Category: Computer building and repair

NVIDIA offers external graphics module support for their Quadro workstation graphics cards

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Razer Blade gaming Ultrabook connected to Razer Core external graphics module - press picture courtesy of Razer

NVIDIA allows you to turn a high-performance Ultrabook like the Razer Blade in to a mobile workstation when you plant a Quadro graphics card in an external graphics module like the Razer Core

Nvidia rolls out external GPU support for Nvidia Quadro | CNet

NVIDIA External GPUs Bring New Creative Power to Millions of Artists and Designers | MarketWired

From the horse’s mouth

NVIDIA

Press Release

My Comments

Over the last year, there has been a slow trickle of external graphics modules that “soup up” the graphics capabilities of computers like laptops, all-in-ones and highly-compact desktops by using outboard graphics processors. Typically these devices connect to the host computer using a Thunderbolt 3 connection which provides a bandwidth equivalent to the PCI Express expansion-card standard used for desktop computers.

At the moment, this approach for improving a computer system’s graphics abilities has been focused towards gaming-grade graphics cards and chipsets, which has left people who want workstation-grade graphics performance in the lurch.

But NVIDIA has answered this problem by providing a driver update for their TITAN X and Quadro workstation graphics cards. This allows Windows to work with these cards even if they are installed in a “card-cage” external graphics module rather than on the host computer’s motherboard.

Not just that, NVIDIA are to start allowing external-graphics-module manufacturers to tender their products for certification so that they are proven by NVIDIA to allow these cards to work reliably to optimum performance. This may be different to the context of a certified workstation where all the components in that particular computer are certified by Autodesk and similar software vendors to work reliably and perform at their best with their CAD or similar software.

What is being pitched in this context is a “thin-and-light” laptop of the Dell XPS 13 kind (including the 2-in-1 variant);  an “all-in-one” desktop computer like the HP Envy 34 Curved All-In-One or an ultra-compact “next unit of computing” unit like the Intel Skull Canyon being able to do workstation-class tasks with the kind of graphics card that best suits this computing requirement.

The question that some workstation users will then raise is whether the computer’s main processor and RAM are up to these tasks even though a workstation-grade graphics card is added on; and then consider this approach unsatisfactory even though the host computer has a lot of RAM and / or runs with a Core i7 CPU. But something like a gaming laptop that uses a gaming-calibre graphics chipset may benefit from the Quadro in an external graphics “card cage” module when this system is destined to do a lot of video editing, CAD or animation work.

Personally, I see the concept of the Quadro workstation graphics chipset in an external graphics module as a way to allow hobbyists and small-time professionals to slowly put their foot in the door of high-performance workstation computing.

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Investing in an external graphics module for your laptop

Razer Blade gaming Ultrabook connected to Razer Core external graphics module - press picture courtesy of Razer

Razer Blade gaming Ultrabook connected to Razer Core external graphics module

Just lately, as more premium and performance-grade laptops are being equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 connection, the external graphics modules, also known as graphics docks or graphics docking stations, are starting to trickle out on to the market as a performance-boosting accessory for these computers.

The Thunderbolt 3 connection, which uses the USB Type-C plug and socket, is able to provide a throughput similar to a PCI-Express card bus and has put forward a method of improving a laptop’s, all-in-one’s or small-form-factor computer’s graphics ability. This is being facilitated using the external graphics modules or docks that house graphics processors in the external boxes and link these to the host computer using the above connection. What it will mean is that these computers can benefit from desktop-grade or performance-grade graphics without the need to heavily modify them and, in the case of portable computers, can allow for “performance” graphics to be enjoyed at home or in the office while you have battery-conserving baseline graphics on the road,

Acer Aspire Switch 12S convertible 2-in-1 - press picture courtesy of Microsoft

Acer Aspire Switch 12S convertible 2-in-1 – can benefit from better graphics thanks to Thunderbolt 3 and an external graphics module

The devices come in two classes:

  • Integrated graphics chipset (Acer Graphics Dock) – devices of this class have a hardwired graphics chipset similar to what is implemented in an all-in-one or small-form-factor computer.
  • Card cage (Razer Core, Akitio Node) – These devices are simply a housing where you can install a PCI-Express desktop graphics card of your choice. They have a power supply and interface circuitry to present the desktop graphics card to the host computer via a Thunderbolt 3 connection.

What will they offer?

Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 "card cage" external graphics module - press image courtesy of Akitio

Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 “card cage” external graphics module

All these devices will have their own video outputs but will yield what the high-performance graphics chipset provides through the host computer’s integral screen, the video outputs integrated with the host computer as well as their own video outputs. This is in contrast to what used to happen with desktop computers where the video outputs associated with the integrated graphics chipset became useless when you installed a graphics card in these computers.

I have read a few early reviews for the first generation of graphics modules and Thunderbolt-3 laptops. One of these was Acer’s integrated graphics module kitted out with a NVIDIA GTX960M GPU, known to be a modest desktop performer but its mobile equivalent is considered top-shelf for laptop applications. This was ran alongside an Acer TravelMate P658 and an Acer Aspire Switch 12S, with it providing as best as the graphics would allow but highlighting where the weakness was, which was the mobile-optimised Intel Core M processors in the Switch 12S convertible.

Simplified plug-in expansion for all computers

Intel Skull Canyon NUC press picture courtesy of Intel

The Intel Skull Canyon NUC can easily be “hotted up” with better graphics when coupled with an external graphics module

Another example was a manufacturer’s blog post about using their “card-cage” graphics dock with one of the Intel Skull Canyon “Next Unit Of Computing” midget computers which was equipped with the Thunderbolt 3 connection. This showed how the computer increased in graphics performance once teamed with the different graphics cards installed in that “card-cage” module.

It opened up the idea of using an “AV system” approach for enhancing small-form-factor and integrated computers. This is where you connect extra modules to these computers to increase their performance just like you would connect a better CD player or turntable or substitute an existing amplifier for something more powerful or plug in some better speakers if you wanted to improve your hi-fi system’s sound quality.

This usage case would earn its keep with an “all-in-one” computer which has the integrated monitor, the aforementioned “Next Unit Of Computing” midget computers or simply a low-profile desktop computer that wouldn’t accommodate high-performance graphics cards.

Software and performance issues can be a real stumbling block

What I had come across from the material I had read was that as long as the host computer had the latest version of the operating system, the latest BIOS and other firmware to support graphics via Thunderbolt 3, and the latest drivers to support this functionality then it can perform at its best. As well, the weakest link can affect the overall performance of the system, which can apply to various mobile system-on-chip chipsets tuned primarily to run cool and allow for a slim lightweight computer that can run on its own batteries for a long time.

At the moment, this product class is still not mature and there will be issues with compatibility and performance with the various computers and external graphics modules.

As well, not all graphics cards will work with every “card-cage” graphics module. This can be due to high-end desktop graphics cards drawing more current than the graphics module can supply, something that can be of concern with lower-end modules that have weaker power supplies, or software issues associated with cards that aren’t from the popular NVIDIA or AMD games-focused lineups. You may have to check with the graphics module’s vendor or the graphics card’s vendor for newer software or firmware to be assured of this compatibility.

Multiple GPUs – a possible reality

A situation that may have to be investigated as more of these products arrive is the concurrent use of multiple graphics processors in the same computer system no matter the interface or vendor. The ability to daisy-chain 6 Thunderbolt-3 devices on the same Thunderbolt-3 connection, along with premium desktop motherboards sporting this kind of connection along with their PCI-Express expansion slots, will make the concept become attractive and easy to implement. Similarly, some vendors could start offering Thunderbolt-3 expansion cards that plug in to existing motherboards’ PCI-Express expansion slots to give existing desktop PCs this functionality.

Here, the goal would be to allow multiple GPUs from different vendors to work together to increase graphics performance for high-end games or multimedia-production tasks like video transcoding or rendering of video or animation projects. Or it could be about improving the performance and efficiency of a multiple-display setup by allocating particular graphics processors to particular displays, something that would benefit larger setups with many screens and, in some cases, different resolutions.

Highly-portable gaming setups being highlighted as a use case

A usage class that was always put forward for these external graphics modules was the teenage games enthusiast who is studying at senior secondary school and is ready to study at university. Here, the usage case underscored the situation where they could be living in student accommodation like a college dorm / residence hall or be living in a share-house with other students.

The application focuses on the use of a laptop computer that can be taken around the campus but be connected to one of these modules when the student is at their home. I would add to this the ability to carry the graphics module between their room and the main lounge area in their home so that they could play their games on the bigger TV screen in that area. This is due to the device being relatively compact and lightweight compared to most desktop computers.

