A UDMA RAID card solved our problem and saved us money

When you need to solve entry-level server hardware problems, you might be so accustomed to thinking SCSI that you forget to explore the alternatives. As the Windows 2000 Magazine Lab worked through recent hardware hardships, we came across a solution that might appeal to someone who needs to trim an IT budget.

Recently, a Lab entry-level file server failed. After several attempts to revive the system, we gave up on it and began our search for a replacement. Building a new server was an unexpected expense, so we wanted to find an affordable solution. We needed about 100GB of storage and wanted a RAID 5 hardware solution.

We had on hand a 266MHz Pentium II­based server with about 9GB of SCSI storage. Our performance requirements were modest, so this system's processor speed would suffice. However, we didn't want to sacrifice fault tolerance. To turn this machine into an adequate replacement, we would need to buy a RAID card and storage.

We shopped for SCSI solutions and found an Adaptec entry-level Ultra 2 SCSI RAID card for about $370. Next, we looked for SCSI hard disks. IBM's Ultrastar 36LZX hard disks sell for about $550 each. These Ultra 160 SCSI-interface hard disks offer 36.7GB of storage per disk, so we would need four of them for our RAID 5 configuration. The disks bumped the solution's cost up to about $2570. Although we knew this total wasn't exorbitant, we weren't convinced that the expense was necessary. After all, we were simply refurbishing a middle-aged server. Therefore, we reexamined our approach.

We couldn't trim cost from the SCSI RAID card because the card is an entry-level product. Moreover, the SCSI hard disks constituted the bulk of the expense. To trim our solution cost, we needed to find cheaper hard disks. The Lab staff decided to research IDE.

Using IDE technology in a server is an unorthodox practice, but bargain shopping isn't. Although SCSI technology is unquestionably more sophisticated, you can purchase a fast EIDE hard disk at a fraction of a SCSI hard disk's cost. Adaptec's AAA-Ultra Direct Memory Access (UDMA) RAID Card kit capitalizes on this economic reality and supports IDE hard disks.

The UDMA RAID Card kit sells for about $379. The kit's RAID card supports as many as four UDMA (i.e., UDMA/33 and UDMA/66) hard disks. You can upgrade the card's 2MB of cache memory to 64MB. The card also offers support for an online hot-spare hard disk and RAID levels 0, 1, 5, and 0+1.

Next, we found IBM Deskstar 75GXP hard disks for about $185 each. These UDMA/66 interface hard disks offer 45GB of storage per disk. Four disks in a RAID 5 configuration would give us 135GB of available storage. The solution cost us about $1119—less than half the SCSI solution's bill—and provided more storage than SCSI. We purchased and installed the solution, and so far, we're satisfied.

The Lab doesn't endorse using IDE indiscriminately. We recommend taking advantage of SCSI's multitasking, command queuing, and bus mastering features for your high-performance servers. If scalability is a concern, don't look to IDE; the UDMA RAID card accommodates only four hard disks. You can also forget about using your spare IDE hard disks to upgrade that old 200MHz Pentium Pro­based server; the UDMA RAID card requires at least a 266MHz Pentium II processor. Although the IDE option isn't for everyone, the solution might be exactly what you need for your entry-level server.