FirmTek SeriTek/2EN2 full review

High-capacity, high-performance data storage is no longer the preserve of high-end digital media professionals and enterprise-level operations. The net is running over with incredible images, engaging video and moving music, much of which would be unrealised if it wasn’t for the power of modern, domestic computers to bring sophisticated media production tools within the reach of home users. However, one consequence of high-power processing for the masses is that it creates an awful lot of data, which somehow has to be stored affordably and made readily accessible.

FirmTek, a US company founded by former employees of Apple and Quantum, aims to sate Mac owners’ ever-growing hunger for super-speedy storage, not by producing huge-capacity drives, but by offering the means to lash disks together in cunning ways. While the clever Mac user will have a main drive devoted to the operating system and applications, plus another drive on which to store project files – thus keeping them out of the way of the busy system drive – the super-savvy user will perk up at FirmTek’s speciality adaptors and enclosures that accommodate RAIDs.

RAID is the acronym for ‘resilient array of independent disks’ (or ‘redundant array of inexpensive disks’) and describes a setup whereby several hard drives are seen by the computer as just one volume. This means you can buy whichever drives you can afford and effectively combine them into one big drive. It’s not just about overcoming the paucity of drive connectors on a Mac workstation, however. A multi-drive volume offers speedier performance and, in certain configurations, better fault tolerance than one huge drive.

Double up
Our review product, FirmTek’s SeriTek/2EN2, is a dual-bay enclosure into which can be slotted two serial ATA hard drives of your choice, ready for hooking up to the Mac via a PCI, Type II Cardbus or ExpressCard serial ATA host adaptor. Once the drives are screwed into the bays, slotted into the enclosure, locked up so they can’t be easily nicked, and plugged into the adaptor, it’s a simple job to configure them using Disk Utility so they appear as a single RAID 0 or RAID 1 volume. And if that means zilch to you, see the ‘It’s a RAID’ panel for an explanation. Incidentally, if you don’t want to use a RAID, it’s still possible to use the SeriTek system to address drives individually.

The enclosure has no internal cabling to come adrift and is very heavy duty, so it’s bound to last – although at more than a kilo without drives or mains adaptor, it’s less than portable. Eight screws are supplied for fixing the drives into their bays and the door locks seem sturdy enough to prevent casual tampering. Two shielded cables are bundled so that the unit can be connected to a variety of host controllers. The Mac Book Pro is catered for with the £90 SeriTek/2SM2-E Serial ExpressCard/34, drivers for which are supplied, while owners of Mac Pro workstations will need the £75 SeriTek/2SE2-E PCI Extended card, which doesn’t require drivers. Both are twin-port, both support hot-swapping and both have a maximum quoted transfer rate of 3Gbps, which makes even FireWire 800 look a bit silly. Owners of older Macs should investigate FirmTek’s PC card controller for laptops, or the PCI-X and PCI adaptors for workstations

Configuration is easy enough. A screen appears telling you that the drives have been recognised, then it’s a case of loading Disk Utility, formatting the drives and deciding on the formatting type and RAID configuration. Mirrored, or RAID 1, will duplicate data on both disks so that, if one fails, it can be hot-swapped for a new unit. Of course, this means that the RAID’s total capacity will be the size of the least capacious drive. You’ll still get an improvement in read performance, however. Selecting Striped, or RAID 0, will set things up so that data is shared between the drives, leading to an increase in read/write performance and the ability to access the full capacity of both drives. Remember, however, that if one drive fails you’ve lost all your data. If that’s a worry, you could double things up by running two RAID 0s and then span them with RAID 1, but that’s twice the outlay.

All in all, FirmTek’s storage solution is rugged, easy to set up and well priced. The components are tough and well designed and, because drives are not included, you can make up your own mind which to buy based on budget and performance requirements.

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