Drobo S 2G, NewerTech MAXPower 6G eSATA PCIe Review

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Excited. Empowered. Confident. That’s how I felt when the Amazon package arrived containing our new Drobo S video storage array and controller card. Coupled with two speedy 3 TB Seagate Barracuda XT SATA 6 hard drives (also known as SATA III), this was going to be a metal box of pure badassery. How did it turn out? If you’re impatient, skip down to the review. Otherwise, grab some popcorn…

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Background research (aka mini iMovie vs Final Cut Pro review)

In my team’s quest to improve workflow and speed during video post-production, we decided to make the move from iMovie and Final Cut Express to Apple’s new Final Cut Pro X. Yeah yeah most producers are gonna hate me for that but I believe X will soon greatly improve upon its initial state the same way iMovie ’08 matured into iMovie ’11. We pushed iMovie to its limits —in ways not intended or even imagined —and we got results. Unfortunately, iMovie ’11 is firmly a consumer-oriented product and never takes full advantage of the hardware it’s running on. Though image stabilization is now multi-core aware, other production aspects aren’t. Encoding H.264 HDV movies in iMovie on our eight-core Mac Pro takes nearly an hour and is very unstable.

Final Cut Express wasn’t quite the transitional solution to professional production I had hoped for. Although I’ve spent many years in a Final Cut environment, my team was accustomed to the iMovie UI and workflow. The daunting choice i faced was (1) Piss off my producers with a complex prosumer app like Final Cut Express to address iMovie’s serious stability issues and lack of professional production features or (2) pray that Apple will someday patch iMovie to run like a champ on a Mac Pro. Fat chance on the latter…

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The moment I saw the April announcement video demo for Final Cut Pro X, I knew right away that it would be the blessed Great Hope that my production team was waiting for. Its UI and workflow philosophy is based on iMovie ’11 while bringing in dozens of polished, professional features. Now while i know it is missing a lot of filmmaker-grade tools and options, I am confident Apple will roll those into future versions while I get my team accustomed to the application. This is Apple’s modus operandi —they’re famous for ditching traditional models, turning them upside-down, and creating insanely-great alternatives —all the while winning over fierce critics.

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Anways, awesome features aside, deploying Final Cut Pro X to our production team meant carefully rethinking our file storage strategy. Apple Intermediate Codec is no longer a viable post format for cutting video —ProRes is the way to go, adding better color fidelity, higher proxy compression, and a variety of color space quality options ( 4:2:2 or 4:4:4). Since FCPX allows storage of original files as well as “optimized” and proxy formats, this can potentially chew up multitudes more disk space than in an iMovie workflow.

Part one: Gobs of frickin’ storage

Our original Drobo v2 had four storage bays and could connect with our workstation via FireWire 800. It worked well for a while when loaded with four 2 TB SATA II Western Digital Caviar Green drives. However, our team noticed problems with sustained write operations when importing footage from the camera into iMovie. It was ALWAYS falling behind during the live transcode though this is probably because so much of iMovie is unoptimized. Final Cut Express imported to the Drobo v2 dutifully but sometimes would just stop in the middle of the process, indicative of a write error. It didn’t inspire confidence at that point and we quickly stopped using it during production. We now just archive finished projects to the Drobo v2 and edit full-time on our OWC Mercury Elite Al-Pro drives.

We’re now starting to see degradation in performance in Finder operations like Quick Look of video footage from the old Drobo. Our older clips are stored in Apple Intermediate Codec and the data rates range between 8 MB/sec and 20 MB/sec. These will freeze on playback off the Drobo v2. At first we thought it was a chain issue because the Drobo was sitting first on a FireWire 800 chain with an OWC Mercury Elite Al-Pro. Nope —switched the Drobo to run solo via FW 800 and it still stutters.

