Not long ago Western Digital released the EARS series drive to the market. All models contain 64MB of cache and came from the factory with a 4k sector size referred to as “Advanced Format”. The issue is that out of the box, only Windows Vista, Server 2008, and Windows 7 work with Advanced Format while XP and Server 2003 do not. To make things even more interesting, it is expected that most if not all drives will be released with this format from all major manufacturers by end of 2011. As expected many users bought these drives for their WHS servers as well as their XP machines and performance problems started showing up everywhere. Dozens of threads were started and the word got around. Many people stayed away from these units concerned about compatibility issues and worried about severe performance degradation which is what happens when these drives are not setup correctly on older operating systems. There have been many test reviews done on these drives on various types of operating systems, however I could not find much information directly related to WHS/2003 and whether or not they would actually work together. I wanted to validate that when setup correctly, these drives would work with WHS and give the performance they were intended to.
Setting up the drive
When you first get your drive the first thing that stands out is a warning label of sorts which is attached to the ESD bag, as well as printed directly on the label of the drive itself. The instructions are somewhat unclear and a bit intimidating the first time you look at them as it does not directly refer to server 2003 or WHS in their instructions. What it boils down to is that you cannot use the drive as is. You have to either re-align the drive using a WD align program from their web site, or install a jumper on pins 7 and 8 “PRIOR” to adding the drive to your WHS. There are a couple more ways of aligning the drive that are listed on the WD web site. However they do not supported so I did not even attempt them for this review. As for the two recommended options, you can use the WD align program (it should not be used while the drive is attached to the pool) or use a jumper on pins 7 and 8. If you clone another drive onto this drive (for a client PC) you cannot use the jumper and you “must” use the WD Align software. Also, if you use these drives on a desktop with multiple partitions then you “cannot” use the jumpers and you must use the WD Align software. The jumpers are strictly for a single partition use which applies to all WHS “pool” drives but not the OS drive. For WHS users, the easiest and safest way is to simply jumper pins 7 and 8 (WD does not supply a jumper so you will have to find one somewhere) prior to installing the drive in your server then you can simply add it to the pool with very little effort. It is a hardware hack that provides an offset but it does work effectively on a single partition and it does resolve the performance issue. WARNING! Once you install the jumper and add data, it must remain there or your drive will not be able to read the data. This is not usually a problem for WHS users as we go through a removal process when taking out a drive in which case there is no data on the drive.
In order to ensure that results where not skewed by native support from Windows 7, I tried to replicate actual use and ran all my benchmarks using one of my WHS servers. I first installed the jumper onto the drive, installed it into my WHS server and added it to the storage pool. Once it was added and ready to accept data, I removed it from the pool so that it would be a stand alone drive in the system and ran all my benchmarks from within WHS. For comparison, I repeated the same procedure on an older EACS drive so that I could compare the results and determine if there was going to be a performance problem. I also added the results from a 300 Gig VelociRaptor for comparison as it is one of the fastest mechanical drives sold today.
I used HD Tach as my benchmark mainly to avoid having to install unnecessary software and drivers onto my WHS. In addition, historically it has done a pretty good job of indicating performance variations between devices. As you can see from the charts below, the EARS out performs the older EACS model by about 10% on read performance and both perform equally in burst mode. There certainly is not any performance degradation when the drive is setup correctly. Performance matches what you would expect from this type of drive.
Given that you follow the precautions and understand how to prepare the drive, I believe that these drives will perform equal to or better than similar non-EARS drives. I think the drives got some initial bad press in that they where installed in systems without the proper preparation or configuration severely degrading there performance. Ultimately, most drives will be in this configuration in the near future, but hopefully direct support for the Advanced Format will be implemented in the next release of WHS negating the need for aligning utilities or jumpers. Until then, If you do pick one up make sure that you set it up correctly and you will be quite happy with it.
300 Gig VelociRaptor (for comparison)
After testing, drive is installed in its new home in my main server
Check the homeservershow.com forums for more discussion on EARS drives.