That same application can cover people who are living in accommodation associated with their job and this is likely to change frequently as they answer different work placements. An example of this would be people whose work is frequently away from home for significant amounts of time like those who work on ships, oil rigs or mines. Here, some of these workers may be using their laptop that they use as part of their work during their shift where applicable such as on a ship’s bridge, but use it as a personal entertainment machine in their cabin or the mess room while they are off-shift.

What could be seen more of these devices

Once the external graphics modules mature as a device class, they could end up moving towards two or three classes of device.

One of these would be the integrated modules with graphics chipsets considered modest for desktop use but premium for laptop use. The expansion abilities that these may offer could be in the form of a few extra USB connections, an SD card reader and / or a higher-grade sound module. Perhaps, they may come with an optical drive of some sort. Some manufacturers may offer integrated modules with higher-performance graphics chipsets along with more connections for those of us who want to pay a premium for extra performance and connectivity. These would be pitched towards people who want that bit more “pep” out of their highly-portable or compact computer that has integrated graphics.

Similarly, it could be feasible to offer larger-screen monitors which have discrete graphics chipsets integrated in them. They could also have the extra USB connections and / or secondary storage options, courting those users who are thinking of a primary workspace for their portable computer while desiring higher-performance graphics.

The card-cage variants could open up a class of device that has room for one or two graphics cards and, perhaps, sound cards or functionality-expansion cards. In some cases, this class of device could also offer connectivity and installation options for user-installable storage devices, along with extra sockets for other peripherals. This class of device could, again, appeal to those of us who want more out of the highly-compact computer they started with or that high-performance laptop rather than using a traditional desktop computer for high-performance computing.

Portable or highly-compact computers as a package

Manufacturers could offer laptops, all-in-one and other highly-compact or highly-portable computers that are part of matched-equipment packages where they offer one or more external graphics modules as a deal-maker option or as part of the package. These could differ by graphics chipset and by functionality such as external-equipment connectivity or integrated fixed or removable storage options.

This is in a similar vein to what has happened in the hi-fi trade since the 1970s where manufacturers were offering matched-equipment packages from their lineup of hi-fi components. Here they were able to allow, for example, multiple packages to have the same tape deck, turntable or CD player while each of the package was differentiated with increasingly-powerful amplifiers or receivers driving speakers that had differing levels of audio performance and cabinet size. It still was feasible to offer better and more capable source components with the more expensive packages or allow such devices to be offered as a way to make the perfect deal.

Conclusion

Expect that as more computers equipped with the Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C connection come on the market the external graphics module will become a simplified method of improving these computers’ graphic performance. It will be seen as a way for allowing highly-compact or highly-portable computers to benefit from high-performance graphics at some point in their life, something that this class of computer wouldn’t be able to normally do.

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What is a GPU all about?

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Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook

The GPU, whether dedicated or integrated is what paints the picture on your computer screen

What Makes A GPU Different From A CPU? | Gizmodo

My Comments

A graphics processing unit or GPU is a special data-processing chipset that effectively “paints” the images that you are to see on your computer screen. This is compared to the central processing unit or CPU which is focused on handling the data that your computer is dealing with at your command and being the system’s “commander” processor.

The idea of a separate processor is to effectively work with the shapes, pixels and colours that constitute what you see on the screen and the highly-sophisticated GPUs handle this using multiple “cores” or unique processors. Another factor worth considering is that video editing, animation and transcoding programs are making use of the GPU to transcode the video material between different formats or rendering an animation or a sequence of shorter video clips in to one longer video clip.

Gaming rig

A “gaming rig” tower desktop computer equipped with high-performance display cards

The higher-performance GPUs, typically offered as display cards that are installed in desktop computers especially “gaming rigs” set up by computer-games enthusiasts, use multiple “cores” or unique processors so they can realise the high-resolution graphics very quickly and responsively. Some of these cards even implement setups like “Crossfire” with the ability to gang two display cards together for increased performance.

Integrated vs dedicated GPUs

Typically the difference between an integrated or dedicated GPU is that a dedicated GPU has its own memory and other resources for “painting” the graphics images while an integrated GPU “borrows” resources like RAM memory from the system’s CPU. As well, a lot of these dedicated GPUs are designed and developed by companies who specialise in that field.

The benefit of a dedicated GPU is that it can turn out the graphics images required by demanding applications like games, video editing, CAD and the like efficiently because its resources are focused on what you see while the CPU and system RAM are focused on working out what is to happen.

