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Cal Digit S2VRHD

CreativeCOW presents Cal Digit S2VRHD -- AJA Kona - Mac Review

Orlando Florida USA All rights reserved.

When I started to use SATA products for video editing systems, I was amazed by the low cost, and incredible performance of these drives. Early drives from Seagate and Hitachi, in Firmtek SATA enclosures, that used Firmtek or Sonnet SATA cards were amazing. They performed just like SCSI and Fibre Channel arrays -- well ALMOST. But they were so cheap, we all made do.

About a year later, "port multipliers" came into fashion. A company called Silicon Image came out with a chipset that allowed 5 SATA drives to be hooked up to one port on a SATA host card in your MAC or PC. This let us stripe (or RAID) 5 drives together, to get great disk performance. The first card to become popular was the Sonnet X4P and Sonnet E4P.

To me, this was the greatest invention since sliced bread. I could stick this SATA host card into a PC AVID, or a MAC Final Cut Pro System, and do ALMOST anything -- 8 and 10 bit standard def uncompressed video (1:1 resolution on an AVID Media Composer), and DVCProHD, and even AVID's DNx220 HD for the AVID Adrenaline. My clients could get 2.5 Terabytes of storage for under $3000, and that included the SATA host card. We were happy as pigs in - well, you know. For the first time, we could use enormous, cheap storage to replace the heavy, bulky, expensive, noisy SCSI and Fibre arrays we had been using in the past.

WELL, ALMOST -- we could not do uncompressed HD. Well, actually, we could -- if you put TWO of these port multiplier chassis, with 10 drives on a Sonnet X4P or E4P SATA host card, and stripped ALL 10 of these drives together, you could do uncompressed HD. But people got REAL SENSITIVE to spending too much money. They were in love with SATA's low cost, and small boxes, to do all their work. And certainly some people bought the two SATA port multiplier boxes to do uncompressed HD.

THEN SOMETHING HAPPENED. A little company called Cal-Digit showed up on the scene. I thought "who are these guys, just another box company, that wants to get their piece of the pie". How could it be different from the Sonnet solution? How could it be faster.

But their ad's claimed that ONE 5 drive SATA enclosure could do uncompressed 1080i HD, as long as you used their SATA host card in the MAC.

Naaaaah -- this can't be. These are all box companies that all repackage the same products. Drives are drives, and it they are using Seagate SATA drives, there is no way their product is any different.

SO, they sent me a Cal Digit S2VRHD with a host card for a PCI-X computer, and a PCI-E computer. I happened to be building 2 systems for Disney, with both types of MAC G5's, and both with my trusty SATA arrays and host PCI cards from Sonnet.

I ran my tests on the Sonnet in both computers, using the incredible AJA Kona System Test, to evaluate the drive speeds, and got my usual wonderful results. The Sonnet solution is so easy. You plug in your stuff, RAID your drives with the default Apple Disk Utility, and you are in business. No muss, no fuss. OK, lets see what Cal Digit can do against this.

So I put together the Cal Digit S2VRHD, and put in their SATA host controller card in the MAC's, instead of the Sonnet. I ran the same tests, using AJA Kona System Test, and it was fast -- real fast -- faster than the Sonnet. So I said to myself "LETS BREAK IT".

Without reading any manuals, I opened up Apple Disk Utility, and reinitialized their drives, and created a new RAID 0 with all 5 drives, and did the test again. To my surprise, everything SLOWED DOWN. Everything was running at the same speed as the Sonnet arrays. I broke it alright, but what the heck did I do. So I decided to do something that all of us HATE to do -- I READ THE CAL DIGIT MANUAL.

Oh, these manuals are SO boring, but I read it. Every page. And Cal Digit tells you exactly what to do. Down to the little details. Which includes hitting the OPTIONS KEY in the Apple Disk Utility to set the RAID Block Size to 256K, not the default of 32K. So, I followed these instructions, and when I tried it again, the Cal Digit became FAST again -- real fast. Fast enough for uncompressed HD.

Wait a minute -- something is up here -- it's not the Cal Digit -- it's the damn little setting that I didn't know about. So, I plugged in the Sonnet Fusion 500P chassis with 5 500Gig SATA drives to the Cal Digit PCI SATA host card, and reformatted these drives, recreating the RAID the same way, but this time with the 256K block size, and THE SONNET 500P RAN JUST AS FAST AS THE CAL-DIGIT.

