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RE-REVIEW:
FirmTek SATA 'Intelligent'
Hot-Swap Adapters
and Compact, Quiet Enclosures

Posted April 28, 2005, by rob-ART morgan, mad scientist

FINALLY SHIPPING
Though the FirmTek SeriTek/1VE4 PCI-X SATA host adapter with 4 external ports was shown at MacWorld SF in January and was expected to ship in late February, that schedule didn't work out. We're glad to report it is now shipping!

And it was worth the wait for at least FOUR REASONS:

1. The SeriTek/1VE4 (and 1V4) are the first PCI-X SATA host adapters to feature "intelligent" hot swap feature. FirmTek's firmware tells you the model number, serial number, firmware version, and port number of each drive as you plug it in. That's extremely helpful if you are troubleshooting an 8 drive RAID set, some of whose drives may not be mounting properly because of a loose cable or some other reason.

3. You can can boot a system drive connected to the Sertek/1VE4. That's not all. In the past, SATA adapters that could boot system drives were slow to do so. The SeriTek/1VE4 features "Turbo Boot," so it boots as fast or faster than a built-in SATA interface.

I used this feature just yesterday to boot my 300GB Maxtor DiamondMax 10 external test drive on an upgraded G4/2GHz QuickSilver Power Mac. It not only booted fast but clocked over 60MB/s read and write speed. When you are considering CPU and graphics upgades for your legacy Power Mac, don't forget drive upgrades. Your Mac spends much of the time doing disk accesses. You can replace your current main drive with a screaming SATA drive with up to 16MB cache with the help of either the 1VE4 (external ports) or 1V4 (internal ports). Then when you replace your G4 Power Mac with a G5 Power Mac, you will definitely want to transfer the card(s) to your G5's PCI-X slots since both cards are PCI-X and 64 bit.

4. The SeriTek/1VE4 fits in 133MB/s PCI-X slot 4 in the G5. Why is that important? G5 Power Macs have a small power connector on the main logic board that blocks you from installing certain "fat" PCI-X cards in slot 4. Two cards that I've been unable to install in slot 4 include the Blackmagic Design DeckLink HD card and the Sonnet eSATA 8 card. That's frustrating since slot 4 is the fastest and does not share the bus with any other slot.

If you can't use slot 4 for at least one of those two "throughput demanding" cards, you experience what I did when I put the two cards mentioned above in slots 2 and 3 thereby sharing the same 100MB/s bus. Though the 8 drive RAID 0 set connected to the eSATA 8 was capable of 450+MB/s, it could only achieve 300MB/s. That's not a disaster since all I needed was 237MB/s, but it was still a bummer.

In the case of the SeriTek/1VE4, I was able to put drive my 8 drive RAID sets at over 450MB/s by putting one in slot 4, one in slot 3, and the DeckLink HD in slot 2. (Obviously having only 4 drives running on the same bus as the DeckLink does not cause bus contention.)

4. The SeriTek/1VE4 is the most downward compatible of SATA host adapters. It supports both OS 9 and OS X. It works in any Power Mac with PCI or PCI-X slots.

STRAIGHT-THROUGH ENCLOSURES
FirmTek is also shipping their SeriTek/1EN2 dual-bay hot-swap enclosure with removable trays which is unique among SATA enclosures in that you plug the drive directly into the backplane. Other enclosures may appear to plug drives into the backplane, but they ALL actually have an internal cable running from the drive to the back of the box.

The latter approach may allow room for an internal power supply but it introduces potential signal loss since you are essentially using two cables and four connectors between the drive and the host adapter. Let me explain. SATA technology is highly frequency sensitive. With no check sum, it's easy for the signal to get reflected or attenuated. The data cable length specification is 1 meter for SATA I (2 meters for SATA II). The short data cables used inside most enclosures to connect drive and external connector add at least 7 cm to the external cable's length.

CASE IN POINT: One consumer was having problems getting drives in his enclosure to mount. He solved the problem by opening the enclosure, removing the cable going from the drive to the backplane and plugging the main cable directly to the drive.

In the photo above, I wanted to show the relative size of three kinds of SATA RAID enclosures. On the far right are four FirmTek SeriTek/1EN2 Dual-Bay Hot-Swap enclosures stacked on their sides (containing eight drives forming a RAID 0 set). As you can see, they take up the least desktop "real estate," thanks to the "direct to backplane" design and external power supply. The others are wider and deeper, creating a larger footprint. The quiet, slow RPM fan at the back of each SeriTek enclosure pulls air across the drives through the front vents. Even though four boxes had a total of four fans, they produced the lowest noise level of any eight drive SATA RAID box we've tested to date.

Just to the left of the SeriTek enclosures are two of the 4 drive X-SPAND enclosures from Kano Technologies. The largest enclosure next to the G5 tower is the Granite Digital Hot Swap RAID.