Sony VAIO S Series ultraportable STAMINA-SPEED switch

Sony VAIO S Series – equipped with dual graphics with an easy-to-use operating-mode switch

For example, a game needs the use of the CPU to answer the players’ commands, apply the game’s rules and position each of the elements while it needs the GPU to visually represent where everything is. Here, the dedicated GPU can handle how everything is represented without encumbering the CPU’s tasks relating to how the game runs.

The main disadvantage with dedicated GPUs that affects laptops and other portable computers is that they can quickly drain the computer’s battery. This has been answered in a few ways like equipping laptops with integrated and dedicated graphics chipsets and adding logic like NVIDIA’s Optimus to switch between the different chipsets, in a similar vein to how the overdrive or “sports mode” in some cars work. In most cases, this logic engaged the dedicated graphics if the computer was running a graphics-intensive program like a game or video-editing program or was running on external power.

External GPU docks

Alienware high-performance laptop computer with Graphics Amplifier external GPU module

Alienware high-performance laptop computer with Graphics Amplifier external GPU module

A new trend that is starting to appear and benefit laptop-computer users is the “external GPU” dock or module that connects to the laptop computer. These appear in two different forms – a “card cage” like the Alienware Graphics Amplifier where a user can install a desktop graphics card, or a graphics module which has the graphics hardware installed by the manufacturer.

Initially these devices were connected to the host computer using a connection that was proprietary to the manufacturer but now they are implementing the Intel Thunderbolt 3 via USB Type-C connection due to it offering PCI-Express data-transfer bandwidth, thus allowing for increased interchangeability between computers and docks. Most of these implementations will have the ability to send the graphics back to the host computer’s screen or to an external display that is connected directly to the external GPU module.

Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module

A graphics expansion module that could option up budget and mainstream laptops

These devices have appealed as a way to “option up” laptop, all-in-one and similar computers for high-performance dedicated graphics. It is more so where you don’t need to have dedicated graphics all the time, rather when you have that laptop or 2-in-1 “back home” and ready to work or play.

Conclusion

The graphics processors or GPUs, whether integrated on a computer’s motherboard, installed on a display card or housed in an external GPU module, are processors that look after “painting” the images you see on your computer’s screen.

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USB Type-C and Thunderbolt 3 make it real for outboard graphics expansion

Article

Here’s The Box That Can Turn a Puny Laptop Into a Graphical Powerhouse | Gizmodo

My Comments

Sony VAIO Z Series and docking station

The Sony VAIO Z Series ultraportable with functionality expanded by an add-on module

There have been some successful attempts at developing outboard expansion modules or docking stations that add discrete graphics or a better discrete-graphics solution to a laptop computer which wouldn’t have internal room for this kind of performance.

One of these was Sony with their VAIO Z Series that I reviewed previously which had an expansion module that housed a Blu-Ray drive and an AMD discrete graphics chipset. This used an Intel “Light Peak” connection (Thunderbolt over USB) between the devices to provide for high data throughput between the host computer and the expansion module.

Another of these was one of the new Alienware gaming laptops that could connect to a so-called “Graphics Amplifier” which was an expansion module for some of the Alienware R2 series gaming laptops that could house one or two PCI-Express graphics cards. This brought forward the idea that a laptop could have desktop gaming-rig performance just by adding on an expansion module.

Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module

Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module that connects to selected Alienware R2 gaming laptops

Both these solutions implemented manufacturer-specific connection methods which restricted which devices can connect to these “external-graphics” expansion modules.

But the USB 3.1 standard with the Type-C connection allowed the same connection to be used to connect other devices via different logical connection methods like Intel’s Thunderbolt. This was effectively “opened up” as a high-performance connection for expansion modules when Intel launched “Thunderbolt 3” which has throughput equivalent to what happens on a computer’s motherboard.

Alienware gaming laptop

An Alienware gaming laptop that can benefit from the Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module

This led to some reference designs being presented at the Intel Developers Forum 2015 for external-graphics docks of the Sony VAIO Z or Alienware Graphics Amplifier ilk that are able to work with laptops that have the USB Type-C and Intel Thunderbolt 3 connection. In their own right, they are expansion modules which add extra connectivity to the laptop but also they give it access to improved discrete graphics chipsets. One of these was modelled on the Alienware Graphics Amplifier by virtue of allowing the use of fully-fledged graphics cards of the kind expected in that tower-style gaming rig.

The equipment that was shown proved the concept that you could use Thunderbolt 3 over a USB 3.1 Type C physical connection to provide an external discrete-graphics solution for an ultraportable laptop computer or similarly-small computer design. This proves that it can be feasible to use these modules for an “at-home” or “at-office” solutions where performance is desirable but allow for a lightweight computer system.

