Small RAID Roundup
By Ned Soltz
Mac users prepare to usher in a new generation of connectivity via Thunderbolt or dabble in USB 3.0 via third-party cards. PC vendors add USB 3.0 ports. Still, the majority of users are currently relying on storage connectivity via FireWire, USB 2.0 or eSATA. Furthermore, the ever-decreasing cost of storage, the ever-increasing need for capacity brought about by solid-state workflows and the demand for ever-increasing throughput due to higher-data-rate video formats make RAID a necessity.
We’re going to take a quick look at several lower-cost RAID options that represent possible storage solutions for individual workstations. These solutions fall into essentially two categories: RAIDs with internal controllers and those with dedicated controller cards.
As a very quick review of terminology, RAID 0 refers to a group of disks merely striped with no redundancy. RAID 0 will obviously be the fastest of all categories, since no other redundant writing operations are needed. RAID 1 mirrors the data. Generally, RAID 1 is not suitable for editing operations owing to slowdowns, but it can be very useful where more redundancy is needed. For example, in a field situation, offload the day’s shoot from your solid-state media to a RAID 1. Your data is mirrored and doubly protected until you return to the studio to edit. Video professionals are tending to settle around RAID 5, in which parity is striped across all drives in the array, allowing the failure of one drive. RAID 6 allows the failure of two drives.
Onboard RAID controllers allow users to configure the RAID level via front or rear panel controls. The onboard controller will then manage read, write and restore functions. Dedicated controller cards contain their own processor that manages all I/O functions, removing that overhead from the computer’s CPU and assuring much faster passing of data, more accurate error checking of read/write operations, faster speeds, more options in RAID configuration, and more efficient rebuilding of the RAID. A dedicated controller card is preferable simply due to the speed and efficiency of operation. But price may be a barrier, as well as configuration. There is no dedicated controller card for laptops, for example. And even in the case of faster protocols such as USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt, these interfaces merely increase transfer speed, without the other features of the dedicated card.
Stardom SOHORAID SR4
I’ve been using this four-drive enclosure for several months with excellent results. Stardom manufactures a full line of enclosures, from 2.5” to multi-bay RAID to be used with dedicated cards. The SOHORAID SR4 is sold as a bare box that supports FireWire 800, 3G eSATA and USB 2.0. An upcoming revision will add front panel controls and USB 3.0. This makes the enclosure particularly attractive to PC users with USB 3.0 ports or Mac users with a third-party USB 3.0 card. Frankly speaking, however, USB 3.0 cards have not caught on with Mac users, and while USB 3.0 is included in the Thunderbolt spec, I do not expect widespread adoption of USB 3.0 on Macs.
The SR4 can be configured via rear panel controls for RAID 0 or RAID 5. Its onboard controller then configures the RAID virtually instantly. The board is a port-multiplier, meaning that it controls four drives and requires only one cable connection. In the case of eSATA, it is important to use an eSATA card that supports port multiplication. Virtually all current eSATA boards do these days. Note that the eSATA interface, whether a PCIe card, PC card or Express34 card, is just an interface—it has no RAID functions other than passing the data. There are many enclosures on the market. What speaks so strongly in favor of the SR4 is its solid construction, positive locking drive trays and virtually silent fan.
The SR4 is sold unpopulated. I chose to configure my unit with four Western Digital Caviar Black 1.5TB drives. The unit is connected to my test Mac Pro via a Sonnet E4P 4-port SATA card using a single eSATA connection. I have also tested it via FireWire 800 to both tower and notebook computers as well as via a Sonnet Qio and Sonnet Express34 card to two different MacBook Pros.
The bottom line: it works and works well. There have been no intermittent connections of power or drive interface, and I have to listen very carefully for the fan when, in moments of panic, I fear it isn’t running.
There are pros and cons to configuring your own enclosure. In my case, I like saving a little money by buying my own drives and mounting them in an enclosure. It gives me control over the drives I use, rather than depending on whatever a given vendor has. In this case, I chose not to spend the extra money for enterprise-class drives, a notion I’ll discuss in the next product. But the Caviar Blacks from WD are fast, dependable and quiet. They fit the bill. I have been using this small RAID as a backup for my eight-drive RAID for some time.
The SR4 as well as the full line of Stardom enclosures would serve you well.
MSRP: about $400
G-Technology G-SPEED Q
The G-Technology line has long been a favorite of every stripe of user. When Hitachi acquired G-Tech in 2009, the company switched to Hitachi mechanisms across the line. Hitachi has since sold its Global Storage Technologies division to Western Digital, including G-Tech. (The deal was announced in March and is expected to close in the third quarter of 2011.) There are no rumors or indications that any changes in G-Tech are to take place, and the company reports continuing strong sales.
The G-SPEED Q is a four-drive enclosure based on an internal RAID controller. In this case, users set a rear switch to select RAID 0 or RAID 5, and front lights indicate the formatting process of the RAID. It likewise has a triple interface: USB 2.0, FireWire 800 and eSATA. Once again, I have operated it from the same interface devices as the Stardom.
All G-Tech drives come as a package with enclosure and drives. The advantage to buying a turnkey system is support. If one of my DIY RAIDs loses a drive, I then need to deal with the drive manufacturer or supplying vendor for warranty issues. And sometimes it’s just not worth the effort. Here, warranty responsibility for both drives and enclosure fall on G-Tech in the event of drive (or enclosure) failure.
One very clear advantage of the G-SPEED Q and all of G-Tech RAIDs above this device is that they are fitted with Hitachi enterprise-level hard drives. The enterprise drive (mechanisms are marketed by Hitachi as well as by Seagate and Western Digital) is a sturdier construction with longer MTBF ratings, longer warranties, and a configuration suited for heavy-use RAID work such video editing. I would even go so far as to recommend that builders of DIY RAIDs use enterprise-class drives.
Kudos to G-Technology for a solid, quiet, dependable and economical product.
MSRP: about $800 (4TB), $1,300 (8TB)
Sonnet Fusion F3
The Sonnet Fusion F3 drive takes a very different approach and represents one of the most durable portable solutions on the market.
It is a big unit (8” x 14” x 2”) that weighs 8.5 lb. Its form factor is in fact that of a notebook computer, and it would fit neatly under the notebook. The unit has two FireWire 800 ports, USB 2.0 and a locking eSATA port (unique). Front panel controls determine the level of RAID, either RAID 0 or RAID 1. It comes, as well, with two 2TB drives.
What is most notable about this unit is its absolute shock protection. Sonnet has demonstrated the F3’s flawless operation on a vibrating stand, reading/writing data without missing a beat. I’ve bounced it around as well and the data survived my klutziness. The unit is positioned, in fact, as a mobile storage device. It comes with a handled carrying case with room for drive and cables. Of course, the power supply is on board, which is not the case with many portable units.
The F3 is perfect for remote productions under less controlled conditions where offloading data is the priority, along with the option to double-protect the footage with RAID 1 mirroring. Of course, it could be used in a RAID 0 setting as a storage or even editing device. ProRes HQ or DNxHD at even higher data rates can be sustained on a two-drive RAID 0.
The form factor of the F3 also lends itself to rack mounting, and its shock resistance makes it an ideal production truck device.
Everything about this RAID says sturdy and dependable. I would not hesitate to recommend it for the most grueling of remote operations.
Sonnet Fusion F3
MSRP: about $900