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Yes, there's something to be said for add-in cards, but a costlier controller doesn't necessarily pay off.
It’s only fair that we start our comparisons by looking at the host-based cards and motherboards. The relatively low cost of entry in these two categories makes this the natural starting point for a discussion about how controllers can impact the performance of a RAID. We had high hopes for our motherboards going into the slugfest. After all, these two products each represent pinnacles of performance: EVGA’s nForce-based motherboard is a tried-and-true favorite in our Lab, whereas the MSI board sports one of Intel’s newest chipsets. But even with all that respective might behind them, the two contenders were no match for Adaptec’s 1430SA host-based add-in card. In two of the three official RAID 0 benchmarks, the 1430SA overtook the speediest of our motherboards, MSI’s P35 Neo2-FR.
The only anomaly was a stunning upset by MSI’s P35 Neo2-FR in our real-world encoding benchmark. We were surprised to see the board perform so dramatically better than any other contender in the host-based category. We have two possible explanations: Just considering the two motherboards, the EVGA model uses a single south bridge to control the functions of six SATA ports. The MSI board shuffles a five-port load across two separate onboard controllers. Then there’s the simple possibility that this benchmark performs better on an Intel platform—we’ve seen it happen before and are apt to believe it to be the case this time, given the close performance of the two boards in the two other benchmarks.
Concerning RAID 5 performance, we must first note that the Adaptec 1430SA card was excluded due to its lack of support for RAID 5. It’s a shame, too; HighPoint’s RocketRAID 2300 squeaks out the performance win, but it’s not an outright domination. Given how well the Adaptec card performed on our RAID 0 testing, we believe it would have stood a good chance of taking the crown in the RAID 5 benchmarks as well.
We found that both motherboards had a great deal of trouble with write performance in RAID 5. This killed their scores for all tests across the board, as both of our real-world benchmarks depend on a storage device’s read and write capabilities. This leaves the RocketRAID 2300 as the default winner. In no way would we want to suffer through the abysmal write times of the two motherboards for any length of time.
It was interesting to see virtually no variance whatsoever in CPU usage, regardless of whether our array was being fielded by the motherboard or the host-based controller card. We remain unconvinced that a host-based controller’s performance is hurt in a RAID setup merely because it relies on the CPU—at least, if you’re running a multicore processor. The particulars of the card and the RAID configuration are what ultimately matter—as became apparent during the discrete portion of our testing.
If you’re willing to spend the extra dough, the best discrete RAID controllers punish the competition to satisfyingly bloody results—but there are still duds to be found in this category. Both cards that used high-powered processors (800MHz or higher) destroyed the RAID 0 benchmark numbers of their host-based counterparts. While the ultimate winner was Adaptec’s 5405 controller, HighPoint’s RocketRAID 3510 achieved excellent results in our RAID 0 HD Tach and PCMark05 benchmarks. The real-world significance of the card’s power was less apparent in our conversion benchmark, where the RocketRAID 3510 card trumped only the next-best contender by 11 seconds.
By contrast, Adaptec’s 5405 card shined brightly on every individual test we put it to. The card topped all others in our HD Tach read test and utterly blew away the second-place controller by nearly 100MB/s on the write test. The 5405 pulled in awesome numbers in PCMark05 and also did well in our real-world benchmark. This ultimately amounted to a savings of about 50 seconds compared to the RocketRAID 2300, but compared to the nForce chipset, we’re talking about a difference of six minutes.
We were most surprised to see the relatively lukewarm performance of the absurdly expensive 3ware 9650SE-24M8 controller in all of our benchmarks. If anything, this proves that you can’t just toss money at a RAID controller and expect dynamite performance. For a $1,600 (MSRP) contribution to AMCC, you get RAID 0 performance that’s no better than what AMCC’s $400 model is capable of, or even than the $150 entry-level HighPoint RocketRAID 2300 controller. Yikes!
Adaptec’s 5405 controller and HighPoint’s RocketRAID 3510 traded shots during our RAID 5 testing. The former gave us the highest write speeds of any RAID card we tested in this showdown, leading to a squeaks-by-at-the-finish-line victory in our overall PCMark05 benchmark. However, the RocketRAID 3510 had consistently excellent performance across all read-related tests, overtaking Adaptec’s 5405 controller by 14 seconds in our encoding benchmark.
The other cards we tested paled in comparison: 3ware’s high-priced offerings gave us decent RAID 5 performance as compared to, say, a motherboard. They nevertheless showed little variation among the two price points. Adding insult to injury, both cards were topped by the host-based (and far cheaper) HighPoint RocketRAID 2300.
As for LSI’s cards, well, we were amazed to see such an absolute nosedive from both the 8208ELP and 8888ELP controllers. Just to make sure we weren’t flubbing something, we tested these cards in both RAID 0 and RAID 5 arrays on both of the motherboards mentioned in this feature. No dice. Both LSI cards turned in abysmal performances in RAID 5—in fact, their complete inability to perform to reasonable expectations constitutes a failure in our book. And while the 8888ELP functioned in RAID 0, its scores were average at best. We suspect this might be a driver issue of some sort, given the problems we had installing drivers to begin with on the 8208ELP card. However, we can’t argue with the numbers.