Similarly, a manufacturer could offer a laptop or all-in-one desktop with the integrated graphics but allow their customers to buy a graphics expansion module at a later date should they want something with more graphics acumen. Here, they can simply plug in the graphics expansion module and play rather than opening up the computer to install a graphics card. There is also a reality that as newer graphics chipsets come along, the person can purchase a newer expansion module or, in the case of those units that use PCI-Express desktop cards, install a newer graphics card in to the module to take advantage of these newer designs.

It simply underscores that fact that USB 3.1 Type C opens up the concept of expandability for tablets, laptops, all-in-one and small-profile desktops even further by use of external modules that offer different functions to suit different needs at different times.

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Now a program to help with troubleshooting your computer’s keyboard

Article

Desktop keyboard

Now you can check whether you need to replace that keyboard

Switch Hitter Helps You Diagnose Keyboard Problems | LifeHacker

From the horse’s mouth

Elite Keyboards

Switch Hitter Keyboard Diagnostic Software (Product Download Page)

My Comments

As well, you can determine whether you need to take the laptop in for warranty repair because of the keyboard

As well, you can determine whether you need to take the laptop in for warranty repair because of the keyboard

You may find that your computer’s keyboard may not be behaving in a consistent manner and this may be an issue that may have you taking your laptop computer in for warranty service or buying a new keyboard. Or you find that you are losing those battle games and find that the keyboard isn’t allowing you to demolish the enemy.

But there is a Windows utility that helps you to troubleshoot your keyboard. Switch Hitter gives a visual display similar to a touch-typing tutor program to show whether any of the keys are responding as you press them and identifies which keys are stuck down. This can also work with identifying contact-bounce problems which surfaces as repeated keypresses as well as keys that don’t respond and can be symptomatic of a keyboard that has had the life bashed out of it.

It also shows up which keyboard layout you are using and what keystroke combination you are sending, which may be an issue with area-specific layouts.

This can allow you to supply to a repair agent a more qualified diagnosis of the problems you are having with the keyboard, especially when it comes to that warranty service. As well, you can know if you are actually dealing with an improper setup, a dodgy keyboard-computer link or a keyboard that is to be replaced.

This can also be used to check whether that gaming keyboard is being responsive and satisfying the claims that the manufacturer is touting, thus being suitable for that online fragging session.

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What are the multiple drive layouts available in your NAS

WD MyCloud EX2 dual-disk NAS

WD MyCloud EX2 2-disk NAS – has a 2-disk RAID setup

All network-attached-storage units that have two or more drive bays in them offer different ways to make use of the hard disks installed in these drive bays. These are primarily about creating one logical disk volume out of the many disk drives.

You may also find multiple-disk arrays being implemented in so-called “Direct Attached Storage” devices which connect to your computer as if they are a peripheral or are integrated in the computer. These are typically used for computer setups where read-write performance for secondary storage is considered important like video editing or for computers that work as servers.

WD MyCloud EX4, WD MyCloud EX2, WD Red 6Tb hard disk

WD MyCloud EX4 NAS – can be set up as a 4-disk RAID array

The most common setups are described as “RAID” or “Redundant Array Of Independent Disks”. These setups gang multiple hard disks (or solid-state drives) to improve data throughput, effective disk capacity or system fault-tolerance.

Multi-Drive Disk setups

RAID setups

It is important to remember that a RAID setup that is about fault tolerance doesn’t obviate the need to back up the contents of a NAS. This is something you can do with a USB hard disk connected to the NAS, another NAS on the same network or connected via the Internet or an online storage or backup service.

RAID 0

RAID 0 Data striping data layout

RAID 0 Data Striping across disks

Here, this creates one logical volume with the data spread across the disks, a method known as “striping”. Each block of data is sequentially stored across each physical disk rather than a disk being filled with data then another disk being subsequently filled with data.

This allows for increased capacity and read / write data throughput, but loses on fault tolerance because the disk array is no good and the data is lost if one of the drives fails.

Volume Capacity: Number of Disks x Size of smallest disk

RAID 1

RAID 1 disk mirroring data layout

RAID 1 – Disk Mirroring

This setup creates a logical volume with the data duplicated on each physical drive. a method known as “mirroring”.

The main advantage here is increased fault-tolerance because if a disk dies, you still have access to the the data on the other disk. There is also another advantage of increased read throughput because both physical disks can be read at the same time.

