard drives failing at the same time are low, but never zero. 

This is why you should always have a backup of your indispensable data, and this is one area where Google and cloud services in general will always have a leg-up: the economies of scale allows Big Tech to offer you both data redundancy and backup in one complete service. 

In contrast, if I want to keep a backup of all my data, I'd probably have to go get another NAS with a couple of hard drives, put it in my parents' or a friend's house and have it backup my device over the Internet. Surely, that's possible, but the bill starts piling up.

I'm still undecided on how to backup all of that data; I'd probably try to vet out the most important photos and videos and distribute them around various cloud services whereas the rest will be figuratively flagged as expendable. For the time being, a large part of my photo collection will remain stored on Google's servers, but I will be merely using it as a time capsule of sorts.

Why am I doing all this?

I know what you are thinking, and admittedly, the same question lingered for a while in my mind as well. Why bother? The cost of both money, time, and certainly potential headaches down the road certainly outweighs the added benefit to my overall quality of life, right? The again, what's the point of anything? We are all certainly destined for the same place. Again, you do you and I do me, so a locally-managed cloud storage method just made sense at the time.

Three months in, my overall experience has only changed for the better. Not only did the NAS settle itself comfortably, but I also learned the ropes better and the device's overall usefulness only increased. I streamlined my usage, opened up the NAS to a few other family members which were more than glad to backup their stuff to the server.

Should you get a NAS?

The sticker shock aside, I wholeheartedly recommend that you do. It's a perfect companion for the household, especially if your family is large and everyone is eager to backup the tons of videos, photos, and other files in the cloud. Once you consider the costs, it could easily turn out that a NAS is more affordable in the long run in comparison with a third-party cloud subscription service such as Google or Amazon's. Make sure to check out the deals on Synology/QNAP stuff as well as NAS-rated hard drives come Prime Day in June, or the next Black Friday/Cyber Monday bonanza.

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