For anyone looking to get a handle on all of their personal data, there are several products on the market right now aimed at the average home-or-desktop user. This wide range of new products available offer excellent storage density, management and performance — and Linux compatibility. While a good friend always tells me, “technology is meant to be owned” sometimes the bank account doesn’t always support that philosophy. So the products discussed in this article are for a range of prices from $20 to thousands of dollars. But the focus is on products and technologies that can be used in desktops to really boost performance or ease storage management.
RAID Cage (Multidrive Enclosures)
Tower or mid-tower cases are very popular because of the large number of drives you can fit into them. However, to swap out the drives or to work on the drives you usually have to open the case, and perhaps even monkey with the cabling. Wouldn’t it be nice to have something like an enterprise class storage unit with easy opening hot-swap drives that are lockable? You’re in luck because there are a number of units that are described as RAID Cages or Multidrive Enclosures.
These units slide into the empty 5.25″ drive bays on the front of the case and give you instant hot-swappable drive access/control. Some of the benefits of these units are:
Hot-swap (for the most part)
Some have monitoring capabilities (LCD displays)
Sometimes they can help with cooling
Sometimes they can help reduce vibrations
All of the features are something missing from typical home systems and can make your life a lot easier. While these units have been around for a few years, there are some really inexpensive and attractive options for the desktop that use this technology.
A great example of this technology comes from a company named IcyDock. They have a large number of options for internal RAID cages or even simple “docking” stations for single drives (better cooling and vibration reduction compared to bare drives). But because of the design of the units, they are are able to get more drives into a given amount of space. For example, in Figure 1 below is a unit that takes up just two 5.25″ bays yet gives you three 3.5 inch drives (in this case SATA II).
Figure 1: IcyDock Three Drive Cage – Front view (MB453)
The drives are hot-swappable and can be removed from the front as show in Figure 2 below.
Figure 2: IcyDock Three Drive Cage – Drives (MB453)
Plus, on the back of the unit is a large fan, as show in Figure 3, to pull air across the drives.
Figure 3: IcyDock Three Drive Cage – Rear Fan (MB453)
Each drive has it’s own SATA connector on the back of the unit. This allows you to connect to three SATA connectors on the motherboard or perhaps to a RAID card.
Even better than the 3 drive unit is a 5 drive unit where the drives are mounted vertically as shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4: IcyDock Five Drive Cage – Front View (MB455)
This unit takes up only three 5.25″ bays yet gives you five 3.5″ drives with five SATA connectors on the back of the unit. There is also a unit that has the drives mounted horizontally.
Today you can buy 2TB SATA drives virtually anywhere (I haven’t checked Walmart lately though). The prices are coming down and you can get a huge amount of capacity in a small space. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the next generation of RAID cages (IcyDock calls them multi-bay enclosures) have the ability to use the new 6Gbps SATA standard or the new 6Gbps SAS standard. In the meantime the price point for these RAID cages is quite affordable. The 3-drive Icydock configuration is less than $100 and the 5-drive configuration can be found for around $110 or maybe just a bit higher. Not a bad deal if you need lots of drives in a small space.
Moreover, as we’ll see later in this article, 2.5″ drives are catching up in terms of capacity. While they are still a bit more expensive than 3.5″ drives on a $/GB basis, they do give you the option have having more spindles in a given volume. This can help IOPS performance and RAID performance (depends upon RAID configuration and drive performance). I think at some point Icydock will produce similar RAID cages for 2.5″ drives. In the meantime, Icydock has something else that might help 2.5″ drives.
Recently, Icy Dock introduced the MB990SP-B adapter which takes up to two 2.5 inch drives and puts them into a single adapter that fits into a 3.5 inch drive bay as shown below in Figure 5.
Figure 5: IcyDock MB990SP-B 2.5 inch driver adapter
Without this type of adapter you had to put a single 2.5 inch drive into an adapter where a 3.5 inch drive would normally fit. While this allowed you to put a laptop drive into your desktop, it really is a waste of space. The Icydock type of adapter allows you to put more 2.5 inch drives into your case making a better use of the space (just be sure you have enough SATA ports). A recent review of the adapter found it to be very good and cost effective (around $20) but also pointed out that it works with 7mm high drives but not with 10mm nor 12mm drives.
