Wednesday, August 29, 2012

mini-DisplayPort / Thunderbolt VS HDMI

I had to shuffle my current desktop;re-arrange monitors and I was reminded of an old subject : displayport/thunderbolt vs HDMI. This subject has been heated debate among tech friends.

This week, I am running full HD/1080p (1920x1080), WQHD (2560x1440) , and WQXGA (2560x1600) off an 27" iMac. I could run another WQHD(Apple 27" Cinema display) through daisy chaining if my desk had enough room to support it.

In short, I have a desktop of  7,040 x 4,120 pixels.

I posted earlier an image of the Retina Macbook Pro displaying 14 million pixels off four displays . That is pretty insane and not possible with HDMI.

HDMI connection is never a selling point for me. I don't know why it is ever a bragging point on new equipment. Sure, you can plug into your HDTV at home and in some conference rooms LCD TVs.However "most" laptops/computers with HDMI can only output a maximum resolution of 1920x1080 (HD).  If you do more than watch videos in HD 16x9, HDMI in its shipping form is very limited.

When I shop for a new computer/graphics card, I always choose DisplayPort and mini-DisplayPort/mDP over HDMI. Thunderbolt use the same connector as mDP (mini-DisplayPort).

I hear if you advocate mDP or thunderbolt over HDMI that you are an Apple fanboy. The main argument is that mDP/Thunderbolt is considered proprietary or some silly notion that Apple has to do something different than the rest of the industry. This has been one of the major talking point against getting an Apple Macbook/Air.

Well, if it is considered proprietary, it allows me to drive multiple WQHD (2560x1440) or WQXGA (2560x1600) high resolution monitors. Heck, it allows me to at least drive one WQXGA 30" monitor.

Apple announced mDP in 2008 and has since licensed it for others to use (e.g. Lenovo Thinkpads X1/X230). Thunderbolt is an Intel invention and it is licensed to whoever (Lenovo/Acer/Dell) whats to use it. mDP/Thunderbolt is simply better for the needs of a computer user versus a person who is only interested in hooking up their notebooks to their living room TVs.

Sure, HDMI 1.4 promises to fix the resolution deficiency but the fact remains many monitors with WQHD (2560x1440) or WQXGA (2560x1600) handicap their HDMI input; meaning you will only get 1080p res on that nice Dell U2711 or U3011.

When more WQHD monitors support higher res through HDMI and when laptop manufactures clearly specify the max output resolution of their HDMI output, I might change my mind.

With companies now making ultrabooks, they should all embrace mDP/Thunderbolt.
I don't understand why companies like Asus ship laptops like the UX31E with mini-hdmi and mini-vga. You still need to carry an adapter/dongle for mini-hdmi/mini-vga so the argument about carrying an extra cable is moot. I'm more inclined to think Asus didn't want to spend any extra money on licensing which would even make their ultra portable even smaller with less ports.

With Displayport/mDP/Thunderbolt, you have dongles for VGA (those old conference room projectors), HDMI (for plasma/LCD TVs), and DVI/Dual-DVI for standard monitors. Heck, most cables only cost $3-$10. Displayport even routes digital audio (just like HDMI) in revision 1.2. If you are going to be making presentations at client's conference room, you would most likely be carrying a HDMI cable already so the extra dongle adds little bulk for the few times you use it.

DisplayPort now allows you to daisy-chain monitors in their spec. Here is an excellent example with 2 displays daisy chained. Have in mind, these are two WQHD display running off a Macbook Air. Not even the top of the line Thinkpad W530 can do this (unless you use a docking station with certain configurations).


So there you have it. I like to conclude with my earlier remark, when I am in the market for a new laptop/computer, I will always choose displayport/mDP/Thunderbolt over HDMI.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Storage and Hard Drive prices

Since hard drive prices are still insanely high after the Thai floods, I have resorted to buying cheap external drives. I simply remove the drives from the enclosures and use them bare.

These drives cost around $110-120 which are cheaper than their internal counterparts. I'm still flabergasted that external drives cost less than internal drives. Seagate now supposedly uses the 3TB ST3000DM001 7200 rpm drives in these enclosures.

The only downside is that you lose your warranty. With one year warranties on most drives, I am willing to take those risk for my personal archival needs. These will be great in a Drobo 5D I plan to get.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Samsung 830 SSD USB 3.0 RAID-0 in OSX and Ubuntu 12.04

Striping two USB sticks was cool but I wanted to try it further with two fast SSDs.
As many people know, the Samsung 830s are fast, reliable and great SSDs. They make great candidates for a SSD based RAID.

