Scram! It’s a RAID!
Apr 04, 2015
When I got the tip from Frankie that the coppers were on their way, I ducked into the passage behind the false wall in the janitor’s closet. I only had time to grab the one thing that mattered most... my data.
On the heels of World Backup Day (March 31st), I had come to a realization. Space was no longer my final frontier. You see, I was running out of it. This past winter I had converted my internal HD to a SSD and couldn’t be happier. But the net storage gain was zero. I just swapped out one device for another. Sure, I could get an external case for the HD, but that would be yet another box sitting on my desk with a finite capacity.
Currently, I have a 1TB WD Passport I use with Time Machine, a 1TB WD MyBook I use for mostly for storing video files, and another 1TB WD MyBook that I think is dying so it’s just been sitting on my desk untouched. Oh, and a 400GB drive that was on my desk that I moved upstairs to use as a Time Machine volume (until I realized that it had more stuff on it). Not to mention a portable phone, battery recharger, external Blu-Ray drive and my Dr. Who USB hub. And papers, nicknacks, photos, etc.
My goal was to at least alleviate myself of all these boxes and cables to create a little more order, plus take advantage of the benefits of RAID technology. What is RAID? It’s a Redundant Array of (not always) Inexpensive Disks. Basically, it means you stick a bunch of drives into a single enclosure and with a little technical magic, they act as a single large hard drive. But more importantly, it provides a level of data security not found using simple single external drives.
There are several configurations, called RAID levels, that you can use to maximize the use of the multiple drives. There is spanning, which simply combines all your drives into one logical unit (4-1TB drives become 1-4TB drive), and JBOD (Just a Bunch of Disks), which means all your drives pop up as individual units on your desktop. No real advantage there. Here’s a brief explanation of the more common RAID levels.
- RAID0 – Data-striping, which allows data to be written to multiple drives at once, increasing the speed of writing.
- RAID1 – Mirroring, writes the same data to two drives at once, creating a clone of your drive as you write to it.
- RAID5 – It’s a combination of RAID0 and parity, meaning data from the other drives is stored across all the drives. In the event of a single drive failure, you remove the drive, replace it with a fresh one, and the other drives rebuild the data on the missing drive.
Well, of course, there are always downsides. To what degree is based on how lucky you’re feeling (punk). With RAID0 you lose no storage capacity, with RAID1 you lose 50% of your capacity, with RAID5 you lose 25% of your capacity over a 4 drive install and bit of your performance, since it’s not only writing your data, but calculating and saving information from the other units. For home and small business users, I think RAID5 is the best compromise between safety and capacity if you’re using it primarily for data storage and backup.
Just the facts, ma’am
All this made sense to me, but I was on the horns of a dilemma (ouch!). My iMac is configured with FireWire 800 and USB 2.0, typically these enclosures support USB 3.0 and eSata, which is fine, but also means that I could be taking a big performance hit. I'm not ready to trade my iMac in just yet, it being the last model with the built in DVD-ROM and memory card reader. With the new SSD and 12GB of RAM it was running pretty good. So what options did I have?
It could've been a contender
I have had my eye on the products made by Drobo. Not just because they were cool-looking (and they are very cool-looking), but because they offered some interesting advantages over standard RAID configurations. Then there was a sale during March and it piqued my interest further. As I commenced my research, I found that their basic 4-bay Drobo came only with a USB 3.0 connection (sale price $199.00). However, they had some really nice features, like setting a storage limit for Time Machine, creating discrete volumes, being able to use drives of different capacities, and upgrading by simply replacing a lower capacity drive for a higher capacity one. The other feature I liked was the ability to upgrade the enclosure by simply moving the drives from the old unit to the new. However, it also meant that I was locked into their products, and wouldn't be able to say move the drives to another vendor's solution with having to reformat the drives – with no way to save the data. Hmmm.
Then I went to OWC and checked out their Mercury Elite-AL Qx2. It matched the design of my iMac with it’s brushed aluminum housing and wasn’t as sexy, but it offered its own advantages. It has FireWire 800 and USB 2.0 ports in addition to eSata. Compatible ports to my system. Also it was a standard RAID enclosure which meant I could move the drives to another one, if I wanted. It, too was on sale for $169.00 (because the more recent version had USB 3.0). But what about the future? OWC thought of that, too. They offer a smart cable that converts eSata to USB 3.0 for $19.00. So for less than the price of the Drobo, I could get something that was compatible now and something that I use use on a new iMac in the future. That works.
