The OWC Mercury Elite-AL Pro Qx2 is a consumer-grade RAID storage system that can support RAID levels 0,1,5 and 10. It's a modest sized, handsome aluminum enclosure that has slots for four user-replaceable drives. It's one of the first consumer RAID 5 or better systems, and the benefit is that a failed drive can be hot swapped out, the data rebuilt from the parity drive, and result in no loss of data. And it's fast, quiet and nicely priced.
Some Background - Why You Need RAID 5
We're all familiar with RAID level 0 and 1, even though we may not be familiar with that technical term. Basically, RAID level 0 is striping. Data is split between two drives so that the system can accept data at a faster rate. The downside is that if one drive fails, all data is lost.
We're also familiar with mirroring. That's RAID level 1. Two matched drives are used, an all data is written to both at roughly the same time. It's no faster than a single drive, but if one drive fails, there is a duplicate data on the other.
Previously, RAID 5 systems have been expensive and reserved for enterprise use. In RAID 5, data is striped but parity data is distributed across all the disks and there's a dedicated parity drive. As a result, because of the way the data is distributed, the system can tolerate the loss of any one drive. Simply replace the defective drive and the system controller rebuilds the data set. RAID 5 is popular because it's an inexpensive way to obtain complete redundancy.
RAID 10 (or 1+0) offers redundancy in a different way. Data is striped over two mirrored pairs (in the Qx2). Again, if any one drive fails, no data is lost. A drive replacement and rebuild is all that's required. While faster than RAID 5, the capacity, compared to RAID 5, is reduced.
The OWC Mercury Elite-AL Pro Qx2
The Other World Computing Qx2 is basically an enclosure that contains the power supply, electronics, RAID controller, four SATA slots and cooling fan. One can purchase the system with from 500 GB to 2 TB drives. My review unit had four 500 GB drives for a formatted RAID 5 capacity (my choice) of 1.33 TB. (The redundancy algorithm chews up that other 0.67 TB).
Qx2 size comparison
The photo above shows the relative size of the unit compared to, left to right, a LaCie Big Disk (1 TB) and a NewerTech Guardian MAXimus RAID 1. Specifically, it's 9.5 x 5 x 7 inches. (24 x 13 x 18 cm.) and weighs just under 9 lbs (3.5 kg) empty. It's likely bigger than any hard disk you have, but neither will it chew up monstrous desk space.
Inside front cover
OWC has made the set up as simple as humanly possible. You set the enclosure on the desk, open the front cover plate with one of the two keys included, slide the four drives in and seat them, turn the thumbscrews to secure the drives. Then select one of the RAID settings according to the instructions with the circular RAID Selector Switch on the upper right, then close the front door. Then connect the chosen interface, FireWire 400/800, USB 2 or eSATA, connect the power cord, then turn it on. It's that simple.
Front (cover removed) and back
The system comes pre-configured as RAID 5 and HFS+, which is the expected use. I asked about the USB 2 port because, compared to FireWire 800 and eSATA speeds, USB 2 is fairly slow compared to the ability of FireWire 800 to sustain 80 megabytes per second (MBps) transfer rates. OWC said that it was added merely for the sake of being more universal in its connectivity. I wouldn't dream of using it that way.
The first time I booted it up, it appeared on my desktop as if it were a 1.33 TB conventional drive. It runs as quiet as any of my other drives which is pretty good, considering that it has four drives and a large fan. (The fan uses ball bearings, not sleeve bearings, which is a Good Thing.) The drives run at 7,200 RPM.
I am not a professional hard disk performance tester. However, I am familiar with some of the tools available. For example, QuickBench 4 provides data on random read & write vs. sequential read & writes for a given block size. I used it to provide a rough estimate of the performance, using FireWire 800. Here are the results, showing 85 Mbps sequential read.
I also conducted some long term stress testing of the unit by re-doing the QuickBench test with four high definition, 1080p, movie trailers, from Apple, running in a loop for 30 minutes. (This is similar to a test I did last week, but for a longer duration.) I did this to see if the unit warmed to the touch or whether the exhaust fan air seemed to heat up. That didn't happen, it appears, because four 1080p trailers hardly stresses the total system -- and the Qx2 was still able to simultaneously crank out 68 MBps in sequential reads.
