Holy Smokes! 7 TB RAID-5 for less than $1000 (not quite… read comments)

OK, I’m a geek.  What did I decide to get myself for Christmas?  A big ole honking bunch of storage.  Nothing says happiness like a shopping bag filled with hard drives.

Yes, I’m the same guy where the highlight of a recent Friday night was shopping for an Android tablet at Kmart.  This shouldn’t come as a shock to you.

The backstory:

Whenever I (legitimately) get a new DVD, CD or BluRay, the first thing I do is rip it to a hard drive.  I’ve re-purchased too many things after scratching them up, so this seems like a pretty reasonable thing to do.  DVDFab (http://www.dvdfab.com) will create a legitimate backup to just about anything.

Is it legal?  Well, in the recent case against RealNetworks, Judge Patel said “… it may be fair use for an individual consumer to store a backup copy of a personally owned DVD on that individuals computer…”.  That’s good enough for me.  I’m making backup copies of the music and movies that I’ve purchased.  The physical disks sit on a shelf in my living room.  I don’t stream them to the Internet, I don’t make them available via BitTorrent, I don’t make copies for friends and family.  I consider this insurance against the inevitable:  that I’m a numbskull and will eventually render the physical media unusable.

My former storage solution was a 1.5 TB Western Digital MyBook Home (sadly, no longer available, for eSATA connectivity you have to get the MyBook Studio Edition II). 

After ripping the DVDs for Battlestar Galactica (Seasons 1, 2, 2.5, 3 and 4) plus the BluRays for Season 4.5, plus BSG: The Plan; DVDs for the Resident Evil movies, The Matrix movies, the Riddick Trilogy (have I mentioned that I’m a geek?), Starship Troopers 1, 2 and 3 (first was brilliant, 2 and 3 less so)…

The last straw was the full series “FireFly”, given as a Secret Santa gift at work.  Three BluRay disks, or 132GB.  The venerable MyBook is getting a little lean on space with just 91 GB remaining.

<nostaliga>I’m just going to pause to remember the days when 640K was enough for anyone, how psyched I was to finally own a 486 with 8 MB of RAM and a 100 MB hard drive and how jeolous all my friends were when I daisy chained a bunch of 200 MB hard drives into a storage array with a whopping 1 GB usable storage.</nostalgia>

What’s a nerd to do?

Well, I checked out a few packaged NAS solutions.  I was un-impressed with 1 (what’s the point?), 2 and 4 bay solutions.  Not only were they wicked expensive, they all came with a ton of features that I frankly didn’t want.  I don’t want my storage array to be an FTP server, a Web server, a BitTorrent server.  I don’t want it to tuck me in at night, I don’t want it to kiss my on the forehead… I want it to store files.  I’d also like it to use RAID-5 so if one of my hard drives goes to the great bit bucket in the sky, I don’t lose my stuff.

Packaged solutions ruled out.

I talked with my minion at work, intrepid surfer of bargain technology sites and all around intrepid serf.  He came up with the idea of building a small Linux box with lots of hard drives.  It seemed like a reasonable solution.  Cheap motherboard, cheap processor, some old RAM that I have lying around needing a good home… how hard could it be?

So I called up my buddies at PC Warehouse in Edison NJ (call them at 732-287-0734).  I prefer dealing with them rather than buying parts online because I never have a problem when dealing with them.  They answer the phone.  They answer questions.  They accept returns without a hassle.

What’s really cool about them is they ASK questions.  They’ve known me long enough to ask what I’m trying to do.  So I told them.  They came up with a better solution.

They had a Storbox 5-bay SATA enclosure with an eSATA controller for about $245.  It connects to the computer through a single eSATA cable.  Just fill it with hard drives and go.

PC Warehouse didn’t have 2 TB hard drives in stock, so a little side trip to BestBuy for 5 Western Digital Caviar Green (ok, they are only 5400 RPM drives… I’ll deal with it) and back home to get my geek on.  I could have gotten them cheaper online (about $108 online vs $140 at Best Buy… I guess I’m willing to spend an extra $150 for instant gratification).

I popped the eSATA controller into my Windows 7 x64 PC.  Didn’t even have to download drivers, the Sil3132 controller’s drivers apparently ship with Windows 7. 

I popped the hard drives into sleds and slid them into the Storbox.

I connected the Storbox to the computer and booted everything up.  A quick side trip into Computer Management/Storage and I confirmed that the individual hard drives were seen by the operating system.

Now how do I configure the drives to be a RAID 5 array?

Shut down, reboot, go into BIOS. The BIOS for the SiL only supports RAID 0 and RAID 1.  Not feeling the love.  Getting cranky.  Start surfing.

Silicon Image (whose chipset is used on the controller) offers SATA RAID 5 Manager.  (http://www.siliconimage.com/support/searchresults.aspx?pid=32&cat=11) Oh, joy.  Downloaded.  Installed.  Configured.  Mounted.  Formatted.  Score!

