RAID – On-Board or PCI card?

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Well, other than the features noted, such as RAID 0+1 and the ability to use more than 4 drives on an array, there really doesn’t seem to be much difference between using a PCI Promise or on-board RAID controller. Not any real difference in setup, compatibility or performance at all. One thing I didn’t cover is the BIOS for the Promise controller. You run a chance that Promise may update it, and if so there may be a time lag between when Promise releases it and it is included in the mainboard’s BIOS update, though not really an issue from what I see. The other thing is cost. An on-board controller will cost less than adding a PCI card by a factor of about four.

Promise does include a utility that is run from Windows which allows you to find out information, monitor the array or make changes to some settings and perform some operations, such rebuilding a mirrored array. The utility is included with both the PCI card and on-board, and works the same with both.

So what to do? Should you buy a PCI card, or a mainboard with RAID on-board? Well my recommendation would be to look at your disk requirements and see which solution fits them. If the on-board fits your requirements, then you next should see if there is a mainboard that provides what you need AND has the RAID on-board. If so buy it. If not, then go for the mainboard you want and add a card. Another consideration would be if cost is a primary consideration. If on a budget and the on-board fits your requirements, then find a mainboard that comes closest to your needs with on-board and buy it.

Just don’t forget what the Promise FastTrak 100 IDE RAID controllers offer you. This includes the ability to add up to four more IDE hard disk, set drives up in a performance array (RAID 0), a security array (RAID 1), a combination of performance and security (RAID 0+1) or ability to span across multiple drives to make one big drive. You have some options with the PCI card you don’t have with the on-board (‘Lite’), such as more drives on the array, spanning, RAID 0+1 and hot swapping a spare drive under RAID 1. Think carefully about the disk usage you have and don’t expect too much overall system performance gain from RAID 0 (remember, the drive is only one part of the over all system).

A Few Additional Notes…

This was one of the toughest comparisons I’ve done. Getting hard disk scores that are accurate and consistent is a very tough thing to do, especially when changing setups. Finally getting Drive Copy to work helped, but I still had test runs that just didn’t look right and I just threw them out. I also had to use 6% as my upper limit for test run variations. That is the default for theWinbench disk test and I just couldn’t get them any closer sometimes. I also thought hard about how the typical system would be configured and tried to use a test setup that would profile most users, unlike some I’ve recently seen (one ran with Windows installed on one disk and the array setup on others – not your normal setup in my opinion). I thought about testing RAID 0+1 but just couldn’t rationalize buying two more matching WD 200BB’s (no I don’t get much free stuff other than pre-production Soyo products to evaluate)… but it would make an interesting test.

As to the article subject – where did it come from? Well, a couple of places. One is the newsgroups. The question is quite often asked regarding which way to go (on-board or PCI card RAID), and since I have seen a couple of very adamant posts saying use a PCI card, it got me wondering about whether this is correct or not. The other reason is that as a reseller I get asked for mainboards with RAID and don’t currently offer one in my main product line (Soyo, but as an AMD specialist I do offer a MSI with RAID). In order to be able to give good accurate advice to customers, along with evaluating what to offer, I had to get some first hand experience. Besides, Soyo will have a Promise on board RAID available in about a month, so this gave me a head start on being able to support it. I hope this series of tests not only helps the end-user decide which way to go, but also gives dealers an idea of the differences in the products they offer.

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