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FireWire 800 RAID Storage

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In multimedia environments, storage is king. When it comes to video editing, the faster the storage, the better. And big storage capacity doesn’t hurt either. For years, expensive high-speed SCSI or Fibre Channel drives were the only option, but now a new generation of speedy FireWire 800 storage systems is entering the picture. LaCie’s Bigger Disk Extreme, G-Technology’s G-RAID 800, and WiebeTech’s RackFire+ are FireWire 800 RAID Level 0 products ideal for anyone looking for short-term, large-capacity storage with fast data-transfer rates.

RAID Level 0, also referred to as striping, increases a drive system’s overall data-transfer speed by splitting the information between drives. A two-drive RAID 0 unit, for example, will typically be almost twice as fast as a single drive. That extra speed lets you do things like edit uncompressed standard-definition video. The downside to RAID 0 is its lack of redundancy—if one drive dies, you lose all the information. Thus, these products are not designed for long-term storage of important data.

We tested all three storage systems with a dual-2GHz Power Mac G5 with an additional FireWire 800 PCI card and a Power Mac G4 Quicksilver (upgraded from 867MHz to 1.2GHz), also with a FireWire 800 PCI card. Mac OS X 10.3.7 is highly recommended, as some versions of Panther have corrupted or destroyed information on FireWire drives or refused to mount them. To test the drive’s read and write speeds, we used Intech Software’s QuickBench speed test. The speed tests were performed twice—once when the drives were empty and once at 90 percent full. The 90-percent-full test is important because IDE drives slow down considerably as they fill up.

LaCie Bigger Disk Extreme

The Bigger Disk Extreme is an upgraded version of LaCie’s standard Bigger Disk (   , June 2004 ). It sports the same classy aluminum enclosure design, loses a USB 2.0 port, and gains a hardware RAID 0 controller that effectively doubles the data-transfer speed.

Our test unit, which retails for $1,899, can accommodate a whopping 1.6 terabytes, as it has four 400GB drives inside the enclosure. And it only weighs 11 pounds. This is a monstrous amount of storage for a single portable unit to have—it’s enough to hold over 110 hours of DV footage or 15 hours of 10-bit uncompressed video.

The Bigger Disk Extreme scored well on data-transfer speeds with QuickBench read rates of 73MBps and write rates of 55MBps using 50MB test files. Even when it was 90 percent full, the Bigger Disk remained quite fast, reading at 70MBps and writing at 53MBps.

Like all other LaCie d2 drives, the Bigger Disk offers a convenient auto on-off setting. That means the Bigger Disk can automatically power up when it senses the computer starting up, and then power down again when the computer shuts down or goes to sleep.

G-Technology G-RAID 800

The G-RAID is a stylish, two-drive RAID 0 device made by G-Technology, a spinoff of Medea, a well-known maker of hard drives. At first glance, it looks like a miniature Power Mac G5. It even has the aluminum grill on the front. Our 800GB test unit proved to be a very capable media drive that’s especially useful for road warriors editing on PowerBooks. It is very compact and light compared to the LaCie Bigger Disk Extreme 1.6TB, weighing less than four pounds. And it offers both FireWire 800 and FireWire 400 connections, but not USB 2.0, making it better suited for Macs than for Windows PCs, which often do not have FireWire.

Like the LaCie Bigger Disk Extreme, the G-RAID is able to handle 10-bit uncompressed video projects. The read speed of the G-RAID is actually slightly faster than the Bigger Disk Extreme’s, at 76.5 MBps. When it was 90 percent full, the drive barely slowed down. The write speeds for the G-RAID are slightly below those of the Bigger Disk Extreme, coming in at 54 MBps during normal operation and 50 MBps at 90 percent capacity.

G-Technology claims the G-RAID’s cooling system is efficient and quiet. After hours of use, the well-ventilated unit was indeed cool to the touch, though the fan was slightly louder than the LaCie’s Bigger Disk’s fan.

WiebeTech RackFire+

The Bigger Disk Extreme and G-RAID have a single RAID 0 hardware controller, but WiebeTech’s RackFire+ has two, which each control independent two-drive RAIDs. This has some distinct advantages, especially if your computer has two separate FireWire buses to connect to the unit (this would require adding a PCI or PCMCIA FireWire card).

The RackFire+ unit is a 1U rack-mountable storage system with two removable, double-drive storage trays (populated in this case by 120GB drives). Since each tray has its own FireWire controller, the RackFire+ can be shared by two users—one user gets the left tray while the other gets the right. The two hardware RAID 0 drive sets can also be striped together with Apple’s Disk Utility into a software RAID 0, for additional speed, or mirrored as a software RAID Level 1, where all the data are automatically backed up.

If you’ve striped together or mirrored the two sides of the RackFire+, you will especially benefit from using two FireWire bus connections. Configuring the RackFire+ as a software RAID 0 volume using two FireWire channels results in astounding read speeds of 156 MBps and write speeds of 87 MBps, far greater than the speed of the four-drive LaCie Bigger Disk Extreme. This speed is enough to play back uncompressed 1080p high-definition video, though the write speed is not sufficient to record HD video. Using only one FireWire channel and daisy-chaining the two sides, the read speed drops dramatically, to 82 MBps, and the write speed drops to 46 MBps. For RAID 1 configurations, using two FireWire 800 channels yields read and write speeds of 113 MBps and 43 MBps. With one channel, the read and write speeds drop to a much slower 79 MBps and 23 MBps.

Of course, it is possible to stripe or mirror two G-RAIDs or Bigger Disk Extremes and get similar speed results by using two FireWire channels, but it requires buying two drive units.

One negative about the RackFire+ is that its fans are not particularly quiet, which can become annoying in editing environments.

Our test unit came configured with four 120GB 7,200rpm drives and retails for $999. Large capacity configurations are available, topping out at 1.6TB for $2,999. Also available is a user-configurable version with no drives preinstalled for $699.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

All three FireWire 800 RAID systems deliver considerable high-speed bang without blowing your budget. And each product has its own appeal—the monstrous storage capacity of the Bigger Disk Extreme; the speed and portability of the G-RAID; and the RackFire+’s configuration options, including super-fast, dual-channel FireWire—so choosing the right system will depend on what you need for your work. If you’re working on the go as a serious PowerBook-based video editor, the G-RAID’s the obvious choice. Hungry for as much storage as you can get your hands on? The Bigger Disk Extreme will satisfy your craving. And if the ultimate FireWire 800 speed is what you need, the RackFire+ is your answer.

Bigger Disk Extreme 1.6TBG-RAID 800RackFire+
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