Without sounding like a broken record (if anyone still gets that reference), one undeniable fact is that our data storage needs are on a constant growth pattern, which means hard drives must be updated on a constant basis. For most consumers, this means ordering a large enough drive, with enough speed to hold them for the foreseeable future, which usually results in the purchase of a consumer-grade drive.
However, with consumers using their computers at the same level and with the same expectations of service of most IT-intensive data centers, we think they might want to rethink that approach. A home or small business computer was often something most users only turned on for a few hours a day. No longer; it is pretty much the norm to keep systems running 24/7, and we have the expectation to access our data at any time from anywhere, so systems are now running almost continuously, yet they aren’t really designed for such work, and neither are their storage devices.
In this article, part two of a multi-part story on storage, we test a pair of Seagate’s new 6TB Seagate Enterprise Capacity 3.5 HDD v4 hard drives driven as a mirror by the recently upgraded and venerable SoftRaid 5 software. Should the word “enterprise” scare you? We don’t think so; in fact we think it is the creative individual’s watchword! The fact is, even the smallest of businesses are totally dependent on computer technology, data storage, and retrieval.
I’ll start with a quote provided by Seagate: “Unstructured data growth is doubling exponentially and will propel the digital universe to reach 16 zettabytes of data by as early as 2017. This will cause cloud service providers to look for innovative ways to store more within an existing footprint while lowering operational costs,” said Scott Horn, Seagate’s vice president of marketing. This is corporate-speak for saying that we are all generating so much data, it isn’t following a linear path, but exploding, and accordingly, we need reliable, affordable, and fast storage with higher density. The density is the key, since adding additional servers and RAIDs gets expensive. As you populate your existing data centers and hardware with higher capacity drives, you get more storage, lower costs, and greater efficiencies.
This applies to consumers as well as to huge IT centers. Everyone wants more capacity, lower prices, reliability, and speed. Most hard drives (both solid state or traditional moving disk media) are rated differently, but few folks know how to actually read or interpret the specs. The cost varies as well, from intro-level drives that feature a slower spin rate, less on-board memory cache, and slower read-write speeds for as little as $100, to state-of-the-art drives that spin at 10,000 RPM and above, carry lots of RAM, designed for 24/7 operation, and might run in excess of $1,200. Those drives are generally described as enterprise-level drives, since they are used for mission critical use, must be 100 percent reliable, fast, and predictable. The cost is higher, but what is most important are the specs, and MTBF, or, Mean Time Between Failure.
In our older Mac Pro computers, which have the luxury of four internal bays, we’ve tested a steady stream of Seagate drives, using them in both singular form, and as striped and mirrors using SoftRaid. My first encounter with SoftRaid came when IT wizard Pradip Joshi and I were configuring an early Apple G4 Server for the University of the Arts. It had shipped with a copy of SoftRaid all set up to work under OS 9. Apple has always been very persnickety about the software it bundled, so Apple's inclusion of SoftRaid back then was high praise indeed for SoftRaid. Recently, SoftRaid introduced a major update, Version 5, which includes the ability to set up a stripe, mirror, and for the first time RAID 4 and 5, as well as speed and GUI improvements. It was perfect to test the new 6TB Seagate Enterprise Capacity 3.5 HDD v4 hard drives.
The first thing to understand is just how fast these drives are. Compared to the normal Seagate desktop drives, these new units just smoked them in terms of read-write and I/O operation. Surprisingly they ran cooler than expected, but once you pick them up, the quality and heft of construction reminds you that they are serious instruments, professionally built for demanding operation. However, once installed, they work like a normal drive. Pop them into a sled; slide them into the drive bay, use SoftRaid to initialize and setup your desired drive topology, and you are good to go. We chose to run the SoftRaid Certify test cycle first, so we would know if our drives were good to go before entrusting them with our data.
I choose to use them as a mirror for a good balance between speed, capacity, and safety. A few years ago when Steve Jobs introduced the Time Capsule, he made a point of touting the use of an Enterprise-level drive inside, which given the price point, caused IT professionals and reviewers to be skeptical of. Once folks started doing teardowns, there they were; true Enterprise-level drives, a really wise choice by Apple, and a great choice since by design the Time Capsule was supposed to be your failsafe.
Enterprise for me? Yes! The answer is obvious. If your data really matters to you, then proven technology like the new 6TB Seagate Enterprise Capacity 3.5 HDD v4 hard drive is the perfect combination of speed, capacity, reliability, and ultimately value, although the average consumer might have some sticker shock at a drive that is quadruple the cost of an average desktop internal drive. But … those were never designed for the 24/7 daily use cycle demanded of servers and data centers.
Some users have discovered a bit of a hiccup that with these drives related to the drive mounting holes. Due to the design of these new higher capacity drives, on our Mac Pros, only the front mounting screws may be used with the sled, the back holes are in a non-standard location. In practice, the front two screws, coupled with the position of the drive, meant that all was well once mounted into the drive bays. I even tried drilling new holes in the sleds, which kind of worked, but would have then required bending the sled around the new holes to push the drive away from the sled, which was a larger job than I expected. I also tested them in a FirmTek E-SATA enclosure, and they worked fine as well. Users should make sure the new drives would actually fit in their enclosures or computers.