HD Stress test plus QuickBench run.
The conclusion I drew from this test is that, in normal operation, casual home users are unlikely to over heat or over stress the unit.
The aluminum enclosure, the thumbscrews to secure the drives, the size and low noise of the fan, the large rubber feet were all deemed first class. The lockable cover-plate, which also serves as a (barely sufficient) air filter, secures the drives from tampering by other members of the household -- the youngest of whom may have a fetish for turning knobs.
The fan takes up a considerable amount of area on the back of the unit, and that's good because a big, slow fan is quieter than a small, fast rotating fan. I thought the overall quality of the unit was amazing, and I'd be happy to own one of these units.
For enterprise use, one might expect considerable documentation. However, Mac users are more inclined to understand the rudiments, then they just want to get going. Basically, the 11 page manual guides the user from out of the box to some basic RAID terminology, then how to assemble the unit (inserting and securing the four drives), a brief FAQ, setting the RAID mode, and finally support information.
A series of colored LEDs on the front not only provide status information, but also confirm the RAID setting. For example if you select RAID 5, the "big" plus "fast" lights glow. There is also a rebuild indicator so that you know the unit isn't available while it rebuilds data after a drive replacement. (Rebuild time depends on the total storage, and I didn't test that part.)
One thing the manual doesn't explicitly cover is that system allows for hot swapping, just like the more advanced, enterprise-class systems do: the old Apple Xserve/RAID and its successor, the Active Storage XRAID. No need to shut the unit down to replace a failed drive.
Also included is a CD that includes OWC's shareware, Prosoft Engineering Data Backup for Mac, NovaStor NovaBACKUP for Windows, and Intech SpeedTools for Mac. The QuickBench 4 test I conducted is part of that suite.
Associated Technical and Support Issues
RAID 5 systems got their first use in the enterprise. Bringing that technology to the home user's desktop presents several issues: support and technical management of massive RAID 5 storage. To that end, I drew upon my on experience with the Apple Xserve/RAID, now discontinued, to ask OWC some technical questions. They quickly responded via e-mail.
1Q. How far can the unit be expanded?
1A: The Qx2 is currently limited to 4 x 2 TB drives. The operating system must be able to support 8 GB volumes. (Mac OS X Leopard does.)
2Q: The fan pulls air from the front of the unit to the back. Could the thumbscrews produce shavings that could be drawn into the drives?
2A: Minute chance of that. We have not observed any metal shavings being created, most likely because the threads are die tapped treaded for multiple screw install/removal sequences.
3Q: What is the maximum operating temperature? Sometimes, it gets up to 80F in my office in the summer.
3A: No problem. Operating temperature is 5°C to 55°C (41°F to 131°F)
4Q: Is there any form of vibration isolation to inhibit acoustic coupling between the four drives?
4A: No, but when possible for each size Qx2 (but always for the enterprise versions), we make an effort to use drives that have technology to reduce those soft errors that happen from cross-drive vibrations.
5Q: Does the RAID controller attempt to manage the drive heads in such a way as to minimize violent travel of the read/write heads?
6Q: Does the cooling fan use a sleeve bearing or the more superior ball bearing?
6A: Ball bearings.
7Q: What is the rating of the hard disks supplied, not MTBF, but the class of drive?
7A: We offer Enterprise-class units that have a 5 year warranty.
8Q: If the fan dies, does the unit self-detect and shut down?
9Q: Are the fan and power supply user replaceable?
10Q: Enterprise RAID systems use a cache for high throughput. Is that true for yours? The old Apple Xserve/RAID had a battery backup system so that in the event of a power outage, the cache could be saved to disk and data integrity maintained. Tell me what happens to the Qx2 and cache coherence if power is abruptly cut.
10A: Incorporating this would have added extra costs that would have brought us away from the price range we were shooting to be in.
11Q: Does OWC offer a service contract for on-site repair?
11A: Not currently, but it's been discussed internally.