"What a bunch of crap" I initially said to myself -- it's just a setting! I tried this on both boxes, and started to think that the "magic trick" was to simply set the RAID Block Size to 256K, and all of a sudden, you could get any SATA array to be fast enough to do uncompressed HD.


I put back the Sonnet E4P card back into the MAC Quad G5, to do these tests all over again -- but this time with the RAID's set for 256K block size, not the default 32K.

There was no question that the Sonnet E4P card made the system perform slower. It was about 25mb/sec slower writing files to the RAID array than the Cal Digit SATA card. Why is this important? Because this is just enough to make the Sonnet unreliable to write uncompressed Hi Def files to your drives. The read times were still very good, and this explained a question that I had recently. I had a client with a Sonnet 500P using a FCP/AJA Kona 2 system need to work on an uncompressed HD job. The job was done in NY, where they had a large HUGE SYSTEMS Fibre channel array. The company transferred the data to firewire 800 drives, and sent the drives down to Florida, where we transferred the Firewire drives media onto the Sonnet SATA array -- and the uncompressed 8 bit HD material played back just fine -- but they could not digitize any uncompressed HD material onto this Sonnet. Now, I knew why.

So, I put the Cal Digit S2VRHD chassis on the MAC Quad, but now with the Sonnet E4P host card, just to see what would happen. I actually got interesting results. The write time was actually faster than with the Sonnet Chassis -- but this was probably due to the new Seagate 7200.10 SATA drives. The write time was slower than the Sonnet -- but it was still good enough to do everything but uncompressed HD.

Things change every few months in this business, but for right now, Cal-Digit has the best SATA solution on the market.


You can certainly mix and match the Sonnet and Cal Digit hardware. But there is no question that the Cal Digit outperforms the Sonnet stuff. And if you already own the Sonnet stuff, and want to "upgrade" your system, you can just buy a Cal Digit SATA host PCI card for your MAC, and you will get better performance -- even if you own the Sonnet 500P chassis (you will have to reinit your drives with the 256K block size, however).

The Cal Digit SATA drive arrays are teriffic products. If you want to do uncompressed HD, for a fraction of the price of an Apple Xserve RAID, or other hi end SCSI or Fibre Channel drive arrays, THIS IS YOUR BOX. Just keep in mind that Cal Digit is charging a little more than other SATA arrays, and if you want to save some money, and don't require uncompressed HD, there is still nothing wrong with going with solutions from Sonnet Technologies, Firmtek, or others.

Always writing a 1920x1080 10 bit file size using AJA Kona System Test --

RAID Block Size is always 256K, not the default of 32K

MAC Quad with Cal DigitFASTA-4e and Sonnet Fusion 500P with Hitachi 500 Gig SATA II drives

  • 205MB/sec Write
  • 222 MB/sec Read

MAC Quad with Cal Digit FASTA-4e and Cal Digit S2VRHD with Seagate 500 Gig SATA II drives

  • 205 MB/sec Write
  • 227 MB/sec Read

MAC G5 Dual 2.7 Gig with Cal Digit FASTA-4x and Cal Digit S2VRHD with Seagate 500 Gig SATA II drives

  • 211 MB/sec Write
  • 228 MB/sec Read

MAC G5 Dual 2.7 Gig with Cal Digit FASTA-4x and Sonnet Fusion 500P with Hitachi 500 Gig SATA II drives

  • 214 MB/sec Write
  • 220 MB/sec Read

MAC QUAD G5 with Sonnet E4P card and Sonnet Fusion 500P with Hitachi 500 Gig SATA II drives

  • 186 Mb/sec Write
  • 219 MB/sec Read

MAC Quad G5 with Sonnet E4P card and Cal Digit S2VRHD with Seagate 500 Gig SATA II drives

  • 192 Mb/sec Write
  • 182 Mb/sec Read


AND FOR THE OLD DEFAULT SPEEDS with the 32K RAID Block size default

MAC Quad with Sonnet E4P card and Sonnet Fusion 500P with Hitachi 500 Gig SATA II drives

  • 189 MB/sec Write
  • 235 Mb/sec Read

Note -- the read time is still super fast, with the defaults -- fast enough to read uncompressed HD. It's the WRITE TIMES that are slower, and this is what Cal-Digit has figured out.

Bob Zelin

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