The Black Magic speed tests show both the speed difference between the new drives and the standard desktop models, they also show the improvement between SoftRaid 4 and 5. Our initial mirror consisted of two Seagate Desktop 7200 rpm 4TB drives and under SoftRaid 4, we averaged 87.2 write / 82.5 read speeds. Switching to the two 7200 rpm 6TB drives, SoftRaid 4 speeds were 147 Write/154.7 read. Finally, after we upgraded to SoftRaid 5 on the 6TB drives, the speeds bumped up to 150.4 write / 166.9 read, limited no doubt by our internal SATA bus.
Clearly the 6TB Enterprise bested the speed of already speedy 7200 rpm Seagate desktop drives, and upgrading from SoftRaid 4 to 5 increased the speed even further. We see the move to Enterprise-class drives a no-brainer for photographers, archivists, video editors, and anyone who needs speed, as well as a drive mechanism meant for serious use on a constant basis. The only hesitation might be the price, but the cost of recovery of a failed drive far surpasses the initially higher expense for these drives. We were surprised at just how much a difference in speed the drives represented, from the specs provided we expected a modest increase, not the significant increase we experienced. Seagate states that these new models offer “10× the workload rating of desktop drives,” “High reliability with an MTBF of 1.4M hours on all drives,” and a limited five-year warranty. The old adage that you get what you pay for seems to apply here.
The Black Magic Design Disk Speed Test is a free app available from the App Store, and while neither perfect nor as thorough as other test suites, it is a useful guide, and we recommend that our readers take it for a spin (pun intended). When you first launch it you often get a higher speed than one should count on, for example one of our tests delivered a significant read speed jump to 159.9 write / 182.8 read, but once you allowed the app to run a few cycles, a more normalized speed became the norm. However you cut it, we feel that on average users should expect at least 150 read / 166 write. One limitation we faced was the speed of the Mac Pro internal SATA bus. The drives are available in other interfaces, including SAS, and in lower capacities ranging from 6TB to 1TB, and our v.4 had 128mb of Cache memory. The SATA drives we tested are SATA 6Gb/s, but if you are using the SAS interface they are available as SAS 12Gb/s throughput. We didn't have access to a SAS RAID for testing, but we can imagine that the combination of a SAS 12Gb/s I/O capability would show the true potential of these drives.
Want to create your own RAID 4 or 5, mirror, or stripe? SoftRaid 5 comes highly recommended. One feature of SoftRaid 5 is the ability to run either a Drive Verification, or Drive Certification. Both test the drive for errors and are recommended for any drive. Be forewarned, it takes a while to test properly. I ran Certification, the highest level of test, and with a two-pass option, it took roughly 40 to 50 hours to Certify each 6TB drive. In contrast to other drives from other manufacturers we have tested, both drives passed with flying colors, with no errors reported. We now run a 2 pass Certification cycle using SoftRaid 5 with any drive we are planning to use. We sometimes take drives, back up the data, and run the test to make sure they are running as expected. This doesn’t repair a drive, it doesn’t take the place of Disk Warrior or other apps, but rather it is a test and report-only feature of SoftRaid. It takes a serious chunk of time, erases all the data on the drive, but is the best tool we’re aware of to let a user know if their drives are operating correctly, but it does take a while. For Certification, we started the test cycle at night, let it run overnight and the entire next day, and it was ready the following day, which we repeated with the other drive before placing them into service. Each test for each drive took roughly 2.5 days for a 2 pass cycle.
One could also use their Verifiy test, to insure that the drive is operating as expected, saving a lot of time, but with much of the accuracy of the Certify test. Accoring to SoftRaid, "the main difference is Certify forces the drive to read a pattern." I did have a drive that reported errors, mostly due to a crash in the OS, and it showed an error. I ran Verify first, which reported the drive was actually fine, then I reset the error counters, and all still showed fine a week later. Then I ran a 4 pass Certify test, which took about a week, which reported the drive was fine, with no errors. It has been running fine ever since. So, probaby a bit obsessive on our part, but a cycle that gave us peace of mind. One other option is that users can run either a Disk Verify or a Volume Validate test, both of which will read all sectors on a disk, and work in the background.
We are big fans of SoftRaid, and each iteration proves how valuable it is to the Mac community, from rock solid, feature rich products, to almost immediate customer support. We recommend SoftRaid 5 enthusiastically.
If you are looking for a solid, reliable, server ready, hard drive with 6TBs of available storage, the new 6TB Seagate Enterprise Capacity 3.5 HDD v4 Hard Drive should be high on your list. In our tests it exceeded the published specs, and made us feel safe that our data strategy was sound and based on top-flight hardware. We also feel that anyone working with data they simply can’t lose, and for whom speed and capacity are a priority; the switch to Enterprise-level drives should be a strong consideration. The list of recommended uses doesn't include home or small business, but with many users run cycles duplicating those of data centers, we think you should think outside the data storage box and consider a step up to these industrial strength drives.
Harris Fogel, with additional research by Frank Schramm, Ken Kramar, and John Mulhern III, posted 9/28/2014
For more information on the 6TB Seagate Enterprise Capacity 3.5 HDD v4 Hard Drive, visit: www.seagate.com
For more information on SoftRaid 5 visit: www.softraid.com