Many years and several bottles of Jgermeister ago I produced a few songs and ran the live soundstage for a couple of local bands. At the time digital recording with computers was in its infant stages. Logic Audio could still be run on the PC and Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) was putting out better hardware than Pro Tools. It was a very exciting time for digital music since we were pioneering new techniques and battling latency at every turn. This period in my life played a large role in my career as a storage product tester since back then money was scarce and dual processor motherboards, rack mount equipment and even the balanced cables were expensive as hell. Making the most out of what was available turned into an art and one of the best ways to get the most out of the recording equipment was savaging for high speed 15K RPM SCSI drives. Looking back, it really amazes me what all we were able to do with a few hundred dollars of software and a few computers pieced together from server scraps.
Digital content has grown in all forms and new standards have put even more of a burden on storage. Lossless codecs and raw material have grown in size and a computer's ability to access the data quickly is even more challenging than it was ten years ago due to the sheer volume of data needed. Back in the day a few 18GB X15's would do the trick, nowadays the program suites being run are larger than 18GB! The bus width has also changed considerably, Ultra2 Wide SCSI at 80 MB/s was hot stuff, but the products we are looking at today are capable of churning data at close to 20 times that rate.
Today we are looking at a product from iStorage Pro. iStorage Pro is part of the Ci Design, a major ODM with over 25 years of experience making products for major OEMs. Recently Ci Design entered the retail market under the iStorage Pro label and currently have over 25 models set to be released.
As with any new venture, getting products on store shelves and in the major e-tail outlets is difficult. iStorage Pro is such a new name in the storage circles that we were unable to find their products at the discount e-tail shops that we normally look at for pricing, but products like the one we are testing today are made for very specific purposes. The iT8SAE that we are looking at today is built for serious A/V production, but just like when I was savaging server parts ten years ago, the A/V market has turned to tried and true storage technologies that were born in the server room and migrated to serve these high performance areas that are critical to the production of our daily entertainment.
Let's take a look at the specifications for the iStorage Pro iT8SAE.
Specifications, Availability and Pricing
The iStorage Pro iT8SAE is available in several configurations. On the website iStorage Pro only lists the unit with drives in four different capacity configurations. I was able to find at least one online source for a base unit that came without drives. Since we only use Seagate 7200.11 1TB (SATA) or Seagate 15K.7 600GB (SAS) drives for testing, we asked iStorage Pro to send us a unit without drives. This allows us to keep the comparisons between one product and another equal.
The iT8SAE uses SATA/SAS expander technology. Inside the unit we found an Areca 8020 expander, a new high performance unit that holds true to Areca's amazing track record of producing high speed SCSI products. The iT8SAE houses up to eight SATA or SAS hard drives and has the ability to hold up to 16TB of data.
Since the Areca 8020 has no direct RAID functionality; you will need to purchase a SATA/SAS RAID controller with an external SFF-8088 data port. For our testing we used the Areca ARC-1680X, an iStorage Pro approved RAID controller and also tested the new LSI MegaRAID 9280-8E. iStorage Pro includes the data cable with the iT8SAE, so you will not have to worry about purchasing a cable which can run anywhere between 20 to 300 USD, depending on length.
Expander technology is quite impressive. In the image above we see how the iT8SAE can be "stacked" or daisy chained to add more capacity. The only down fall is that you are not going to see a speed increase since the ARC-8020 only uses SAS 3 Gbps and units with SATA 6Gbps have yet to be released. Each SFF-8088 connector runs what we would think of as four SAS channels at SAS 3 Gbps speeds. The end result means we should see speeds of around 800 MB/s, something that we could actually see with just four of the latest 15K.7 SAS hard drives. In the image above that shows the expansion, one cable is running to the MAC, but a more competent way of arranging the system would be to run two chains and take advantage of both 4x SAS channels on the controller.