The only limitations here are the volume capacity which is the size of the smallest disk in the array along with the write speed because the disk controller has to write the same data to multiple disks. It is infact a preferred RAID array setup for a 2-bay NAS due to the fault-tolerance.

Volume Capacity= Size of smallest disk in the bunch

RAID 5

RAID 5 Data Striping with parity Data layout

RAID 5 Data Striping with a parity block

This setup works between data capacity and fault tolerance in a very interesting way. It is because the RAID 5 setup creates “parity” data. This is used in computing as a fault-tolerance measure because an algorithm can use this data along with the “known-to-be-good” data to reconstitute data lost in transmission.

Here, a RAID 5 array stripes data across the physical disk collection but inserts a block of parity data at regular intervals as part of this “striping” so as to create some form of fault-tolerance. Then the RAID 5 disk controller reconstitutes data from parity and available “known-to-be-good” data if things start to go wrong with a disk.

The advantages in these setups are the disk capacity, the read throughput and the fault tolerance but there is a performance reduction for those systems that do a lot of data writing.

Volume Capacity: (Number of disks – 1) x smallest disk size

RAID 6

RAID 6 Data striping and two-block parity data layout

RAID 6 Data striping with two-block parity

RAID 6 works in a similar manner to RAID 5 in that it stripes data across multiple physical disks and creates a parity block for fault-tolerance. But a RAID 6 array creates another parity block to increase the amount of fault tolerance in the setup.

Volume capacity: (Number of disks-2) x smallest disk size

RAID 10 (1+0)

RAID 10 data layout

RAID 10 A combination of data striping and disk mirroring

A setup that is used with 4-disk RAID arrays is the RAID 10 array also known as the RAID 1+0 array which is a combination of both the RAID 1 setup and the RAID 0 setup.

Here, there are two collections of disks with one collection keeping copies of the data held on the other collection. Each collection has its data “striped” across the disks for capacity and performance.

The core benefit with a RAID 10 setup is that there is increased write throughput which can come in handy with write-intensive setups like databases. This is in addition to the fault tolerance provided by mirroring along with the read performance provided by striping.

Volume Capacity: Combined size of two of the smallest disks

Non-RAID setups

JBOD data layout

JBOD – Disks as separate volumes

JBOD

This setup, known as “Just a Bunch Of Disks” is simply about each physical disk being treated by the NAS as a separate logical volume. It can be useful if you want to maintain separate data on each disk under a separate volume name.

Spanning

Disk Spanning data layout

Disk Spanning, sometimes known as JBOD by some manufacturers

The “spanning” setup simply is based on data filling up one disk then filling up another disk in that same volume.

Array Type Disks Capacity Performance Fault
Tolerance
RAID 0 Min: 2 Yes Yes
RAID 1 Min: 2 Yes
improved read
Yes
Copied disks
RAID 5 Min: 3 Yes Yes
improved read
Yes
Parity
RAID 6 Min: 4 Yes Yes
improved read
Yes
dual parity
RAID 10 Min: 4
Even number of disks
Yes
improved write
Yes
Copied disk arrays
JBOD Logical volume / disk Yes
Spanning Min: 2 Yes

Different options available

Automatic RAID setups

Netgear ReadyNAS

The NETGEAR ReadyNAS on the right can implement X-RAID automatic RAID setup

An increasing number of manufacturers use an “automatic RAID” setup like Synology’s Hybrid RAID or NETGEAR’s X-RAID. These are RAID setups that are optimised to mix different-sized hard disks so that these arrays work to maximise useable capacity, disk performance and fault-tolerance.

Manufacturers pitch these RAID setups for people new to NAS or disk-array management who are thinking about how much redundant storage is needed to balance capacity and fault tolerance. They also encourage the customers to “build out” a RAID array as and when they can afford the extra disks.

Hot-spare disks

Thecus N5810PRO Small Business NAS press photo courtesy of Thecus

Thecus N5810PRO small business NAS is able to implement a hot-spare disk for high RAID availability

Another feature offered mainly with small-business NAS units is the addition of a hot-spare disk. Such RAID arrays will have a separate hard disk that isn’t used unless one of the disks in that array fails.  These setups are preferred for environments where there is emphasis on a multi-disk array that is to be highly available at peak performance.

Hot-swap setups

An increasing number of prosumer and small-business NAS units come with a “hot-swap” functionality where you can swap out the hard disk while the NAS is in operation. This is more so for replacing faulty disks that are degrading a RAID array’s performance and is more relevant with RAID 1, RAID 5, RAID 10 and “automatic RAID” setups.

