August 7th brought many excellent product updates for the Mac platform but some product lines were sorely overlooked. Mac Pros, for instance, received very mild memory discounts and a surprising $999 RAID card.  This RAID Card isn’t the traditional type that has the SATA ports built in.  This one turns the Mac Pro’s motherboard SATA ports into something that can be used in a hardware RAID array.

For people in the know on RAID cards, the advantages are plenty. Mirroring (RAID 1) protects you from a hard drive failure. Striping (RAID 0) speeds up the data access speeds of your drives by writing to two drives simultaneously. RAID 5 does a little of both if you have three or more drives. From there, you can go on and on with different configurations and levels to your heart’s content.

Another popular Disk Array configuration is JBOD – which stands for “Just a bunch of Disks”  As the name suggests, it is a span of the disks available but it isn’t striped so that losing a disk doesn’t mess up any data not housed on that disk.  The speed is usually just that of the hard drives.

RAID cards used to be SCSI only, but have filtered down to the IDE and have been on the SATA bus for a little over two years.

Over this time, SATA RAID cards have come way down in price and have added many features that were previously only available to high end SCSI RAID cards. If you want to know everything about SATA RAID cards, check out this article from a few years back – it is essentially a SATA RAID card bible.

OK, now that we know about SATA RAID cards, we have to ask ourselves, how can Apple ask for $1000 for a mid-range, bare-bones SATA RAID card that doesn’t even add external ports?

**disclaimer, I have not bought one of these to try it out first hand, nor will I based on the (sparse) specs provided by Apple.  I have used the Xserve model on a few occasions and found it solid, if uninspiring.

So first of all – for you glass half empty people out there – let’s talk about what this card lacks:

  1. External ports for external drives
  2. PC Drivers for Boot Camp or removal and using in PCs (see citation 6 in specs – and Virtualization is questionable)
  3. More than 4 Ports that are currently on the motherboard
  4. The specs say nothing about SATA-II
  5. Anywhere close to a reasonable price
  6. It is huge – with a large array of heatsyncs – which means lots of juice needed – so it ain’t green
  7. Speed…It is only about 50% faster ON PAPER than just using software RAID on an older Mac Pro 

So there have to be good points about this $1000 SATA RAID card?

  1. It is build to order and has Apple Software and Warranty Support
  2. It has a 72 hour battery (usually a $100 upgrade) and 256 meg cache (standard faire).

Yeah, that’s about it. This isn’t even as feature rich as the RAID controller on the XServe that is smaller and lets you do SAS in case you still like SCSI. The speed – mediocre for a RAID card – is barely faster than Software RAID. There are no external ports so you can’t hook up any external SATA drives without buying another card (or wiring the onboard port cables out through the back) – which is a huge loss for professionals. 

So, for those of you who want solutions, not problems let’s look at some alternatives…

On the low end, you can find a number of RAID cards for $150$300 which aren’t going to be as feature rich and you’ll need to check the driver compatibility on Macintosh.

In the midrange,you have a $485 product with MacOSX drivers from HighPoint called the RocketRAID 2340.  This guy packs 16 internal AND External SATA-II ports (downward compatible to SATA 1).  

On the high-end (but still less than the barebones Apple offering), ATTO makes the R348 Adapter for $910.  This card offers SATA, SATA II and SAS (Serial Attatched SCSI) interfaces and speed that will more than likely blow away the Apple product in real world tests.

Still though, Apple will probably do well with this product add-on.  For Sysadmins, it simplifies the ordering/building/warranty process and is probably best adapted and tested by Apple to work with the Mac Pro.  If you are using the Mac Pro as a server – and reliability trumps speed and features, you have more reason to stick with Apple covered products.  Unfortunately, you cannot currently get the Apple Mac Pro RAID card as a stand alone product if you fit into this subset.

Edit: Removed the Adaptec SATA Card because of the lack of driver support for the Mac Platform.  Thanks commentors!

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