Another option for using 2.5 inch drives in your desktop case is the Addonics 2.5″ Disk Array 4SA that allows you to put up to four 2.5 inch drives into a 5.25 inch drive bay. Figure 6 from the Addonics website, illustrates how the unit works.
Figure 6: Addonics 2.5 inch Drive Array 4SA Adapter
This adapter allows yout to use a very large number of 2.5 inch drives in your desktop case. Many mid-tower cases have 4 or 5 external 5.25 drive bays. Assuming you have five bays and you use one for a DVD drive, then you have four remaining bays allowing to use up to 20 drives (2.5 inch). The cost for the unit is also very reasonable – about $60. But does it make sense to use 2.5 inch drives in desktop systems?
Larger Capacity 2.5 Inch Drives
Traditionally 2.5 inch drives have been used for laptops or other “small” computing units but not always desktops. One reason is that you could always find desktop drives with much more capacity and a better $/GB. On the other hand, 2.5 inch drives are much smaller than 3.5 inch drives allowing you to get more spindles in a given volume. Having more spindles can help with IOPS and striping performance.
Recently, Western Digital announced that they would have a new model of 750GB 2.5 inch drive. Also, Toshiba announced that they had broken the 1TB barrier on 2.5 inch drives but they were a little thicker than most consumer notebooks (12.5mm).
So you can see that these major drive manufacturers are making very large capacity 2.5 inch drives. But how do these drives compare to other drives including 3.5 inch desktop drives? Table 1 below compares notebook 2.5 inch drives, with a variety of interfaces, to desktop drives (3.5 inch) also in a variety of interfaces. The table contains data for SATA 3.0 Gb/s, SAS 3.0 Gb/s, SAS 3.0 Gb/s, and SAS 6.0 Gbps interfaces for a variety of rotational speeds and cache sizes. Notice the last column, the $/Gb column, is a common way of comparing drives in addition to rotational speed and cache size. The data for these drives was taken from Newegg on April 4, 2010.
Table 1 – Drive comparison for 2.5 inch and 3.5 inch drives for a variety of configurations
2.5 inch laptop drives = $0.15 (5,400 rpm, SATA 3.0 Gb/s, 8MB cache, 500GB)
3.5 inch desktop drives = $0.067 (5,900 rpm, SATA 3.0 Gb/s, 32MB cache, 1.5TB)
The most expensive drives in terms of $/GB are:
2.5 inch laptop drive = $3.01/GB (15,000 rpm, SAS 6.0 Gb/s, 16MB cache, 73GB).
3.5 inch desktop drive = $1.00/GB (10,000 rpm, SAS 6.0 Gb/s, 64MB cache, 300GB)
However, despite the large disparity between 2.5 inch and 3.5 inch drives in terms of $/GB, with these new adapters it’s possible to put in a very large number of drives into a given space. For example, in the case of a 5.25″ bay, you can put in a single 3.5 inch drive to reach 2TBs. However, with the Addonics drive adapter you can put in 4TBs of 2.5 inch drives (four drives of 1TB each) – twice the storage density with 4 times the spindle count but at a greater cost.
SSDs are Still Hot
By far the greatest number of announcements and developments are all around SSD drives. Some of the announcements are a little tired by announcing yet another SSD drive without much better performance or $/GB, but there are some real gems in the bunch.
Announced in the last few months was the new Vertex Limited Edition SSD which is probable the fastest MLC (Multi-Level chip) SSD drive available (at least in the top two). Several reviews such as this one and this one all point to this drive being one of the fastest drives available. It is quite capable of beating SLC drives and the use of MLC chips helps keep the price down.
At the same time, Crucial has unveiled a new SSD drive, the RealSSD C300, that has a large cache (128MB) and uses a 6.0 Gb/s SATA interface. It too uses MLC chips but has very good performance partly from the controller and partly from the new SATA 6.0 Gb/s interface. This is likely to be the fastest MLC SSD available.