12Q: RAID 5 offers an additional level of redundancy, but it could happen that a proper analysis of a failure could require the user to return both the chassis and the drives for evaluation. What is OWC's policy regarding the disposition of user data?
12A: We have multi-bay RAID specialists that will work with you to determine what the best course of action is. Since there are elements outside of our control, we can’t guarantee the data, but every effort will be made to save the data ( using level 1 data recovery techniques) and transfer it to a new drive or drives if that is where the problem is.
No packages are opened outside of the return room which is a secure area with very limited access. If we determine a drive needs to go back to the manufacturer, we perform the following before it is sent out to protect your privacy:
- We "wipe the drives", when possible, by initializing the units.
- For drives we (OWC) dispose of, the platters are physically destroyed by hammer blows prior to disposal.
- For units that are manufacturer (warranty) returns that are inoperable, we are unable to wipe directory or data.
13Q: Is the RAID controller a custom design? Or is it derived from a RAID controller built for other enterprise class RAID systems?
13A: The Qx2 is utilizing the Oxford 936QSE Controller.
I asked how much it would cost to replace a key (two supplied), but OWC hasn't defined a price or policy on that.
Home, Small Business IT Planning
All storage technology demands some awareness of technical issues. Manufacturers try to make their products simple to use, and in this case, OWC has succeeded. But ease of use doesn't imply that we don't need to plan or that we'll be carefree forever. So while the the OWC Qx2 is a very nice device, the user still has to think about a few things. I bring this up simply out of due diligence.
- If a cheap terabyte drive, used as Time Machine backup fails out of warranty, one might elect to destroy it, buy a new one, and re-create the backup. (Losing archival data, of course, from the original epoch.) With the Qx2, options are more complicated due to its cost.
- If a single drive fails, how long can one afford to be off the air while a replacement arrives? (Unless one uses the Spare Drive mode -- which reduces the over all capacity to two drives out of four.) An external, standby, spare is a good investment considering how cheap storage is.
- If the source of a problem is indeterminate and the unit needs to be returned with the all drives, is one prepared to have several terabytes possibly in the hands of the drive manufacturer for warranty replacement? Or if the Qx2 hardware checks out, is it better to simply order the defective drive destroyed, swap in a new drive and pay for it -- even if under warranty? Also, shipping a loaded Qx2 is neither cheap nor convenient for the home user.
Some of these questions can't be answered until consultation with OWC warranty repair. But the bottom line is that while RAID 5 and 10 redundancy is nice to have in the case of an obviously failed single drive, such a system doesn't immunize the home or small business user against all possible problems.
In the enterprise world, matters are more straightforward -- for a price. A field technician, under service contract, conducts hardware diagnostics on an enterprise class system at the customer's location. Components or drives can be swapped out. If only a drive is defective, a new one is installed, and the bad one is given to the customer for disposal, destruction, etc.
The OWC Mercury Elite-Al Pro Qx2 comes with a three year warranty, if you buy drives from OWC, and enterprise drives have a five year warranty. The unit is well manufactured with excellent fit and finish. Most users will be able to put it together and be up and running from box to desktop icon in 20 minutes or so. The documentation avoids complications and provides the essentials, in a kind of Macintosh Way. Drives are hot swappable, and the cooling system seems robust.
A sustained sequential read speed of at least 80 MBps (640 Mbps), with FireWire 800, was tested and confirmed. Cables for all interfaces are, in OWC's tradition, included.
However, some compromises in design had to be made in order for OWC to hit the desired consumer price point. The drive should be connected to an UPS because it doesn't have battery powered cache. It'll be up to the user, with the unit on a desktop, to monitor its health. There are no remote diagnostics, alarms, and e-mail calls for help like the higher level enterprise system that sits unattended in a data center. Given the compromises made and the price point hit, I can absolutely recommend this product for the slightly more advanced home user or small business.
- Empty enclosure: US$379.99
- 4 x 500 GB: US$579.99 (consumer)
- 4 x 1 TB: US$799.99 (consumer)
- 4 x 1 TB: US$979.99 (enterprise)
- 4 x 2 TB: US$1,599.99 (consumer)
See OWC's complete pricing page.