Nexsan SATABeast review

This is a truly impressive storage array and with a street price of under £1/GB for enterprise level storage, is worth the investment.

Editor's Choice
Price
£13,683

The Nexsan SATABeast is a storage monster. Fully loaded with 42 SATA 750GB drives, this storage behemoth delivers 31.5TB of storage over iSCSI or Fibre Channel. It is targeted at those whose appetite for storage is a rapacious as the SataBeast is big.

When the SataBeast arrives, you know you are looking at serious storage. The box is fastened to its own pallet and unless you have a handy forklift truck you might just want to have the local rugby scrum on hand to help shift it. There are three boxes and a number of separate components that come in the package.

The two top boxes are filled with hard disk drives already in their caddies. Like all of its competitors, Nexsan only supports hard disks that it supplies but does, at least, send them in their caddies. Each box contains 21 drives in three rows of seven.

Separate to this are the mounting rails, manual, cables and a spare hard disk.

At the bottom is the SATABeast itself. It is heavy, even without the disks and should be moved with care. Nexsan has spent a lot of time engineering the airflow in this box and that is reflected in the look and feel. Rather than be a simple metal container, the fans at the front are place behind a shaped facia that pulls the air into the fans.

Underneath this is a series of lights that give you status information about the SataBeast. This is useful because you can see at a glance when there is a problem and the status of the fans, power and drivers.

The SataBeast has two 760w redundant power supplies and supports two controller boards. Each board has dual iSCSI and Fibre Channel interfaces. The version we received had two controller boards.

Installation takes time. This is not about speed because you are battling the weight. Before loading the SATABeast into the rack, Nexsan advises removing the communication cards and the power supplies. This is very good advice and installation is still best done with three people. Removing these components is very easy and all can be taken out in under a minute.

Once installed in the rack and with the power supplies and communication cards reinstalled, you can fit the hard disks. With 42 drives to fit, the problem is how to do it without restricting airflow. Nexsan has chosen to mount them tail-first and each drive is counter fitted to the previous. This achieves two key objectives. Air can flow more easily and rotation vibration is cancelled out.

The drives slide down plastics mounting rails and just drop onto the SATA connector. This was not as good an experience as I was expecting. The first row of drives went in without any of them providing a positive reaction to say that they were in properly. As the three internal rows filled up, then it became slightly harder to insert the drive and you did get a more positive response.

Once installed, you need to put the top on the box and close the front. This was almost as disappointing an experience as installing the first few drives. The top slipped on but you couldn't close the front. It you then opened the top slightly to slide the top of the front panel underneath it, the top then didn't slip into place properly. You need to wiggle it about to make it connect properly. For something that looks as good as this, such a poor fit is inexcusable.

Turn on the power and you know you have entered storage heaven. There are some sounds that you remember for ever; the first time a Ferrari roars past on a F1 track; a Harrier jump jet doing a VTOL take-off; a flight of helicopters leaving the flight deck of an Commando Carrier loaded with Royal Marines. There is now a new sound to add to that, a Nexsan SATABeast drawing its first breath.

To configure the SATABeast you have a couple of options. You can use a serial cable to connect directly to the primary controller board, create an IP route or configure a laptop to the same IP address range as the default. You only need to configure the first IP port and then you can restart and do everything else through the browser.

The menu system for the SATABeast is just a beefed up version of the standard Nexsan menu. This is sensible as it means you don't have to know different layouts or working practices when working with different storage devices. When you connect through the browser, by default there is no authentication. You will want to change this before doing anything else.

First, set up all of the communication ports - both Fibre and iSCSI. This allows you to then decide how you are going to provide access to the volumes and storage arrays. While you are doing this the SATABeast will be running the default QuickStart configuration. This creates four separate arrays, two hot spare drives and eight storage volumes. If you don't want this you must go through the process of deleting the volumes, then the arrays and put the hot spares back into the general storage pool.