In my search for a super fast consumer grade RAID solution, I figure I try USB 3.0 and see what happens next.

I did tests on both Mac OSX Mountain Lion and Ubuntu 12.04 (off a Gigabyte GA-H67N-USB3-B3 motherboard).

On the Mac. Making a stripe software raid-0 is pretty straightforward using Disk Utility.

In Ubuntu 12.04. Setup is almost as easy as the mac.

The results were not that great as the Thunderbolt solutions I've seen. In fact, I now think it is is more economical to get platter based spindle thunderbolt RAID drives instead of trying USB/eSATA with SSDs.

I'm getting 200 MB/s writes on both OSX/Linux and 200-300MB/s reads. Have in mind, these are blazing speeds if you only used to using regular HDDs. However, the results are unimpressive in a RAID-0 array.

Real world copy. 200 MB/s

In fact, I see no real speed gains striping two SSDs with USB 3.0. Single SSDs are just as fast.
Or simply, the USB 3.0 controllers are not up to speed with the fastest SSDs yet. This may explain why I haven't seen any interesting or worthwhile USB 3.0 RAID enclosures on the market.

I think I'm going to have to spend the cash on a Thunderbolt solution because eSATA and USB 3.0 is not cutting it for a DAS (Direct Attach Storage) solution.

Macbook Pro USB 3.0 RAID ZERO with USB sticks

What happens when you try to stripe two USB 3.0 sticks together in a RAID 0 on a 2012 Macbook with USB 3.0 support?

I decided to find out to see if there is any tangible benefit gains.

Here, I have two Patriot Supersonic Xpress 32GB USB 3.0 sticks for my test. I used Disk Utility to make a stripe set and had the set formatted HFS+. I ran Black Magic Disk Speed Test to see the before and after differences.

Single USB stick benchmark.

Striped Zero RAID benchmark.

In short, you will get twice the speed in RAID 0. Pretty cool!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

FreeNAS Mini-ITX AMD E-350 Lian Li PC-Q25 build

I recently built a FreeNAS  ZFS RAIDZ box for my personal backup archives. I wanted something elegant and low powered with the ability to run ZFS. FreeNAS is a NAS appliance built on FreeBSD. It supports the ability to run the ZFS filesystem and can be booted off a small flash storage like USB or Compact Flash.

I selected the following components:
  • 6 X Hitachi 2TB 7200rpm Desktars 3.5 " drives
  • ASUS E35M1-I Mini-ITX Motherboard with an AMD dual core E-350 and 8GB of RAM.
  • LIAN LI Silver Aluminum PC-Q25A Mini case 
  • FreeNAS-8.2.0-RELEASE-p1-x64 (r11950)
  • 8GB internal Patriot USB stick as OS boot
A few notes on my setup:
The ASUS E35M1 is a low voltage netbook AMD Fusion CPU (same one found in the Thinkpad X120E) and supports six SATA 3 6Gb/s ports. The LIAN LI PC-Q25 case can hold up to seven 3.5" hard drives. Five of those seven drives can be hot-swappable.

Here are some pictures of my build.The fit-n-finish on the LIAN LI is pretty impressive. The machined aluminium is well made. This case was clearly designed to be a HTPC or NAS box. It fits well in my Apple - Macintosh environment. Except for the logo up front, it is one slick looking piece of gear.

The Asus motherboard has everything I needed. 6 SATA ports for 6 HDD drives! All the data drives are connected to the motherboard while an internal USB stick boots the FreeNAS OS.
It also has a passive cooling heatsink.

This is where the AMD solution shines. I could not find an Intel based Mini-ITX mobo/cpu with 6 SATA III 6Gb/s ports nor one with a passive heatsink. Moreover, none of the Atom boards officially support 8GB of RAM necessary to run ZFS.  This is the perfect small form factor board for FreeNAS!

Internal USB header attaches to the motherboard and hides the USB inside the case.

Picture below depicts drives loaded up. There are five hot-swappable bays. I had to put this to real world practice by taking out drives while the OS was running and without rebooting! The backplane is pretty interesting since it uses molex connectors for power.

With 8GB of ram, I have enough to run ZFS and RAIDZ; giving me roughly 9TB useable space.