When it comes to availability, we were able to find the iT8SAE in a few specialty A/V e-tailers. Our pricing information came from Coastal Media Concepts. At CMC we found the iT8SAE available in five different configurations including the base model without drives. A bare unit is going to run right around 1,595 USD and the fully loaded 16TB model is just shy of 6,000 Dollars. If you have the technical know how, buying the base model and installing your own Seagate Barracuda XT or Western Digital Caviar Black drives will save you over 2,000 Dollars. Both Seagate and Western Digital make 2TB drives that cost close to half as much as their flagship high speed models, so if you wanted 16TB and were working on a budget, you could get the entire system setup for 2,800 Dollars, less than half of what the e-tailer is selling the unit for. As you may have guessed, this is why we like to get our pricing information from Newegg and other long standing e-tailers that don't set their prices based on the wow factor. You can see a full list of retail and e-tail sellers on this page.
Let's take a look at the iStorage Pro iT8SAE.
Our iStorage Pro iT8SAE arrived double boxed and the entire package system is designed to take advantage of this. The weight for shipping is right around 50 pounds so plan on going ground to save on shipping costs.
Once inside both boxes we found a box in the middle with all of the documentation and SF-8088 data cable. The four boxes on the outside are made to hold your 3.5 inch form factor hard drives if you purchased a system with drives.
With the accessory box removed we can see that the main unit is packaged very well with a lot of distance between the edge of the main unit and the side of the box. This crush zone is usually where we see large packages damaged in shipping.
The iT8SAE comes with everything needed to get started except for the computer and SAS controller. Unfortunately the cable they sent with the unit was defective but we will get into that headache later in the article. On the inside we found nine packs of screws so you will have four extra screws to secure the drives if you happen to lose a set. The documentation was written in a clear manner but has less information than what we found on Areca's website for the ARC-8020 controller. Still, putting the system together is not rocket science and everyone should be able to get by without knowing every detail and specification for the expander built into the iT8SAE.
The iStorage Pro iT8SAE
The iT8SAE has a mesh grill that allows the system to pull air in from the front of the unit and pass it over the drives. The door has a lock, but we were able to turn the system on and off through the mesh grill. But since this isn't designed for high security environments, it wasn't that big of a deal.
With the door open we can see the removable drive bays. At the bottom right there is a power button and two LEDs that show the systems status.
The back planes are setup for SAS drives, so you can use either SAS or SATA drives, or even a combination of the two.
The drive carriers are made of steel and use copper inserts that eliminates any vibration that would normally add to the noise from the system when in operation. This is important in the production environment since no one wants to mix down a song or video and hear the rattle of their storage subsystem.
The top and sides of the iT8SAE are made of thick aluminum which aids in keeping the weight down as well as insulate hard drive noise.
The Areca ARC-8020 is located at the top of the unit. The middle connector is where you insert the data cable from the RAID controller. The two ports on either side are used to expand the system. A terminal slot is also included on the expander and you can telnet into the system to set everything up. The four buttons to the right of the LCD screen can also be used to set the system up further if needed, but iStorage Pro has done a very good job of having everything ready to go as soon as you power the system on.
A 120mm fan sets in the middle of the iT8SAE and does a good job of keeping the drives cool. Our 15K.7 drives never reported temperatures over 40C. The power supply is at the bottom of the case. The power supply included in the unit was manufactured by Seasonic, the same OEM that Corsair uses on their extremely popular PSUs. The PSU included with our test system was 80-Plus certified and came with a 350 watt rating.
Test System Setup
Motherboard: ASUS P6T7 WS SuperCoputer (Supplied by ASUS)
Processors: Intel 975 EE (Supplied by AVADirect)
Memory: Corsair Dominator 1600 MHz Triple Channel Kit
Graphics Card: Leadtek Quadro FX1700 (Supplied by Leadtek)
Enclosure: Lian Li V2000
Cooling: Noctua NH-U12P SE2 (Supplied by Noctua)
SAS Controller: LSI MegaRAID SAS 9280-8E (Supplied by LSI)
SAS Controller: Areca ARC-1680X (Supplied by Areca Technology)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate X64
You can read more about TweakTown's Storage Product Testing Workstation and the procedures followed to test products in this article.
