One of hot topics of recent was the release of the new Lian-Li EX-503B which in essence, is a multi-drive external storage box. Realizing that many people including me are looking for different solutions to back up their servers, I was very intrigued by this particular device. Why you ask, well, several reasons. For starters it sported a USB 3.0 port, supported all types of RAID (0,1,5,10, JBOD, port replication, and held 5 drives. So the next obvious question is: Is this a Drobo killer? The short answer is not really, as this is really a completely different product. To clarify, let me try and differentiate the two products and then we can get into how good this unit is.
EX-503B vs Drobo
Although we all want to compare the two, the truth is they are after different segments of the market. I believe the Drobo is aimed at a total, do all, be all, storage solution where as the EX-503 wants to be your storage expansion and wants to do it well. The major differences between these two devices is the Drobo gives you a ton of software, built in utilities, gives you flexible expansion, but it does it a price. That price is not only dollars but speed. In the other corner, you have a device like the EX-503B which does not offer utilities, not much in software except to setup the RAID, limited expandability, but it offers it as a much lower cost and performance that is unrivaled from any external unit or NAS I have ever seen. In short, it does not try to be an all in one solution but rather offers us a way to expand our storage or backup our systems, and it does that extremely well.
This device has one purpose in life and that is to expand your storage and do it without a performance penalty. The way I view this box is for those who need to store or backup large amounts of data and want to do without giving up the performance. I believe this is the ideal box to attach to a server for backing up or synching large amounts of data quickly and cost effectively. Make no mistake, it will not offer you the software suite of something like the Drobo or Synology, which in most cases is not needed in a WHS backup application, but what it will offer you is a place to backup your WHS data either locally or to remove to an offsite backup location, and it will do it faster than any other solution I have ever seen.
The first you notice when you pull it out of the box is that the construction of this device is unmistakably Lian-li. The brushed aluminum finish and esthetics of the unit are outstanding with excellent attention to detail. When you open the drive door you can quickly see that this thing was designed to keep things cool not only for the hard drives, but the overall unit as well as the built in controller. When you look inside you see the 140mm fan which is positioned directly behind the hard drives themselves. When you power on the unit, the air flow is stellar with enough air moving to handle even the hottest Caviar Black drives which great spacing for air flow in between drives. As you would expect, the fan is almost silent despite moving a ton of air.
To insert drives you do have to mount them in a bracket first. I would have liked it better if they made it completely tool-less, however considering the market this playing in and that you could be moving this unit around, is probably not a show stopper. Once inserted, the drives are locked in place by a small plastic slider clip which securely keeps drives from sliding out which helps as you toss this in your car and move it offsite.
There are two ways of setting up your storage box. The first is using their software which is no more than a JMicron utility that lets you configure the box with the drive/RAID configuration you need. The software is very easy and straightforward but as I mentioned earlier, very limited. It does RAID setup and it it does it well. It will not however, support RAID expansion. Depending on what you are using this for, that may or may not be a problem. For me it was a non issue as I am using this for backup so if I needed to expand it, I could just pull out the drives, install larger drives, and rebuild the backup as I do not plan on using this as primary storage, after all, we are the home server community. If you have an existing array of say 3 drives, you will need to either create a separate array or you delete the array and rebuild it with 5 drives. This is not unique to this product and affects most of the products in the market segment. What was interesting is that the array was built in about 8 secs with three drives. I ran some speed tests, copied data to it, then I deleted the array, added two more drives, and recreated the array again it was ready to go in about 10 secs. Pretty impressive for building an array. As a side note, the software can be installed on any computer and once the unit has been configured it can be moved anywhere so you do not have to worry about installing stuff on your server.
Also, if you do not want to install software at all or if for some reason you cannot install the software, there is a switch in the back that lets you set the drive configuration that you want. After setting the desired configuration, pressing and holding the “activate” switch for 15 secs build and creates that array.
USB 3.0 Performance
One of the things that concerned me most when I first heard about this unit, is, would it perform. I have tried and seen many of these storage boxes only to be disappointed with sub-standard performance. I have no interest in spending money on a device that gets 10-15 megs/sec. If I was going to use this box as expanded storage for my home server, than I wanted some real performance especially since it was on a USB 3 interface. I am certainly happy to report that this device did not disappoint in terms of performance. It exceeded my expectations for a device like this and rivaled the performance of most servers. Transfers over the network were constant at ~104 Megs/sec with peaks of 115. Transfer within the local machine appeared to be limited only by the machines ability to write and hovered between constantly above 100 Megs/sec. As you can see from the benchmarks, write performance rivals some SSDs. Overall, the performance of this device is stellar and in terms of server expansion, it is really the perfect match. It is roughly 3-8x faster than NAS boxes such as the D-Link unit, Synology, or Drobo, and approximately 20-80% faster than USB 3 standalone drives.
In short, this is a great device for the right application and the form and finish is stellar. This unit is certainly not for everyone. If you need a suite of utilities, direct network attachment, and a more robust drive expandability than you should not get this box. If however you are looking for expanded storage or server backup, than look no further. This unit will not disappoint. If you believe what they claim on their website, it will accept drives up to 6T each so it should be a bit future proof. When 3T drives become a bit more affordable, this will be a great match and give you 12T of storage/backup in a small form factor.