Upsizing a NAS’s RAID array

QNAP 2-disk NAS

QNAP 2-disk NAS – capable of setting up a highly-available high-performance RAID1 array

Upsizing a RAID array is something you could be tempted to do, especially as hard-disk prices gradually become cheaper and the time when one hard disk in a RAID array fails may be the time to upsize it.

But this can be difficult. Here, you would need to copy out all of the data to storage with the same volume capacity as your NAS’s current RAID array. Then you would have to simultaneously replace the disks in that array with units of the same but higher capacity before copying back the data. This may be easy to achieve with a 2-bay NAS.

Or you could migrate a 2-disk RAID 1 array in a 4-bay NAS to a RAID 5 array while adding a higher-capacity disk to that array. Here, you get increased capacity on the new disk due to the smaller disks being combined for real data use while space on the larger disk is allocated for parity data. Then you would need to swap out the small disks in that array with the larger disks as a way to gradually increase the volume’s useful size.

The automatic RAID setups make it easier to upsize your NAS as you can afford it and manage the right amount of redundant storage needed for your data.

The best RAID array setup for your needs and your NAS

The RAID array that you set your NAS up with depends on the number of drive bays the device has along with the number of disks you have. But these suggests are based on setups that are cost-effective yet yield high availability . They would also yield high read performance especially for multimedia applications. It is also a good idea to populate your multiple-bay NAS with drives of the same capacity when you are setting a new unit up.

A 2-bay NAS would be best set up as a RAID-1 array in order to implement the mirroring ability for high availability and increased read throughput which is necessary for video files streamed using DLNA.

A 4-bay NAS would be best set up as a RAID-5 array of at least three disks of the same size. There is the ability to make use of the capacity yet use the parity blocks to keep the data available should one of the disks keel over.

Conclusion

Once you understand how the various RAID and other multi-disk arrays work, you can choose the most cost-effective way to have your data stored for capacity, performance and high availability with your NAS.

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Formatting external hard drives to native file systems may allow them to work optimumly

Article

Using external drives to save space on your Mac? Format them first. | MacFixIt – CNET Reviews

My Comments

External hard disk

A typical external hard disk

This article highlighted the benefits of formatting external hard disks that are to be connected to an Apple Macintosh as HFS+ file-system disks. This advice hails well for formatting an external hard disk to an operating system’s native file-system such as NTFS for Windows or ext3 for Linux. This is because most of the external hard disks come preformatted to FAT32 more as an interchangeable file system that can be used on Windows, Macintosh and UNIX/Linux.

In the context of an external hard disk that you attach to a network-attached storage device for extra capacity, it may be worth looking through the instruction manual for your NAS or router to find the optimum file system. Some of the NAS units may work with ext3 or NTFS as the file system whereas most, including the routers with NAS functionality will stay with FAT32.

But this situation would apply to external hard disks that are primarily connected to the host computer all of the time rather than the “portable” hard disks that are likely to be moved between different computers and file systems. It wouldn’t hold well with thumb-drives and memory cards that you would expect to move between various computer devices including specific-purpose devices because most of these devices would only know the common FAT32 file-system.

This advice is best applied with an external hard disk that you have just purchased rather than one that contains all of your data because a format routine can wipe all of the data that exists on the hard disk.

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TDK does amazing things to my home network by increasing the hard-disk data density further

Article

TDK breaks the Hard Drive density limit, could go on to develop super-sized storage — Engadget

My Comments

TDK was once known in its earlier years for storage media, especially tapes and, subsequently floppy and optical discs. During that time, when any of us wanted high-quality audio or video recording, we chose this name as one of our preferred brands. Infact one idea they were known for in the 1970s was a cost-effective high-bias magnetic tape formula known as “Super Avilyn” which yielded as good an audio or video recording result as traditional chrome-based high-bias magnetic tape.

Now that we have moved to MP3 players, smartphones and hard-disk-based storage of audio and video content, this company had diversified in to cheaper audio equipment to the open market and reduced its presence in storage media for that market. Here, Hitachi and others have been improving on the data capacity of hard disks over the many years with TDK disappearing in to the background in this field.