Our original plan was to test the iStorage Pro iT8SAE with the new LSI MegaRAID 9280-8E SATA/SAS controller, but ran into an issue where the iT8SAE would not link with the controller. Since the 9280-8E is a new controller that runs native SAS 6 Gbps, we thought it was a compatibility issue. After talking to both LSI, iStorage Pro and Areca we learned that this combination had yet to be tested and approved. Areca quickly volunteered one of their ARC-1680X controllers, a model that has been validated in the iStorage Pro and Areca's own test lab.
With the Areca controller in hand two days later, it was time to get back to work and get this system up and running in our lab. It became clear that the problem had little to do with the controller and we rushed out to get a new cable hoping that the main unit wasn't defective. The cable provided to us by iStorage Pro ended up being defective.
After we got everything up and running, we decided to test the iT8SAE with both the Areca and LSI controller cards to see what kind of performance difference we would get since both controllers will excel at different tasks and benchmarks. We also took testing one step further and tested in both RAID 0 and RAID 5 configurations.
Data storage was left up to the Seagate 15K.7, the fastest platter based hard drive on the planet at this time. Seagate graciously provided us with eight drives to fill the system with. You can read a full review of the Seagate 15K.7 in this article that was published just a few weeks ago.
Benchmarks - HD Tune Pro
HD Tune Pro
Version and / or Patch Used: 3.00
Developer Homepage: http://www.efdsoftware.com
Product Homepage: http://www.hdtune.com
HD Tune is a Hard Disk utility which has the following functions:
- Benchmark: measures the performance
- Info: shows detailed information
- Health: checks the health status by using SMART
- Error Scan: scans the surface for errors
- Temperature display
HD Tune Pro gives us accurate read, write and access time results and for the last couple of years has been gaining popularity amongst reviewers. It is now considered a must have application for storage device testing.
Once you get into numbers this high, synthetic benchmarks don't really cut it anymore and they start to lose their value with what to expect in real world applications. Here we see Areca's well known RAID 0 performance; this is what put them on the map with enthusiasts. The iStorage Pro iT8SAE performs well in all of the tests shown.
The write tests are a mixed bag; the Areca controller shows us slower numbers than the Read test, but the LSI is faster.
Benchmarks - Everest Random Access Time
Everest Random Access Time
Version and / or Patch Used: 4.60
Developer Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
Product Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
Everest Ultimate and Corporate Edition offer several different benchmarks for testing and optimizing your system or network. The Random Access test is one of very few if not only that will measure hard drives random access times in hundredths of millisECOnds as oppose to tens of millisECOnds.
Our Seagate 15K RPM 15K.7 drives really do a good job of keeping the latency low with the iT8SAE.
Between the cache on the controllers and the cache on the drives, we were not able to break cache hits in this test.
Let's see how all of these synthetic benchmarks relate to real world applications.
Benchmarks - PCMark Vantage Hard Disk Tests
PCMark Vantage - Hard Disk Tests
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0.0
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/benchmarks/pcmark-vantage/
Buy It Here
PCMark Vantage is the first objective hardware performance benchmark for PCs running 32 and 64 bit versions of Microsoft Windows Vista. PCMark Vantage is perfectly suited for benchmarking any type of Microsoft Windows Vista PC from multimedia home entertainment systems and laptops to dedicated workstations and high-end gaming rigs. Regardless of whether the benchmarker is an artist or an IT Professional, PCMark Vantage shows the user where their system soars or falls flat, and how to get the most performance possible out of their hardware. PCMark Vantage is easy enough for even the most casual enthusiast to use yet supports in-depth, professional industry grade testing.
