Achieving Instant Performance Improvements By Upgrading Storage

SATA-II and RAID drives add capacity and performance. We show you how to install them. (Courtesy: Small Business Pipeline)

February 1, 2006

5 Min Read
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Welcome to Accidental IT, a series of technical how-tos for people whose job descriptions don't necessarily include tech support but who often find themselves doing just that for their co-workers.

The size and number of files that accumulate on desktops and servers is growing beyond control. Fortunately, drive capacities continue to grow while the cost per gigabyte declines. But while it becomes less expensive to add storage to the typical PC, the larger drives present two problems. The first problem is that as the drives fill, file retrieval takes longer. The second problem is that more data is at risk by being on drives that are vulnerable to failure.

Access times can be improved by regularly defragmenting the drives, and data loss can be mitigated by performing regular backups. But when faced with the task of increasing storage by adding drives to a system, the combination of lower prices, increased capacity, improved throughput, and drive reliability can all be accomplished through a single upgrade operation.

As an example of this kind of quick fix, I installed a pair of Seagate 500GB Barracuda-7200.9 drives and a Promise Technologies FastTrak TX4310 SATA controller in a Dell 170L desktop PC. The drives were paired as a single 500GB RAID level 1 volume, replacing the original 40GB ATA drive.

The installation process is only a bit more complex than replacing a standard drive, but the most vexing issue was that Windows XP requires that third-party drivers be loaded from a floppy disk. Of the half dozen computers in my lab, only one has a floppy drive, which is likely to be the case for any servers and most recent vintage desktops you may want to upgrade. After making multiple backups of the existing main drive, I connected a 3.5" floppy drive and used the utility on the CD provided by Promise to put the SATA controller's driver on the floppy.The FastTrak TX4310 is an EDI-based card that supports four SATA-II connections. SATA-II is an important part of this upgrade because it provides for a transfer rate of up to 300Mb/sec. That's twice the speed of the SATA-1 spec, and three times the transfer rate of the Ultra-ATA/100 drive. The Seagate drives also support the SATA-II spec.

Mounting the controller card and drives is standard fare for anyone who has worked inside a PC. SATA drives don't use the standard 4-pin power cables, but the FastTrak card came with two Y-connector power cables that attach to standard 4-pin power cords to power the drives. Also included in the package are four SATA data cables to connect the drives to the controller card.

Once all the hardware was mounted and the cables connected, I booted the PC, which recognized the new controller card and allowed me to launch the controller card's on-board configuration utility to define the drive configuration and RAID level. The card supports RAID levels 0, 1, 5, 10, and JBOD (Just A Bunch of Drives). I assigned both drives to a single volume of RAID 1 storage.

The Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 500GB drives are available for about $350 each, and the Promise Technologies FastTrak TX4310 can be found for around $150. For less than $1,000 you can equip a workstation or server with a 1/2 Petabyte RAID array which will boost both your storage capacity and the system's performance.

Performance comparisonTo test the real life results of the upgrade I copied a folder containing 1,953 files of various types and sizes totaling 1.6GB between various drives. Both test environments included an external ATA drive connected via USB-2, and an internal SATA-1 drive. The SATA-1 drive was connected to a controller card supporting SATA-1 for the first test, but connected to the Promise FastTrak controller along with the Seagate SATA-II drives for the second test.

Test 1 - 40GB ATA, 160GB USB-2, 190GB SATA-1

Copy from ATA to SATA drive - 135 seconds - 11.85 MB/secCopy from ATA to USB-2 drive - 165 seconds - 9.7 MB/sec

Test 2 - 500GB SATA RAID 1, 160GB USB-2, 190GB SATA-1

Copy from SATA-II to SATA-1 drive - 61 seconds - 28.23 MB/sec - 2.4x speed increaseCopy from SATA-II to USB-2 drive - 97 seconds - 16.5 MB/sec - 1.7x speed increaseThe net result of the upgrade is an average 100 percent throughput increase, a capacity increase from 40GB to 500GB, and an increase in hardware reliability from a standard single drive to RAID level 1.

This is not the kind of upgrade that would be required or justified for a standard workstation. However, it is a relatively quick and painless solution to rapidly expanding capacity and reliability issues in graphics workstations, small servers, and other applications that are pushing the limits of existing storage capacity.

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