PCI-X Serial ATA RAID - Highpoint RocketRAID 1820A Review

For those who thought the high-end SATA RAID arrays were only for the corporate types, think again. Today, Cameron Johnson takes a hard look at the Highpoint RocketRAID 1820A, a means to bring monster arrays to your desktop. Who said only the big boys could play this game?
| Oct 21, 2004 at 11:00 pm CDT
Rating: 80%Manufacturer: Highpoint Tech

RocketRAID 1820A - Introduction

IntroductionRAID arrays, one only seen in extremely high-end server environments and only available on expensive SCSI controllers has moved to the desktop, and with a vengeance.Back in the late 90's you would need to have a separate IDE controller card, and use a modification to hack the card into a unit that could recognise RAID arrays. Next came the cards with the modifications built in, so no more hacks were needed. Finally we got these chips built onto the motherboards themselves, so a PCI slot wasn't required to be used for a RAID array to come to pass.Serial ATA has made the RAID era even easier with smaller cables and connectors, its even easier to have more than 4 drives in one system without cluttering up the case. Its now so important to companies like Intel and VIA that RAID based Serial ATA controllers are now built into the Southbridge with two and sometimes even four port SATA RAID controllers. It is, without a doubt, that Serial ATA has come on with a vengeance; however, one thing has held it back in the add-on market, the PCI Bus.In order for companies like Silicon Image, Highpoint and Promise (to name the main few in the market) to add the chips to either a card or the board itself, it must run on the aging PCI bus. While just about everyone knows that PCI has served well for sound and network controllers, when putting 150MB/s capable controller on to a bus that has to share 133MB/s between 4 or more PCI slots and onboard PCI based devices, you start to see the futility of this effort.Highpoint has come to the aid of server users who want to add multi channel SATA RAID into the servers without the bottleneck of the aging PCI bus.Today we are testing out the Highpoint Rocket RAID 1820A card and comparing it to the Silicon Image 3114 4 Port SATA chip and the ICH5-S Adaptec Southbridge based RAID controller to see if the PCI-X bus can give the added juice that is needed.

RocketRAID 1820A - The Card

The Card
The Highpoint RocketRAID 1820A is a rather large card in length but not in height. Highpoint has kept the height down in order for the card to be used in small form factor environments where half height cards are commonly used. The reason for the length is the PCI-X slot used. PCI-X slot uses a standard PCI slot but with an extra part on the back to allow for the 64-bit bus and 133MHz interface to be carried out. This results in a rather long slot that you tend to see on Server and Workstation motherboards. Hopefully PCI Express will put this slot to bed soon as a PCI Express x2 slot would give the exact same bandwidth without the super long slot required.The component placement is extremely excellent. The 1820A differs from the original 1820 in that the Serial ATA ports are stacked two apiece. This means that only four slot length is needed, the extra four sit atop each other, a great way to minimize space on the card for other components.On the upper left you can see two rows of jumpers. These aren't actually jumpers but are HDD connectivity and activity LED indicators. The top row indicates when a channel has a drive on it. There are 16 pins, 2-pin connection for each channel, a total of eight. The bottom row is to indicate activity of the drive on each channel, again 16 pins with two pins per, total of eight.
Highpoint has actually gone to a 3rd party chipset when it comes to the 1820A. Surprising for a company whose main exploits are IC RAID chips, however, it shows that Highpoint is looking at the best possible controller available. The Marvell Yukon 88SX5081 PCI-X to Serial ATA host controller chip powers the entire show. The Marvell chip is the first PCI-X to Serial ATA host controller available on the market for commercial use. The 5081 series of the chip is an 8-channel controller chip with support for RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 0+1, RAID 5, RAID 10 and JBOD with XOR support. The chip itself is designed to run on a 64-bit bus at either 100MHz or 133MHz, giving it a peak bandwidth of 1.06GB/s along a 133MHz 64-bit PCI-X bus.Along with this Tagged Command Queuing is supported, since Native Command Queuing has only just come in, however, Tagged Command Queuing does make up a bit in the performance sector. Along with these features comes Hot Swapping. The Marvell chip supports hot swapping drives on the fly as well as hot spare, so if you loose a drive in the redundant array, when a new one is inserted it automatically assigns the drive to the lost array.
As mentioned just a minute ago, this card has support for XOR. The HPT 601 controller chip powers the XOR System along with the new caching algorithm. The 601 chip takes care of cache sorting as well as the XOR function away from the CPU, requiring less CPU cycles, this makes the 1820A card a more peripheral choice for NAS environments where the CPU power is better spent handling the traffic rather than organizing the RAID environment.
The BIOS setup for the Highpoint RocketRAID 1820A resembles the same as all of the Highpoint BIOS products. Actually it is a good thing as it makes integration across the entire product range very simple and easy to use, if you have setup one Highpoint controller card you can do it with the rest.