After my build, I started to notice some degraded RAIDZ errors on my 3rd disk. Disk #3 seemed fine. I zeroed out the data and booted a different OS (Linux Mint) and copied files with no integrity issues. I tried the drive in different computers and everything checked out fine (S.M.A.R.T) and other scans. However ZFS zpool was giving me checksum errors. Well, it turned out to be a case of "silent data corruption." Linux Mint and Ubuntu did not see any problems but FreeNAS was able to give me a good heads up. It turned out to be a bad SATA cable. Once replaced, everything was fine.

In terms of performance:

Running a short DD benchmark,I was getting 263-268 Megabytes per second on the internal bus. This is pretty decent considering it is a RAIDZ disk array.

 [root@RAIDZ] /# dd if=/dev/zero of=/mnt/RAIDZ/test.dd bs=2048k count=10000  
 10000+0 records in  
 10000+0 records out  
 20971520000 bytes transferred in 74.518446 secs (281427232 bytes/sec)  
 [root@RAIDZ] /#   

 [root@RAIDZ] /mnt/RAIDZ# dd if=/dev/zero of=/mnt/RAIDZ/test.dd bs=2048k count=10000  
 10000+0 records in  
 10000+0 records out  
 20971520000 bytes transferred in 76.008326 secs (275910826 bytes/sec)  
 [root@RAIDZ] /mnt/RAIDZ#   

In short,

268.3899230957 megabytes

263.1290683746 megabytes

Through the network, I was getting 60-80 MB/s. This may be due to the Realtek 8111E gigabit controller on-board or the fact I was testing during the middle of the day with 60 other people on the network. I was hoping to get closer to Gigabit's theoretical limit of 125 MB/s so I may experiment with a dual NIC Intel card in the future..

Overall, I am very happy with this NAS build. It supports AFP, CIFs, NFS, iSCSI, Rsync and works surprisingly well. I also like the fact I have other FreeNAS boxes that easily sync to this one with just a few click of a mouse. 

The only thing I wish for is a motherboard with 7-8 SATA ports so I can use a SSD as a cache accelerator drive.

The NAS even works surprisingly well serving files to my iPad using AFP, Samba or SFTP.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Thinkpad X1 Carbon internal

Looks like the Thinkpad X1 Carbon is going the Apple route.

Proprietary SSD and soldered RAM. Battery looks like it is a glued piece as well.

This will surely infuriate many Thinkpad loyalists.

Internal Picture of the X1 Carbon shows similarities to the Macbook Pro Retina.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

HP is a Class Act

On August 5th 2012, HP posted a price mistake on one of their Deskstop PC by accident.

Instead of receiving $120 off a computer, the computer itself in any configuration was $120.

Somehow, the system allowed you to build and customize a computer with all the trimmings (multiple SSDs, Nividia GT640 GPU, monitors) for a total price of $120. On top of that, you could stack coupons to bring it down to as low as $70. Basically, you could have built a $2,500 computer for less than $100.

Thousands of users flocked discounts sites to jump in on this deal.

Unfortunately, it was obviously a price mistake.

I had no question in my mind HP would cancel those orders. Price mistakes happen all the time and the vendor issues an apology.

However, HP does something better. They issued $200 coupon credits to use at their store. That makes them a class act. No other company would do this.

The funny thing is, many "slickdealers" who got these coupons are still complaining on message boards.

I was lucky to get a cancellation for the $120 PC and a $200 HP credit and got a nice freebie from HP. Many people got free blu-ray players, 23" monitors, Beats by Dre headphones, and free printers. And yet, they are still complaining they got cheated.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

SSD RAID 0 in an eSATA enclosure box

What happens when you try to stripe 4 SATA 3 6G SSDs inside an E-SATA enclosure?

Just for fun, I tried two Samsung 830s and two Crucial M4s into a Mercury Elite Pro Qx2 raid box set to RAID 0 striped.

The results? Very disappointing that I didn't even bother to take screenshots.

Using e-sata connected to various Macs, Windows, and Linux boxes, I barely got 150-180 MB/s. I was better off just using 7200 rpm normal hard drives.

In short, don't even bother doing this at home.

The reasons are pretty obvious. E-SATA's capped bandwidth is around 200 MB/s. Then you have the fact that 99% of the consumer/prosumer raid boxes out there only support SATA 2 (3G) which barely taps the speed of SSDs. Don't expect to get speeds like the Pegasus R4 Thunderbolt which I've seen top 800MB/s with platter hard drives.