FutureMark has developed a good set of hard disk tests for their PCMark Vantage Suite. These tests are based on real world applications that many of us use daily.
HDD1 - Windows Defender
HDD2 - Gaming
HDD3 - Windows Photo Gallery
HDD4 - Vista Startup
HDD5 - Windows Movie Maker
HDD6 - Windows Media Center
HDD7 - Windows Media Player
HDD8 - Application Loading
We expected very high multimedia scores with the iT8SAE with our accompanying hardware, but had no idea we would see 600+ MB/s results.
Benchmarks - Passmark
Passmark Advanced Multi-User Tests
Version and / or Patch Used: 6.1
Developer Homepage: http://www.passmark.com
Test Homepage: http://www.passmark.com
Many users complain that I/O Meter is too complicated of a benchmark to replicate results so my quest to find an alternative was started. Passmark has added several multi-user tests that measure a hard drives ability to operate in a multi-user environment.
The tests use different settings to mimic basic multi-user operations as they would play out on your server. Variances is read / write percentage as well as random / sequential reads are common in certain applications, Web Servers read nearly 100% of the time while Database Servers write a small amount of data.
The Workstation test is the only single user environment and will be similar to how you use your system at home.
Passmark shows us how your choice in controller can affect your real world performance. Here we see that certain configurations are better suited for different needs.
Benchmarks - AS SSD Copy-Benchmark
AS SSD Copy-Benchmark
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.2.3556.18595
Developer Homepage: Alex Intelligent Software
Product Homepage: Alex Intelligent Software
Download here: http://www.alex-is.de/PHP/fusion/downloads.php?cat_id=4&download_id=9
AS determines the performance of Solid State Drives (SSD). The tool contains four synthetic as well as three practice tests. The synthetic tests are to determine the sequential and random read and write performance of the SSD. These tests are carried out without the use of the operating system caches.
In all synthetic tests the test file size is 1GB. AS can also determine the access time of the SSD, the access of which the drive is determined to read through the entire capacity of the SSD (Full Stroke). The write access test is only to be met with a 1 GB big test file. At the end of the tests three values for the read and write as well as the overall performance will be issued. In addition to the calculated values which are shown in MB/s, they are also represented in IO per seconds (IOPS).
AS SSD allows us to see how the iT8SAE handles direct copies. Here we see that the overall subsystem works wonderfully in all tests. The ISO file, one large chuck of information is the fastest, as it should be.
After all of that, who could possibly have a bad thing to say about reaching over 700 MB/s in some tests? Luckily we are still objective even when our jaw is resting on the floor. My biggest complaint is that the unit shipped to us with a defective SFF-8088, the last thing we would think would have an issue. In my little secluded world of reviewing hardware, getting a new controller is a single email away, but stepping back and looking at it in a real world scenario, the whole process would have been agenizing. At some point you have to doubt your entire purchase; could it be the RAID controller, the enclosure or the cable? - Since controllers are expensive, roughly 400 to 900 Dollars depending on the model, and the inability to just run to your hometown computer store to get them, trouble shooting an issue like this can be a very expensive ordeal. Shipping the iStorage Pro iT8SAE back to the reseller is also an expensive option since the entire package weighs fifty pounds.
With the bum cable being my biggest complaint, the front door has to be my minor. The case of the system is built very well, but the front door feels a little flimsy when opened. With the door closed it feels solid, but still would allow someone to turn on or off the system through the door.
On the bright side, the system performed as it should and was able to deliver stellar performance with both of our high power RAID controllers. There shouldn't be many instances where 700 MB/s isn't enough to get the job done. I was expecting to see the Areca ARC-8020 adding more latency, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the system performed as if the drives were attached to an internal controller.
With the ability to hold up to 16TB of data with eight HDDs in RAID 0, you will not be left wanting as far as capacity goes. If you do get to a point where 16TB is not enough, there is always the option of adding another iT8SAE to your configuration.
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