My next concern were the drives themselves. How many drives and what capacity should each drive have? What brand? OWC and Drobo both provide a nice chart of suggested drives to use. My past experience regarding the reliability of hard drives led me to consider, you guessed it, Western Digital as my vendor of choice. But what I hadn't known was that were different levels of hard drives and some were not cut out for use in RAID environments (or it’s just a great marketing ploy to make you spend more money). I decided to take the marketing at face value and go with a NAS-rated drive (see below). WD’s Red drives are rated for use with NAS, which basically means they can take the 24/7/365 abuse. As to size, it’s always a trade off between cost and capacity, but I knew I wanted at least double my current external storage capacity. If you recall from the beginning, I have 3 external 1TB drives, so I wanted at least 6TB storage. Using RAID5, that means I should be using 4-2TB drives. At the sale price of $95.00/ea., that was just about my sweet spot.
May I Take Your Order?
I looked to NewEgg and Amazon and found I could get the drives slightly cheaper than NewEgg and I could make my purchase on OWC through Amazon as well. Can anyone say shop with points? So although they shipped from different locations, they arrived on my doorstep about 15 minutes apart. Nice timing. I took everything out the boxes and prepared for the installation. The front of the Qx2 opens using a key, displaying four slots labeled A-D secured via a big thumb screw at the top. Unscrew the screws and pulled out the brackets. There was a piece of plastic used to brace the bracket during shipping held in place by two philips screws that were easily removed. The brackets slid over the sides and front of the drive and attached with smaller screws provided in a tiny zip-loc bag. Then drives then slide into the bay and the thumbscrews tightened down. Re-secure the cover and voila! installation is done. There is a rotary switch in the back to set your desired RAID level and an A/B switch in case your OS can’t handle large capacity drives. But the defaults were already pre-set to the settings I planned to use.
Originally the system shipped with a software CD, but now you have to log into the website and give them your email and order number in order to access the apps online. One was In-Tech Speedtools, the other was Prosoft Data-Backup. I decided to use my copy of Drive Genius 3. So OWC supplied all the cables I could need – power, USB 2.0, eSata, and FireWire 800. Of course, I went with the FW800 since that’s the fastest port I have. I plug in the power and the FW cable. I flip the switch and wait for the magic... Nothing. What? So I try again. Nothing. Maybe I need to open my drive formatting software? I open Disk Utility, SpeedTools and Drive Genius. Nothing, no device. Um... well now what? Maybe FW doesn’t recognize unformatted RAID devices? So I pull out the FW cable and try the USB cable. Immediately I get the ”This Mac can't recognize this disk. Initialize/Ignore/Eject.” Whew. Now I boot up Drive Genius and initialize the drive. Not sure how long it took, because I walked away for a time, but when I returned I had a new disk icon on the desktop that read Drive Genius. I check out the Info panel and it says 6TB. Ok, final trick. I eject the drive, turn it off, plug in the FW cable and boot it up again. Waiting... there! Now the FW port recognizes the drive. No mention than FW was so twitchy. Or maybe it wasn’t the FW...
Move it on over...
Mean old files movin’ in... My first test was the 293GB of video footage and photos I was storing on my MyBook. I began the copy and it said it would take 6 hours. Wasn’t sure that was a good thing, but it seemed like it was moving data pretty good. So I went to bed. Next morning I walk into the office and it looks like it’s only 50% completed. Huh. System sleep? Once I started using the computer, it seemed to progress much faster and finished up in an hour or so. That, my friends, is where I stand currently. I will continue moving files over and then maybe attempt a backup. I think I may use Carbon Copy Cloner for that instead of Time Machine, since I just want to be able to save one full backup and maybe I will leave the Passport for Time Machine. In the meantime, I placed the unit on the floor and connected it to my backup power supply. It runs quiet enough that I can’t hear it over my iMac and it’s as cool as a cucumber.
A Not So NAS-ty Solution
If you’re in an office environment and want to share the storage with more than just yourself (you greedy person, you) then you could consider NAS as a possible solution rather than a server. Network Attached Storage is a drive connected to your network via ethernet. It can be a RAID just as I discussed above, but shared rather than local. You would want it to be as fast a network as possible, preferably a 1GB Ethernet network.