Of course there have been a number of other SSD drives announced:
Intel launched a new value drive, the Intel X25-V, that is designed to be a low-cost entry level SSD for a bit above $100. Some testing at Anandtech showed that for some workloads two X25-V’s in a RAID-0 configuration could be faster than a single SSD costing about the same.
Seagate also announced a new SSD drive called Pulsar that is the first SSD drive for Seagate.
OWC announced a new drive that uses a new controller to improve performance
Team Group also rolled out that uses the same controller as the OWC SSD
There are new form factors for SSDs as well. If you read the SSD Geek Out article you would have read that there are some new PCIe SSD drives available. LSI is also working on new PCIe based SSD drives.
Also, as you have noticed, manufacturers are coming out with SSD drives for SATA 6.0 Gb/s and SAS 6.0 Gb/s (see the article about these new interface protocols). In addition, systems with USB 3.0 connectors are starting to appear. AMP launched an external SSD that uses USB 3.0 to connect to the host system. The attractive feature of USB 3.0 is that the peak transfer rate is 4.8 Gb/s (higher than the SATA 3.0 Gb/s and SAS 3.0 Gb/s protocols that are still in widespread use).
Potpourri for $100 Alex
Of course, this being storage, there are lots of cool things that don’t always fit into a single category or are new developments in old categories that don’t always get good press such as RAID controllers.
An example of this is the HDDBoost product that I wrote about previously. It combines an SSD and a regular hard drive so that the SDD mirrors the first part of the hard drive that matches the size of the SSD. For example, if you combine a 64GB SSD and a 2TB hard drive, only the first 64GB of the hard drive is mirrored on the SSD. The cool thing about this combination is that if a data request can be fulfilled by the SSD it just happens independently of the OS or any drivers. If the data access is a read, then the performance is likely to be very good (SSD read performance is much better than a hard drive).
New RAID controllers supporting the 6.0 Gb/s interfaces (SATA and SAS) are starting to appear as well. The rumors are that the new LSI controllers are really, really fast, and priced very well.
This article may seem a little frivolous but when you stop to think about storage and desktop systems, there is a wide range of new technologies and products. Typical system boards (motherboards) come with multiple PCIe slots including x8, x4, and x1 slots. Typical cases come with 4-5 5.25 inch drive bays that are externally accessible in addition to internal 3.5 inch drive bays. What can you do with all of this?
We talked about using RAID cages or multi-bay devices to allow us to put in more drives into a given space. For example, with three 5.25 inch bays, we can put in five 3.5 inch hot-swappable drives. We can also put four 2.5 inch drives in a 5.25 inch drive bay fairly easily. For the internal 3.5 inch bays, we can put in two 2.5 inch drives. While 2.5 inch drives are still price challenged relative to 3.5 inch drive on a $/GB basis, these expansion options allow us to put in a large number of drives to help IOPs and striping performance.
Of course, SSD drives are popping up all the time (still looking for the new Hot Wheels SSD like the Hot Wheels PC that came out a few years ago). There are lots of new drive announcements some of which are relative unexciting, but some of which are interesting because of improved performance or reduced costs. Some of the more interesting ones are the PCIe based SSD drives that you can use in those leftover x4 or x8 slots on your motherboard (although they can be rather pricey).
Finally, there are other developments as well including a new device that I have written about previously that combines an SSD and a hard drive so that the SSD mirrors the first part of the hard drive and will respond to data requests faster than the hard drive, improving overall performance. This is a fairly inexpensive way to perhaps create a device for file system metadata (hint, hint) or perhaps a centralized metadata device that is partitioned to serve multiple file systems.
Last but not least, let’s not overlook RAID controllers. The new 6.0 Gb/s protocols are giving storage some new breathing room for throughput and IOPS, particularly for SSDs. Motherboards are starting to appear with 6.0 Gb/s SATA ports (and sometimes SAS ports). These controllers should provide some very nice performance boosts for SSD drive combinations such as using two of the new Intel X25-V low-cost drives, for a simple RAID-0 device.
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