So how does it work?  Well, I’m copying over my ISO files from the WD MyBook (connected through a JMicron controller on my motherboard) to the StorBox (connected through the SiL3132).  Throughput starts off at about 80 MB/s but as the cache fills, it settles to about 45 MB/s.  Since the RAID-5 is being managed by the local processor, I was concerned about how much impact this is going to have on the overall responsiveness of my system.  Task Manager is reporting between 5-15% processor utilization on a Intel Core2 Quad 2.66 GHz quad-core processor.

So, I installed 5 Western Digital 2 TB hard drives.  Windows reported them at 1.8 TB usable.  Put them together into a RAID-5 stripe (losing effective storage of one of the disks).  Net yield:  7.24 TB.


$245 StorBox

$700 ($140 x 5) Western Digital 2 TB Caviar Green Hard Drive

Envy of all nerddom:  priceless

As someone who grew up with a 1200 baud modem, this seems AMAZINGLY fast.  Well, once you put it into perspective.  It’s still going to take about 5 hours to tranfer all the ISOs.

Once things are copied over, I’ll report back with how the read performance is.  I’ll just have to watch Zombieland (yet again), strictly for research and performance metrics reasons.

  1. #1 by minion on December 19, 2010 - 1:04 am

    glad to see everything is working as intended, much much cheaper than the $900-$1100 online diskless solutions, IMHO.

    • #2 by Marc Jellinek on December 19, 2010 - 9:39 am

      Yup… thanks for your help on this.

      Here’s one thing to watch out for…. install firmware and driver updates and let the array finish configuring itself BEFORE you start copying data over.

      Like I said… I’m a numbskull.

      During the copying, I started seeing the IO thruput drop to about 10 MB/s. So I started looking for firmward and driver updates (the firmware was dated 2006, the driver was dated 2008).

      After finding more recent drivers and firmware, I stopped the copy process, installed them, and rebooted. Damn array reported that it was operating with reduced performance and recalcuating parity.

      DANG IT!

      So I wiped the array and recreated the RAID5 stripe…. this time I paid attention to the process indicator. The stripe has been creating itself ever since…. it’s about 42% complete with an additional 18 hours remaining. OK, I get it… these are 5400 RPM drives with 2 TB each and I’m using an 8K block size. That’s an awful lot of parity blocks to write.

      So I’m going to wait for the RAID group to be fully created and give it another shot.

  2. #3 by Marc Jellinek on December 21, 2010 - 1:21 am

    OK, am not as thrilled with this as I’d like to me.

    With each reboot of the PC, the RAID array needs to rebuilt itself. This is apparently a known issue with SATARAID software.

    Also, copy performance degrades with large transfers (like my entire movie collection). While it started with impressive thruput, towards the middle of the transfer, thruput plummetted.

    I’ve since reconfigured the drive to act as “passthru” drives… effectively acting like 5 directly connected drives. I’m seeing sustained thruput of between 59-60 MB/s. Happier, but still not happy.

    Looks like I’m going to have to try attaching this directly to the embedded Intel controller (part of the ICH10 chipset on my ASUS P5Q Pro Turbo motherboard).

    I’m going to have to get an adapter that changes one of the internal SATA ports to an eSATA port and give that a shot. If I’m still not happy, I’ll bit the bullet and buy a controller that natively handles RAID5 in firmware.

  3. #4 by Marc Jellinek on March 5, 2011 - 9:57 am


    Remember I said that I was going to try to directly connect the StorBox SATA enclosure to the embedded ICH10R controller on my ASUS P5Q Pro Turbo motherboard?

    Net-net: Didn’t work.

    I bought a $10 converter that plugged into one of the SATA ports on the mobo and gave me an eSATA connection external to the case. Plug in the StorBox to the external eSATA connection, reboot, go into the Intel Matrix Storage Manager firmware and expect to see the 5 disks installed in the Storbox, hope to configure as RAID 5, then …. face crushing disappointment. I only saw the first hard drive in the StorBox.

    The StorBox has a SATA port multiplier embedded. The ASUS mobo has a port multiplier on it as well. That’s how ASUS provides multiple SATA ports on the motherboard (well, that and an additional JMicron controller). Apparently you can’t daisy-chain port multipliers.


    SO… next step is to locate a SATA RAID5 card that does RAID 5 in the cards own firmware AND supports SATA port multipliers.

    At this point, I’m thinking that going cheap was actually more expensive. Perhaps I should have gotten something where it all just works out of the box. But then I wouldn’t have experienced the great joy of learning about SATA.

    The guys at PC Warehouse have offered to allow me to return the StorBox. Gotta love that. I wish they’d have been able to get me a SATA RAID 5 card… but you can’t have everything.

    Anyone know of a good SATA RAID card?

  4. #5 by scott on June 26, 2012 - 1:00 am

    I’ve had this same box for about 2 years. It’s been diskless for the last 6 month. I’m getting ready to load it up with some 2tb drives. I was video editing off mine and getting about 120Mbs over the esata. The raid 5 parity will keep rewriting itself constantly but will finally catch up if you leave your machine running over night. I think Rocket Raid do some cool cards that may do what you are looking for. Let me know if you have found a better option.

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