So for those of you who are wondering if the rumors are true about the Drobo v2 slowing down after a while: YES, IT IS ABSOLUTELY TRUE. All you have to do is fill it past 60% capacity (six out of ten blue lamps on the Drobo front panel). As of this writing, we can’t swap out any of the loaded drives with the new 3 TB SATA III Seagate Barracuda XTs because the Drobo v2 firmware doesn’t support them.

Part two: Enter the Drobo S

3 TB hard drives are barely hitting the market, 4 TB drives nonexistent —and since we currently can’t expand our Drobo v2 beyond 4x 2TB we simply had to get another unit. We knew we shouldn’t get the same one from experience so moved a step up. The Drobo S 2G has impressive specs:

  • Five storage bays supporting drives 3 TB and larger
  • Three connectors: eSATA, FireWire 800, and USB 3.0
  • Faster ARM processor promising a 150% performance boost over the original Drobo

The letdown is that its throughput will bottleneck at 3 Gbps (SATA II), not 6 Gbps (SATA III). Even though drives currently cannot reach these theoretical speeds, I almost always buy technology based on future potential. That being said, we expect this unit to pump data at a nominal sustained rate of 80 MB/sec.

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Reading comprehension FAIL

Why connect the Drobo S to our Mac Pro via FireWire 800 (800 Mbps) when we can use eSATA (3 Gbps)? In my haste to cobble together a totally awesome storage setup, I shopped by brand name and totally forgot about compatibility —Bam! Received a NewerTech MAXPower eSATA 6G PCIe controller card promising up to 750 MB/sec peak data. I installed the card into our Mac Pro and hooked up the new Drobo S —then wondered why Drobo Dashboard didn’t recognize the drive. After various frustrating sessions of rebooting and disconnecting everything, i realized the Drobo was recognized properly only via FireWire 800. WTF does that mean?

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Apparently something was wrong with our eSATA connection. I checked the Drobo S website —lo and behold, down the page is this little tab called “Supported eSATA Cards“…

Not only was the NewerTech card not shown in the “supported” section, it was listed under “eSATA cards with known incompatibilities.” Good grief! Okay, bad to worse… Anyways I’m not the type that likes to ship stuff BACK because I goofed up on my research so I had to make this rig work.

Things to note:

  • You currently can’t daisy chain eSATA devices together
  • Drobo works with eSATA cards that have port multiplier support BUT not if they provide RAID functionality
  • FireWire 800 devices can be daisy-chained but a growing number of professionals recommend against this if heavy data like video is going over a single bus
  • The fastest drive interface across all Drobo models is SATA II (3 Gbps)

The solution

Our final setup after much trial-and-error took into consideration all of the points above. We were lucky because we have surplus cables to test different scenarios but I can foresee problems if we add more work storage (not archive storage).

  • Archival: The Drobo S 2G and the Drobo v2 are connected to the Mac Pro via FireWire 800, each as solo devices on their own bus
  • Production: Our two Mercury Elite Al-Pro hard drives are connected to the Mac Pro via eSATA, each as solo devices on their own bus

It’s a shame that I have to emasculate the Drobo S by putting it on a relatively slower bus (800 Mbps, ~100 MB/sec theoretical but unlikely) but I’m sure our team will be able to solve this over time, on the cheap.

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Final thoughts

Always check for cross-vendor hardware compatibility and firmware updates on manufacturer websites before purchase!

I’m glad ProRes 422 has great video quality with the added benefit of vastly better compression than Apple Intermediate Codec. Because its bitrate is lower we probably won’t see performance dips in Final Cut Pro X anytime soon if we edit on the Drobo S. However, if we get more fancy in post with a half-dozen or more tracks, this may change. It’s not fair to benchmark this new drive against a 60%-full Drobo v2 but from what little I’ve seen so far in testing, I’m optimistic.

The Drobo S via eSATA supports a very small set of PCIe controller cards so do your homework carefully. I’d say Sonnet Technology’s Tempo SATA E2P is the best-suited and stay away from SATA III controllers for now —although many support port multiplier functionality, all the ones I see have on-board RAID software which will not work with the Drobo. Good luck!

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