But they have not left this storage-medium expertise of theirs behind in this hard-disk-based data-storage era. Here, they raised the data-density bar for hard disks further, thus allowing for 1.5 terabyte per square inch. The article raised possibilities of 15” laptops coming with single 2.5” hard disks greater than 1Tb or desktop computers being equipped with 3.5” hard disks greater than 2Tb. This would also appeal to the current trend for low-profile and “all-in-one” desktops having the same storage as what was acceptable for larger designs.

For the home or small-business network, I would see possibilities like NAS units being in the order of at least 10Tb. This is in conjunction with PVRs and similar home-entertainment equipment able to work with many hours of ultra-high-definition video material especially as the 4K and 8K ultra-high-definition video technologies which yield cinema-quality video come closer.

Personally, I would expect this technology to materialise in the form of hard disks within the next two years once TDK have got it proven in a form for manufacturers to use. It also happens to be coinciding with the South-East-Asian hard-disk factories coming back on stream after the Thailand floods, this making it feasible to see the return of “dime-a-dozen” hard-disk storage.

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Bluetooth Smart Ready product announcements piling up

Article – from the horse’s mouth

Bluetooth Smart Ready product announcements piling up

My Comments

I have given some coverage about the new Bluetooth 4.0 “Smart” and “Smart Ready” technologies. These are improvements to the Bluetooth specification to allow the use of Bluetooth sensor and control devices that can work on low battery requirements – think 2-3 AA or AAA Duracells or a “watch” battery – for in an order of six months or more.

This has opened up paths for health and wellness devices like blood-pressure monitors, glucose monitors and pedometers. Even the old 80s-style digital watch is coming back with a vengeance as a smartphone accessory due to this technology.

Most of the Bluetooth-equipped tablets and smartphones issued over the past model year or so are equipped with this technology fully with software support. But an increasing number of newer laptops are equipped with Bluetooth 4.0 Smart Ready functionality at least on a hardware level and underpinned with OEM software. An example of this is the recently-reviewed Fujitsu LifeBook LH772 which has this interface.

These units would have full inherent implementation when they run Windows 8 and it could open up questions about how the Bluetooth 4.0 Smart technology could be relevant to the laptop or desktop “regular-computer” device class.

One way I would see it being relevant to this class is the availability of Bluetooth wireless keyboards, mice and game controllers that don’t need special rechargeable batteries to operate. Here, they could run for a long time of use on just the two or three AA batteries.

Sensor devices like temperature or humidity sensors that are important to particular profession or hobby groups like refrigeration / HVAC engineers or gardeners could benefit from this technology especially when used with a laptop or tablet. Here, these computers could work with data-logging software to record trends or monitor for abnormal conditions.

At least what is being proven with the current crop of Bluetooth-Smart-Ready capable regular and mobile computer devices is that the world of innovation with this low-power wireless netowrk is being opened up.

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Could an upgrade to Windows 8 yield a performance boost to your computer

Article

Installing Windows 8 on your old PC could turn it into Greased Lightning | ZDNet

My Comments

Some of us might think about upgrading an existing computer system to Windows 8 when this operating system is released rather than staying with Windows 7. Most commonly, there would be a lot of doubt about this process but, in some cases, it could improve the computer’s performance.

A Windows computer that was built up in the last four years i.e. since Windows Vista was launched could easily benefit from an upgrade to Windows 8. This is due to the reworked code that is written to work best with the recent generation of hardware.

The speed increase also comes due to natively-integrated desktop security software as well as Internet Explorer 10 and integrated cloud-computing support.

But I would recommend that the system which is being upgraded has current expectations for RAM and secondary-storage capacity. This would be 4Gb RAM and 128Gb of secondary storage as a bare minimum. If the machine uses a hard disk rather than solid-state storage, I would expect it to have at least 320Gb. As I subsequently mention, the operating system is at a price point that may allow you to budget in a hardware upgrade to these expectations.

Users can upgrade their Windows computers to the new operating system at a cost-effective price due mainly to the “electronic hard-copy” distribution that Microsoft is using i.e. to buy and download the operating system online rather than having to buy a packaged copy with an optical disk. This is in a similar way to how Apple are distributing the MacOS X Lion and Mountain Lion operating-system upgrades. It also comes with some attractive licensing terms including the ability for those of us who are building our own systems to legitimately purchase a “system builder” package.

It would be OK to go ahead with the upgrade if you can handle the changes to how the operating environment works, such as the new touch-focused Start “dashboard” and having to “descend further” to get to the standard operating interface. But I would recommend that those of us who aren’t computer-competent should stay with Windows 7 unless they are buying a new computer that comes with Windows 8.

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