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Review: Maxx Digital ThunderRAID

It's Quiet, It's Small, and It's Easy to Use. All That's Missing (So Far) Is Thunderbolt 2.

Maxx Digital’s ThunderRAID is a rare breed. For starters, it’s an eight-drive RAID that’s powered by an internal, industrial-strength RAID controller from well-respected Areca. It connects to your Mac or PC via zippy Thunderbolt (version 1), delivering reads and writes in excess of 600 MB/sec. It’s very easy to use and manage on a day-to-day basis. And it’s warrantied and supported by just one company that, in my experience, always answers the phone quickly and has been in the storage business for over 20 years. I had a chance to work with a 24 TB ThunderRAID ($3,995) in a RAID 6 configuration on an iMac for over a month, and came away loving it. 

There are a couple things you’ll notice about the ThunderRAID before even turning it on. The first is that it’s pretty small by eight-drive RAID standards — dimensions are 12” high x 6” wide x 11” deep. That’s considerably smaller than the eight-drive Sonnet DX800 I’ve used for the last five years as well as other RAIDs I’ve come across. The second thing you notice is that there’s actually no way to turn the ThunderRAID on — no on/off switch, button, slider, whatever. Instead, simply connect the RAID to your computer via an included Thunderbolt cable, and the RAID powers up automatically whenever you boot your computer or wake it from sleep (it takes about 15 seconds for the ThunderRAID to spin up). Likewise, it powers down whenever you sleep or shut down your your computer. 

I loved this kind of automated behavior, which worked flawlessly day-in and day-out as I woke up and slept my iMac multiple times a day. The RAID worked just like an internal drive on the Mac, so I didn’t have to think about it independently. That was definitely a change from my old Sonnet DX800 (with Atto R380 controller card), which often required me to mount it manually after sleep and also go through a few steps to shut it down. I suppose the only downside to the ThunderRAID’s power management is that you can’t manually power it down while still using your computer, in case you don’t need the RAID for a while and want to save money on your energy bill. Your only option in that case is to physically unplug its Thunderbolt cable from your computer. 

Performance-wise, the ThunderRAID delivered the speed you’d expect from an eight-drive RAID connected via Thunderbolt. I ran AJA’s System Test app in its “Sweep File Sizes” mode and got writes at 560 MB/sec and reads of 685 MB/sec. Running Blackmagic’s Disk Speed Test app (at 5 GB file size) produced a write speed of 585 MB/sec and a read of 548 MB/sec. Had I configured the ThunderRAID as a RAID 5 instead of a RAID 6, I probably would have gotten slightly faster speeds, but RAID 5 only uses one of the eight drives as a redundant volume, whereas RAID 6 uses two drives for redundancy (two drives can fail and my data is still safe). The extra peace of mind I get from that redundancy is well worth a little speed and capacity.  

Speaking of configuring, you don’t have to do one bit of it to start using the ThunderRAID right out of the box. When you order it from Maxx Digital, you can specify how you want it configured (JBOD, RAID 5, RAID 6, RAID whatever, multiple volumes, etc.), and they’ll do all the setup for you. When you get the RAID in the mail, just slide its hard drives into the enclosure and connect it to your computer. There are no drivers to install, although you should install a browser-based utility that you can use to monitor the RAID or reconfigure it if you ever want to make a change. 

A few more things worth noting: 

  • Fan noise is always a concern with RAIDs, but the ThunderRAID is on the quiet side, about the level of my eight-core 2009 Mac Pro. Even so, I was able to further minimize fan noise by using a six-foot Thunderbolt cable to put the ThunderRAID as far away from my desk as possible (I’ll probably look for a nine- or 10-foot cable to silence the fan altogether). The RAID does, however, make itself known when it’s reading a lot of data — scrubbing a big video timeline in Final Cut X, or loading both a project and its media for the first time. You can physically hear the drive heads moving around, rumbling away, which is noticeably louder than when my old Sonnet DX800 was reading data. I suppose this is due to the particular Hitachi enterprise drives that my ThunderRAID uses, and while I wish the drives were quieter, the good news is they make themselves known when you first load or scrub through a project, but then become more or less silent after that. I also found I could significantly reduce initial noise by keeping Final Cut projects on a different drive, separate from the RAID. That’s usually the best strategy for speediness anyway.
  • You can order the ThunderRAID with “desktop” drives or enterprise drives. Enterprise drives add roughly $500 to your overall price, but they’re warrantied for five years instead of the desktop’s two years, and drive manufacturers usually recommended using Enterprise drives in RAIDs. Still, you have the choice. And speaking of warranties, the ThunderRAID enclosure itself gets a pretty generous three-year warranty, and Maxx Digital still handles any support necessary for the individual drives that ship with the ThunderRAID. 
  • You can actually buy the same RAID enclosure directly from Areca (ARC-8050), but it’s up to you to buy your own drives and then configure the RAID using the browser-based utility mentioned earlier. If you’re a RAID expert, you should be fine doing this, but if not, I’d avoid it. The utility is not very intuitive, and you could definitely struggle with getting everything set up properly. Personally, I just want my RAID to arrive and work for years with as little headaches as possible. Saving a few hundred dollars on an important purchase is not a top priority, which is why I went to Maxx Digital.
  • The biggest issue to consider with the ThunderRAID is that it’s a Thunderbolt 1 device, whereas the new Mac Pro and MacBook Pros use twice-as-fast Thunderbolt 2. I’ve heard preliminary reports of eight-drive Thunderbolt 2 RAIDs (some still in testing) hitting speeds over 1100 MB/s, which can definitely be useful if you’re doing high-end 4K video work. So if 4K is in your foreseeable future, you may want to see what Maxx Digital has for 2014.
  • Maxx Digital also makes a four-drive RAID called the ThunderRAID Mini. It uses the same Areca controller as the eight drive model, and supports the same RAID configurations (though having only four drives tends to limit most of us to a RAID 5 or a JBOD). I’ve thought about getting a ThunderRAID Mini in a RAID 5 for project files and some other stuff, while using the eight drive ThunderRAID for media. 

I’ve tried out a handful of RAIDs over the years, but overall, the ThunderRAID blends convenience, speed, robustness and affordability better than any other I’ve come across. 

Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based cameraman and documentary producer in Los Angeles. Visit his website: www.backstorydocs.com.

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