by Darin Ames
Since my article addressing the issue of whether to Upgrade or buy a new Mac appeared on this site, Ive received quite a bit of e-mail. All the messages I got were extremely friendly and some proved to be quite informative, shedding light on certain issues of which I was unaware. I thank everyone for the great response.
Of these messages, the subject most asked about was the RAID I built for my 9600, Swinger. The need for fast SCSI disk performance seems to be a hot topic, whether your Mac is Beige or Blue. Therefore, I have decided to write a review of the RAID I have. While this will not be a comparison piece, pitting several SCSI cards and drives against one another, I hope it will nevertheless be helpful information for all those interested in building their own Ultra2 SCSI RAID. For those in need of a SCSI card shoot-out, you should read Mikes review elsewhere on this very site, while anyone in need of one of the most comprehensive, step by step guides to building an external RAID should read the RAID tutorial by those fiends at MacGurus.
This might be a good time to point out the difference between Ultra2 or "LVD" drives and other forms of SCSI.
Like all SCSI drives, Ultra2 drives require you to set an ID number for the drive by placing jumpers on designated pins or by attaching connectors attached to switches that enable you to select SCSI ID numbers on enclosure backplanes.
<pause for a moment of reflection>
Another difference of Ultra2 is the amount of cable length allowed. The maximum length of internal and external cabling under Ultra Wide is 4.5-feet. This is why Apple blocked off the external port on the ATTO/Apple SCSI card shipped with some older versions of the Beige G3, and why OEM versions of the JackHammer shipped with a piece of tape blocking the external port. Internal cabling was so long, in both cases, that Apple preferred to discourage use of the external port. U2 chains, on the other hand, can be 12 meters, allowing for more flexibility (providing one is conservative regarding unnecessarily long cable runs).
Ultra2 SCSI card.
When I decided to go with Ultra2 rather than Ultra Wide RAID, Ultra2 cards were only starting to trickle into the channel. The first two to become available were the Adaptec and the ATTO. I did some checking into both and heres what I came up with.
There are many drives available from many vendors. Ultra2 drives are usually a bit more expensive then others but not prohibitively so. While several brands have received favorable reviews, sticking to my plan of using only the best components, I decided to go with Seagate Cheetahs. These drives have won several awards and richly deserve the accolades bestowed upon them. Running at 10,000 RPM and ranging in capacities of 4GB to 36GB, these drives provide the ultimate in disk performance. At the time I was ordering, the 4.5 GB Cheetahs were hard to come by, so I just said screw it and ordered four 9GBs. They came in rather no frills packaging, but well insulated from shock and included a very informative manual with exceptionally clear charts detailing all jumper settings. Also included were extra jumpers. As is usually the case, the drives were unformatted and set to ID:0. Holding one of these bad boys in your hand feels truly special. You know you are now in the big leagues. They just feel powerful. If I sound whacked, you havent held one. If you have, you know what I mean.
Cables and Terminators:
The Miles2 card comes with a terminated Ultra2 internal ribbon cable, which would be fine to use in most any case. I, however, decided to leave nothing to chance and chose to go with Granite Digital cabling. (Besides, a preliminary test showed that one of the Miles cables was in fact hosed.)
Break open the spare room, honey. We've got company:
I knew that at best, Id have room for only two Cheetahs inside Swinger. I would actually have to remove the internal Zip drive from its front bay of my 9600 to make room for one of them. This still left me with two cheetahs and nowhere to put them. Suddenly, inspiration hit me. I remembered perusing the MacGurus website and seeing a page describing their excellent line of Burly enclosures. I ordered a model 5041 external enclosure. This case can house four drives and has the capacity to have two separate buses. This was important to me, as I was sticking to my dual channel plan. I knew that by filling only two drive bays in the 5041, I would be leaving two open, but this gives me a nice warm feeling Should I add any more U2 drives, I have a place all ready for them. Along with the 5041, I got three front mounting fan bracket kits, and a temperature readout. When people think of building something like this on their own, they seem to put the cosmetic issue on the back burner. Not I. I was determined to have this babys appearance be on par with the quality of the components it houses. The 5041 might not be quite as sexy as the Hammer RAID systems, but the difference in price suddenly makes it more exciting than losing the police cruisers chasing you while Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon are busy sucking on your ear lobes.