So the cheap solution is to expect someone to come out with a decent USB 3.0 Raid box with SATA 3 (6G) interfaces.

Now, for fun, I tried striping a few of the SSDs off a PC motherboard. Using a bootable Linux Mint USB, I built a striped software array in Linux with two Samsungs 830s. I was able to sustain 700MB/s through some various tests. Unfortunately, that doesn't help me because I need DAS (Direct Attached Storage) for my various computers.

Newer Technology USB 3.0 to eSATA adapter

Here is a 2012 Macbook friendly accessory to stuff in your travel bag. A Newertech (Newer Technology) USB 3.0 to e-sata adapter. This device retails and sells for about $30. You can probably find other adapters cheaper from other brands but Newertech has a great reputation for Macintosh capabilities.

My only real gripe is the short USB cable with both A end piece connectors. You can't simply use a different USB cable if you want to.

The reason I got this cable is that many of the current/existing e-sata/usb 3.0 combo boxes are flaky with USB 3.0. I've looked at over a dozen different makes (Mediasonic, Sans Digital,etc) and models. I've read hundred pages of forums and reviews (Amazon/NewEgg) to know USB 3.0 raid enclosures are iffy at best. They drop connections, sleep causes issues, transfer speeds are problematic, there are chipset incompatibilities,etc. I have a few boxes and docks where my Macbook Pro's USB 3.0 port does not work. An example is the Voyager Q HDD dock.

I tried this cable on various e-sata devices and it works great. I get about 180 MB/s reads and 160 MB/s writes which is about correct. Most e-sata boxes in RAID or SSD top out at 200 MB/s. With some USB overhead, 180MB/s reads is pretty respectable. The only thing faster for a Macbook is Thunderbolt.

Overall, I am happy with this device.

A short summary for those interested:

  • Plug-n-play operation. No drivers needed for OSX.
  • Not bus powered. Does not support esata-p
  • Respectable USB3/e-sata speeds.
  • USB A to USB A end cable.
  • Does not support port multiplier.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Cool $4 gadget: internal usb motherboard dongle

Here is something you don't see too often. An internal USB dongle with header pins that connect directly to your motherboard that has spare 4 pin USB headers. Now, what can you do with this? A hidden internal USB boot disk!

This $3.75 gadget is extremely handy for custom low foot print server builds like FreeNAS or ESXi. You install your small foot print OS onto a USB stick and hide it away. In fact, FreeNAS recommends installing onto a flash drive. Instead of having a USB pen drive sticking out the back of you server, you can simply hide it away inside the chassis like this:

Here, I have it in my Fujitsu MX 130 taped to the side of the drive caddy. I can free up the SATA ports for drives and my OS boots from the USB stick. Cool indeed.

Other uses included setting up an internal usb wifi. This is great for those who hackintosh and need to use a specific wifi dongle.

Link: Amazon StarTech USB A to USB Motherboard 4-Pin Header F/F 2.0 Cable

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Fujitsu MX130 S2 microserver

Newegg recently had a sale on the Fujitsu MX130 S2  micro server for $140 so I decided to pick one up.

Now, I have to say this is a great little machine: AMD AM3+ motherboard, up to 16GB (some users have gone to 32GB) of ECC server dimm memory, 6 sata connectors, 4 drive bays in a small package. You can upgrade to various 95W class AMD cpus. It comes standard with a Sempron single core CPU, 250GB 7200 rpm drive, and 2GB of ram. That in itself is enough to run FreeNAS and you'll have yourself a great little file server. The build quality is very good. In short, this is a micro server class machine targeted to small businesses who needs something economical and green friendly.

I decided to take a little further and upgraded to a FX 6100 6 core bulldozer and added 16GB of ram to make it into a portable testing ESXi box so I can do some virtualization testing. I replaced the stock drive with a 32GB sata boot drive, 128GB SSD, and two 2GB Hitachi 7200 rpm drives.
With multiple  cores, a few of drives hooked up, and 16GB of ram, I have myself a little staging lab on my desk. For another $12 and change, I am going to add a secondary gigabit card and an e-sata breakout panel.

I figure I can run 15-20 or so lightweight VM appliances on this thing. Things like a lightweight  MYSQL replication, rsync server for backups, GIT/SVN ,etc.

ESXi 5 and XenServer 6 installed with no problems.

For $140 this is a great little box you can use to play around with. It is not going to win any speed tests but for my needs, it is just perfect. I only wish I got a second one.