Aperture Vaults: Useful?

I’ve been using Apple’s Aperture for about six months now. Aperture is a new breed in photography management applications. In the past, I used digital asset management applications like Extensis Portfolio to organize my photo library. Portfolio is great for browsing through thumbnails of images on your computer, as well as cached thumbnails and previews for offline content, like archival CD’s and DVD’s. Aperture does all of that, plus it has a magnificent toolset for manipulating and organizing your images. Apple offers a free trial. If you take a lot of pictures, and especially if you do it professionally, I highly recommend checking it out.

Aperture has a backup tool called Vaults. Essentially, a vault is a backup of your entire Aperture library, all of your photos, including their ratings, their keywords, the manner in which they’re organized, everything. It isn’t an exact replica of your library, but when an Aperture vault is restored, the intent is to end up with an exact replica of the vault that was backed up.

I used this feature for several months. I have a 250GB external hard drive (thanks, Mom) that I kept a vault on, and updated regularly. It seemed like a neat idea to me, and made for an easy, almost effortless fall-back in case of primary hard-drive failure, or other such cause.

Such a cause came knocking recently. My Airport card began failing on me, and I had contacted Apple’s technical support. In order to eliminate any monotonous and time-consuming tests that they might have wanted to run, I offered to completely format my machine, and reset the OS to factory default. I knew I had everything backed up, so it wasn’t a big deal.

A couple of days later, after getting my Airport card replaced, I began the process of restoring everything. Amongst the many items that needed restoring was my Aperture library, and I was particularly curious to see the restore feature in action. So I opened Aperture, and began the restore process.

Somewhere between two and three hours later, Aperture completed restoring approximately 23 gigabytes of photography and metadata. For those of you unfamiliar with computer maintenance, 23 gigabytes is a sizable chunk of data, but it shouldn’t take nearly that long to transfer it from one hard drive to another. Thirty minutes would have been reasonable; this was ridiculous. The reason for this extensive timeline had to do with a series of checks that Aperture did to the vault before and after it transferred everything. Aperture verified every file, every project, every album, everything, before it began any actual restoration. And after the restoration was done, it verified every file, project, album, everything, that had been restored. I also got the sense, as indicated earlier in this article, that the vault is not a replica of your library. When I compared the size of my library to the vault, the vault was significantly bigger (not horribly bigger, but it was larger by several hundred megabytes, maybe even a gigabyte or two; I can’t recall exactly). My guess is that there is a lot of extra stuff wrapped around everything that facilitates all these thorough verification processes.

While I appreciate being thorough and careful when it comes to manipulating important data, my final thought was that there was a lot of extra complication to this backup and restore process without any real gain, and in fact quite a bit of suffering on the timeline and hardware workload.

Additionally, I noticed what I would consider to be defects in the final results of the restore process. Prior to all this, as my Aperture library got larger over time, I did a number of things to reduce its footprint on my hard drive. The first thing I did was to move a lot of the older master photos to some archival discs, which freed up an enormous chunk of hard drive space. I also noticed that I could delete the preview files and continue to use the thumbnails as adequate previews; the thumbnails that Aperture generates are pretty enormous, enough to fill the small monitor on my Macbook at least. I think the preview files are dimensionally equivalent to the masters, they are just highly compressed. So deleting the preview files helped free up space as well, without losing much advantage in viewing the photos. But problems with the missing previews arose when I restored my vault. Not only were my previews gone, but my thumbnails were gone, as well. I’m not sure why this happened, but I was left with a library of more than 20,000 images, with probably more than half of the images completely unidentifiable. Since all of these images were on archival discs, I had to put every single disc back into my computer, one by one, and generate new previews, which in turn generated new thumbnails. This added onto the restore timeline exponentially, as in days of additional work.

When all was said and done, I had to ask, why all this fuss? Before I reset my computer, my Aperture library was working fine; everything was in tact, all my images were pretty well organized, birds were singing, flowers were blooming, and all was well with my world. Using the vault was a huge mistake that messed all that up. By contrast, I could’ve just made an exact copy of my library on my external hard drive by dragging and dropping it. Even better, I could’ve used my great backup program, Chronosync, which simplifies and automates all of my backup processes; I could’ve set Chronosync to backup my Aperture library to my external hard drive every day. Chronosync handles backups incrementally, meaning that it only copies the changes, so the process is pretty quick, as in mere minutes, after the first time through.

If I had thrown the whole vault idea out the door and done my backups this way, I would have never lost my thumbnails (or whatever ghost preview was left after I deleted the actual previews); everything that I had before I reset my machine, would’ve been there after I reset my machine. Moreover, restoring my library would’ve taken all of 30 minutes, maybe less.

Oh well, you live and you learn. At least it makes for a nice cautionary tail for the rest of you. If anyone can point out any advantages that I’m missing out on by not using vaults to backup my library, I’m all ears. Until then, I recommend staying as far away from the Aperture vaults as possible.


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