BLACKMAGIC SPEED TESTS
Next to using DiskTester, our favorite speed test for drive systems is the Blackmagic Design's Speed Test, which ships with each DeckLink HD capture card. It's useful for rating your storage system's ability to capture or playback High Definition footage. We picked the target rate of 237MB/s, which is the minimum required for capturing (and playing back) Uncompressed 10 bit RGB (4:4:4) 1080/60i HD video.

We used two SeriTek/1VE4s to drive our 6 and 8 drive RAID sets. As you can see, there was no bus contention even though one of the 1VE4s was sharing the 100MB/s PCI-X bus with the DeckLink HD card.

We got test results for empty RAID volumes as well as "almost full" ones (90%). How did we do that? We used SoftRAID 3.1.3 to divide the RAID volume into two partitions. The first partition was defined using the first 90% of the RAID set's capacity. The second partition was defined using the last 10% the RAID set. When we run Blackmagic Design's Speed Test in the second partition, it effectively predicts your RAID set's ability to continue capturing or playing back high quality HD video without dropping frames even when when it is approaching maximum capacity.

Another thing demonstrated by the graphs is that an EMPTY four or six drive RAID 0 set might be fast enough to capture Uncompressed 10 bit RGB (4:4:4) 1080/60i HD video, but you'll need an EIGHT drive RAID to be able to keep up when the volume nears capacity.

REALITY CHECK
Though our target was Uncompressed 10 bit RGB (4:4:4) 1080/60i (237MB/s), most high end DV creators use either 10 bit RGB (4:4:4) 1080/24PsF (190MB/s) or 10 bit YUV (4:2:2) 1080/60i (158MB/s). That being true, one could get by with a 6 drive RAID 0.

CONCLUSION
The FirmTek SeriTek/1VE4 combines with the SeriTek/1EN2 enclosures to form a fast, versatile storage subsystem capable of handling the most demanding applications including high quality HD video capture and playback.

What's nice is that you can start with a 4 channel 1VE4 card and one or two 1EN2 enclosures. As your needs grow, you can add another enclosure or a second 1VE4 card. (SeriTek also has 2 channel cards, but they are 32bit PCI, not 64 bit PCI-X.)

As I said before, if you want a SATA storage enclosure that's quiet, affordable, and takes up minimal desk space, the SeriTek/1EN2 is hard to beat.

ONE CAVEAT
The one obstacle we encountered was the fact that the SeriTek/1VE4 can't "talk" to certain Hitachi hard drives that have Spread Spectrum Clocking (SSC) "hardwired" in the "on" mode. If you happen to have the "wrong" model, you can't run your Hitachi drives on the SeriTek/1VE4.

FYI, here are the models of Hitachi drives that have SSC disabled as default and DO work with the SeriTek/1V4 and 1VE4:

Deskstar 7K500

Deskstar T7K250

Deskstar T7K80

The Seagate Barracuda 7200.8s, Maxtor MaXLine IIIs, Maxtor DiamondMax 10s work fine with the SeriTek. The Western Digital 10K Raptors required a jumper change to disable SSC.

LINKS TO RELATED ARTICLES

Our review of the Sonnet Tempo-X eSATA 8 PCI-X host adapter

Storage Review tested the Seagate Barracuda 7200.8 400GB Serial ATA drive against the competition

Storage Review tests the WD 10K Raptor

Seagate Explains Native Command Queing

WHERE TO BUY SATA Host Adapters, Enclosures, Cables and Drives
If you are shopping for SATA drives, host adapters, converters, mounting kits, or enclosures, be sure to check pricing and availability at the following websites:

FirmTek.com (host adapters, cables, converters, enclosures)

FWDepot (sells FirmTek host adapters and enclosures)

Kano Technologies (eSATA SATA RAID enclosures; host adapters)
Use "BAREFEATS" coupon code to get 10% off the X-SPAND or 5% off everything else

Granite Digital (enclosures, host adapters, brackets, cables)

MacGurus.com (drives, host adapters, RAID enclosures, coolers, hot-swap trays, cables, converters)

Other World Computing (drives, host adapters, enclosures)

Small Dog Electronics (drives, host adapters)

Sonnet Technology online store (eSATA host adapters, eSATA cables)

TransIntl.com (drives, host adapters, SwiftData 200 internal drive mounting kit for G5s)

Wiebetech.com (G5Jam internal drive mounting kit -- with or without drives, host adapters)

Buy.com has Maxtor DiamondMax 10s, MaXLine IIIs, and WD Raptor 10K drives. Use the $15 off coupon on any order over $200.

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2005 Rob Art Morgan
"BARE facts on Macintosh speed FEATS"
Email , the webmaster and mad scientist