You can create a new QuickStart configuration or simply delete everything and build your own. As soon as you create an array it is assigned as a single volume. To stop this, you need to quickly delete the default volume and define what you want. Creation of an array is very simple. From the browser GUI you select the drives you want in the array, give it a name, choose between RAID 0,1,4,5 or 6, set the stripe size and allocate it to a storage controller.

As soon as this is done, the array and default volume are created. One step that you might want to do before this is set the rebuild priority. Selecting the highest setting when first building an array will save considerable time. We created two arrays, each of 13 drives to test the time it takes to do an initialisation. The first was RAID 5 and the second RAID 6. There was just a few seconds between each. Using High priority, it took eight hours and 48 minutes and was clearly an overnight build.

One of the most important decisions, therefore, is how many arrays and how many volumes you want to create. You allocate the Array to a storage controller which is very useful. You might want to create three arrays, one of which must have maximum bandwidth. You would allocate this to its own controller and have the other two share another controller. As the SATABeast will support two controller boards, there is ample opportunity to spread the load across the controllers. If you are using redundant arrays, you can dedicate a controller board to handle the data redundancy between units.

Working with the SATABeast was remarkably easy with the exception of the noise. It was quite easily the noisiest device we have had under test but given the amount of air needed to cool 42 drives, this is understandable. The menu is clearly laid out with just a small number of heading and everything else in a tabbed structure.

Deleting volumes and arrays is easy but not something you can do without knowing it. The screen turns bright red and you have to select a check box and then click a button to make this happen. Along with the rest of the UI, this gave a feeling of security.

There is an excellent graphical dashboard backed up by the lights on the front of the unit and the performance was blindingly fast. These are the same controller boards as used in the SATABoy so no surprises that they performed as well. With both Fibre Channel ports connected we got around 330MB/s which is a little below what Nexsan claims is possible but comfortably fast.

There is still no easy setup routine for adding into a SAN. Nexsan is a Microsoft partner but does not seem to ship the EasySAN configuration software. This makes it a little bit of a pain to configure properly but then this is not a device for the faint of heart or inexperienced.

The ability to allocate arrays to individual controllers and create a proper load-balanced array is impressive. The performance of the drives was also impressive. This leads us to the counter loading of the drives to reduce the vibration problem. With so many drives in an enclosure it is possible to get a drastic increase in the vibration. This will absolutely destroy performance and substantially increase the wear and tear on the drives themselves.

To see how well Nexsan had dealt with this we used the 'glass of water' test. This requires an almost full glass of water being placed on a piece of blotting paper on top of the drive enclosure. Using a pipette, the glass is then topped up until the water is clinging to the very top of the glass. They you set off a series of high intensity reads and writes. Any spillage is due to the vibration and you can see it in the water by just dropping in a little bit of coloured ink.

The Nexsan SATABeast created some small ripples on the top of the water and just broke the suspension holding the water onto the top of the glass. While a couple of drops ran down the outside and there was some swirling of the ink in the glass, this was it. It might not be whisper quiet but it was completely stable and it would be fair to say that I've tested servers that have created more turbulence in the glass.

This is a truly impressive storage array and with a street price of under 1/TB for enterprise level storage, is worth the investment. With a street price current around 20 per cent lower than the MSRP, this is a clear bargain. With Nexsan claiming to ship over 4PB per month of data storage and a waiting list to get a SATABeast, it's not hard to see why. The small annoyances of the drive and case fitting as well as the software to add to an iSCSI SAN are just that, small.

Verdict

This is a truly impressive storage array and with a street price of under £1/GB for enterprise level storage, is worth the investment.

External Host Interface/Channels: Dual 2Gb Fibre Channel SFP LC host ports per controller Dual iSCSI ports Internal Device Interface/Channels: 42 SATA device channels Current Voltage: Nominal: 700 watts 7 A @ 115VAC 4 A @ 230 VAC 2387 BTU/hour Peak: 750 watts 7 A @ 115VAC 4 A @ 230 VAC 2557 BTU/hour Height: 7 in. (4U) Width: Fits in standard 19" EIA rack with supplied mounting rails Depth: 29.5 in. Weight: 72.5 lbs (without disk drives)

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