The glue that holds it all together Formatting Software:
For software, I had a bit of a conundrum on my hands. I had RAID ToolKit, Hard Disk ToolKit 3.0 (with RAID features rolled in) and SoftRAID. For quite a while, RTK was the standard software for RAID solutions. However, FWB had failed to update the product in some time and thus left an opening for other, hungrier vendors to step up with their own products. Even when HDT 3.0 was released, my early tests showed that while it was fine for formatting individual drives, it was actually LESS capable at handling RAID striping than RTK. Unsure of which way to go, I put my faith in Initio and decided to use the software they saw fit to bundle with the Miles2. I went with SoftRAID and never looked back.
SoftRAID's interface is very simple and elegant. In its default settings, you are presented with one main window with two vertical columns. The right column lists all available devices, or Disks (as they are referred to by the application), displaying individual information such as the SCSI Bus on which it resides, the drive ID number, total capacity, etc. The left column is where formatted, ready to use Volumes are displayed. To create a volume, one must first initialize or format the disk, thus placing the superior SoftRAID driver on the drive and preparing it for formatting as a mountable volume. To do this, one has two choices:
In order to stripe drives for RAID, one need only select two or more drives in the Devices column (clicking on the first and then shift-clicking the subsequent devices) and then drag them to the volume column. It's just that easy, kids.
Ready to swing?
Seeing as half of the installation would be internal and half external, I had to decide how I would divide the drives among the two channels. I decided to have each channel use one internal and one external drive. While this may be a bit more costly, due to the need for more cabling, I felt this would be a better way to "even" out the two Channels. Once again, the key to successful Ultra2 is balance and symmetry. I was determined to adhere to this.
CAUTION: as with any installation that requires you to open the chassis of your Mac, do so at your own risk. In many cases, doing so can void your warranty. If you are unfamiliar with the inner layout of your Mac or are not mechanically savvy, there are many options available to have an Apple Authorized repair center do this work for you. As with anything, when in doubt, lay out. I dont purport myself to be an expert in hardware design or installation. What follows is simply an account of what I did and how I did it. The key is being careful and using common sense. The reward is having a great RAID system that you built with your own, two hands.
First step was to install the two Miles2 cards. I opened up Swinger, silently thanking Apple for the dramatic change in case design from the dark days of opening up my 8100 and 8500 and walking away, hours later, bruised and bleeding. I inserted the cards in slots 1 and 4. As with any PCI card installation, one must use a combination of care and precise force. Line up the pins so that the card is ready to be slipped into place, then apply steady, firm force until you hear/feel a satisfying "ker-chuck" sound. Once both cards were firmly in place, I pressed the CUDA button, just to make sure the logicboard would accept and play nice with these new additions to the family.
The next step was to install the two internal drives. I reassembled Swinger about half way, standing the case upright, leaving the left side panel and the front bezels off, thus giving me access to the drive bays and connection points on the SCSI cards. I removed the faceplates and unscrewed the drive trays and removed them. I then took two drives and placed jumpers on both to provide termination power to the bus. Even though these two drives were going to be on separate buses, I gave them different SCSI IDs so that I could easily identify each later on. Assigning an ID is done by simply placing a jumper on the proper pins, as described in the manual. If the manual is not handy, Seagate has an extensive graphical library of all its drives on the web, so one can quickly find virtually any information about any Seagate drive. With the drives prepared, I screwed them onto the trays and slid the trays back into Swinger, securing them with the proper screws.
Test Number One.
Before moving on, I wanted to be sure that the two drives installed were in good working order. Making sure all connections to Swinger were in place, I booted and launched SoftRAID 2.1.5. I then formatted each drive. At this point I had two, 9GB volumes. I restarted and made sure that each drive mounted and ran properly. I then installed a System Folder on each drive and booted from each. Once this worked, I reformatted BOTH drives and striped the two together as one 18GB array. I repeated the previous steps to the point where I could boot from this large, striped volume.