RocketRAID 1820A - Test System Setup and Sandra 2004

Test System SetupProcessor: Intel Pentium 4 3.2EEGHz (800MHz FSB) (Supplied by Spectrum Communications)Memory: 2x 512MB DDR-533 OCZ (Supplied by OCZ)Hard Disk:2x Maxtor Maxline III 250GBGraphics Card: ATI Radeon 9800XT (Supplied by Gigabyte)Operating System: Microsoft Windows XP Professional SP2Drivers: Catalyst 4.9For the Motherboard of choice we used the Gigabyte 8KNXP Ultra 64
This board is based on the Intel i875P Northbridge with the ICH5-S Hance Rapids Southbridge. This chip gives support for PCI-X 133MHz channels so it was perfect for the controller card. To test against other chips it also has onboard a Silicon Image 3114 Serial ATA 4 port controller and the onboard Intel/Adaptec ICH5R system, which will be compared against the 1820A controller card.SiSoft SandraVersion and / or Patch Used: SP2Developer Homepage: http://www.sisoftware.co.ukProduct Homepage: http://sisoftware.jaggedonline.com/index.php?location=home&a=TTA&lang=enBuy It Here
SiSoft Sandra (System ANalyser, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant) is a synthetic Windows benchmark that features different tests used to evaluate different PC subsystems.
Here we can see that the 1820 Highpoint Controller is able to equal the onboard Southbridge controller and is way ahead of the PCI based controller.

RocketRAID 1820A - Benchmarks - PCMark

PCMarkVersion and / or Patch Used: v120Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.comProduct Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/pcmark04/Buy It Here
PCMark is a multipurpose benchmark, suited for benchmarking all kinds of PCs, from laptops to workstations, as well as across multiple Windows operating systems. This easy-to-use benchmark makes professional strength benchmarking software available even to novice users. PCMark consists of a series of tests that represent common tasks in home and office programs. PCMark also covers many additional areas outside the scope of other MadOnion.com benchmarks.
Here we see that the Highpoint controller just outscores the Southbridge based controller.

RocketRAID 1820A - Benchmarks - HD Tach 3.0

HD Tach 3.0HD Tach has been around for a long time and is excellent when it comes to testing hard drive performance. It is also a very handy program when it comes to testing the controller used on particular motherboards. Tests such as Read, CPU Utilization and Burst are available at a click of the button and give you a good idea of how the hard drive can perform from system to system.
HD Tach gives the honors to the Highpoint controller in all tests.

RocketRAID 1820A - Final Thoughts

Final ThoughtsSerial ATA has now shown itself to be the full on replacement for aging IDE. While at this point in time not offering any speed advantages over IDE, it does have some rather pleasing values, such as 7-wire cables, hot swapping abilities as well as a max cable length of 1 meter, more than enough length for both full size towers and even mods to place the drives outside the case.Highpoint has put together the first of a full speed controller card that is able to actually put some speed out above what we normally get. The PCI-X bus gives a full 1.06GB/s transfer rate; more than what is required for Serial ATA RAID controllers, though you are going to need a server board or one like the 8KNXP Ultra 64.While PCI Express x1 SATA Controller cards should soon see the light of day for the mainstream market, Highpoint has currently tapped into the fastest available bus on the market, this card is a definite must for NAS users.While powerful and fast, you are going to pay a price premium, as PCI-X cards rarely are seen for the desktop market.- ProsFastest SATA ControllerPCI-X Bus gives more than enough bandwidthSupports up to 8 SATA drivesCompatible with IDE to SATA (RocketHead unit)Supports Windows (32-bit and 64-bit), Linux (32-bit and 64-bit) and MacOS- ConsPrice extremely highRequires PCI-X slot for full speedWhen running on PCI 2.3 slot, bandwidth limited to PCI specifications.Rating - 8 out of 10

Last updated: Apr 7, 2020 at 12:26 pm CDT

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