I was now ready to tackle the external half of the RAID. This being my first venture into this area, I must confess that I cheated a bit and had the selfless, monk-like hardware Swamis at MacGurus assemble the 5041 enclosure for me, with all cabling and fans ready for drives to be installed. While it is not that difficult to do this, I wanted things up and running fast. One of my mottoes is "Instant gratification takes too long." You get the point. I prepared the two Cheetahs similarly to the way I had done before, with the addition of attaching side mounting brackets to secure the drives in the case. I then made the proper connections for power, ID selector switches, power-light indicators and SCSI connection. Keep in mind that each drive was placed on its own SCSI bus, necessitating two SCSI ribbon cables. Unlike the ribbon cables used inside Swinger, the termination for these drives would be placed on the external connectors on the rear of the chassis, much like other external SCSI drives. With all connections made, I then attached both the external LVD terminators to each of the two separate buses and attached the two external cables leading from the case to the two Miles2 cards.
Please put your seat in its full, upright position and fasten your seat belts. The Captain has lit the smokin sign, Baby.
Now it was time to give the RAID a run and feel the difference. While I could rush to give you MacBench scores, Ill first describe the "feel" of the speed boost.
Building this RAID took some time and most definately required some patience. Rushing through something as intricate as this will only hurt you in the end. All things considered, however, the overall process was straight forward and conformed to sensible logic. At no point did I hit a road block and scratch my head, trying to think of some radically unorthodox way to accomplish some step in the RAID's completion.
The Initio card is a wonderful piece of engineering that provides the best performance available for a U2 card at a price lower than its competitors. Moreover, Initio support is extremely helpful and courteous. Since installing the RAID, I made the age old mistake of fastening an external connecter screw-post too tightly, snapping the female receptacle on the Miles2. Initio sent out a replacement immediately and told me to test the new card before sending the old one back. While they did take a credit card number for security, no charge ever appeared on my statement.
The Seagate Cheetahs really need no further praise. Nevertheless, I would be remiss without once again reiterating just how good these drives are. Yes, there are drives available for lower cost. Yes, some other vendor's drives are of fine quality. Still, when the day is through, Cheetahs set a standard for performance that puts them on a level that far surpasses all other offerings.
The Granite Digital cables and terminators, once in hand and in action, need no help in justifying their cost. Once you've used these products, you will not be able to keep from shaking your head upon seeing the usual, flimsy grey ribbon cables and off the shelf terminators that so commonly come with our Macs and line the aisles of CompUSA
Finally, SoftRAID 2.1.5 has proven to be the fastest, easiest to use drive formatting software one can get. Obviously attuned to what makes for superior performance, the engineers at SoftRAID have developed drivers that are completely 8.5.1 compatible and simply the fastest one can get. Their customer service shines as well. When I was first assembling my RAID, the latest version was 2.1. At first I ran into a couple of problems regarding the stability of the array. This was due to the fact that at the time, Ultra2 was still only just hitting the streets, let alone being implemented in a full, dual-channel RAID. When I brought my problems to Mark James' (SoftRAID's president) attention, update 2.1.5 was issued within days. This update instantly solve the conflicts I was seeing. That, Gentle Readers, is what you call service.
I could go on and on lavishing praise on the individual components and overall power of my RAID, but I'll stop teasing and get to what I imagine most of you are waiting for, test scores. But, before I do, I must discuss something very important to me that should be of equal importance to anyone purchasing quality gear for their Mac. Bear with me.
What you buy and Where you buy it.
We are entering a strange new age in commerce. While the WWW has allowed us, the consumers, wonderful opportunities to comparison shop and find items that otherwise could not be located, it has also afforded many individuals and companies new and exciting ways and means by which to take advantage of us. I shall not single out anyone in particular, but it must be said that some vendors will insist on offering the lowest price for a given item, even if that difference amounts to pennies, at the sacrifice of something that really has no price (yet): Service. Not enough can be said of good customer service, be it pre or post sale. Whether it be for something as simple to operate as a whisk or as intricate as the RAID described above, the guidance and assistance we frequently need from our vendors is really something that cannot be given a price. (YET)
Onto the scores.
As you can see, the RAID slightly out performs the stock IBM drive that came with Swinger. While test scores are great for that "Leo DeCaprio, King of the World" boasting, the real value of a high performance disk system proves itself to you on a daily basis by making your work and play more efficient, powerful and frankly fun.
Thanks for reading.
Please note that this review, as well as other articles I have written, will be maintained at my site on the "Geek" pages.