ExaSAN A08S3-PS RAID Array Review
As a video editor, occasional graphic artist, and hoarder of all manner of digital files I feel like I can never have enough space and, more importantly, enough disk performance. The faster your disk array, the more concurrent video streams you can play, the smoother playback of high resolution or high framerate videos will be, etc. It's with all this in mind that I can confidently declare the ExaSAN A08S3-PS one of the best RAID arrays I've ever used.
A Little Backstory
When a representative from Accusys reached out to me about reviewing this unit, I had to do a little research into the company to make sure it was something I felt confident tackling.
Accusys has been around since 1995 and their primary focus has always been RAID technology, starting first at the software level.
In 2003 they manufactured Apple's very own Xserve, which was designed to be up and running practically out of the box, much like this unit.
Later in 2010, they manufactured their first storage unit and based it entirely on PCIe technology, which means speed and compatibility will never be a problem.
So once I came to the conclusion that their products promised an insane amount of performance for video editing and visual effects, I knew this was right up my alley.
Right out of the gate, since pricing is impossible to find without requesting more information, I'll tell you that my 8TB review unit runs in the neighborhood of $4300 with Enterprise SATA drives (Seagate Constellation, if brand/model is important to you).
Aesthetically Pleasing with a Single Caveat
The A08S3-PS (I know, it's a mouthful) is massive, weighing in at 25 pounds and taking up the space of the average desktop PC tower. It's solid aluminum and feels amazingly well-built—it's like the little brother of the old Mac Pro towers. All of the parts you'd ever need to interact with like the drive bays, power supply, and RAID controller can all be removed easily, making this an incredibly modular setup if you were inclined to upgrade it yourself.
For me to test on a Mac required an additional unit about the size of an AppleTV/Roku called the C1M. This little guy can be tucked away quite easily and provides the conversion from the provided QSFP cables to Thunderbolt. If you were running a more traditional PC tower or older Mac Pro, the unit comes with a PCIe card that will allow you to connect directly with the provided QSFP cables.
I've spent the last several years moving away from traditional tower designs (my last three computers have been a MacBook Pro, Retina MacBook Pro, and the pictured 5K iMac), so for me I'd prefer to have this tucked away under a desk or in a storage/server room out of sight. It's literally more than twice as large as my current day-to-day RAID array (the Promise Pegasus R4).
I love the ease of use when it comes to replacing the drives, which is just a slight press in and then removing the drives by the handle that appears.
Obviously an enclosure this powerful needs a certain level of cooling to keep from overheating and here is the one of the few problems I've found with the the A08S3-PS: it gets loud. It's very loud when you first start it up, then it levels out a bit, but still noticeable. Seemingly randomly for me, the fans spun up to their highest level for a minute or two at a time, then went back down to normal. This happened regardless of whether I was working with the RAID or it was simply idling. You'll be able to hear this clearly in the video below.
Setting Up the RAID
The setup for me was a little tricky, but mainly because I believe it's a little more finicky when connecting over Thunderbolt as opposed to the QSFP cables. The basic gist is this:
- Get the RAID plugged in
- Run cable from the RAID to the C1M unit
- Run power to the C1M
- Power on the RAID
- Plug in Thunderbolt from C1M to computer
After that, it's a simple matter of adding the RAID controller using the software from Accusys, then setting up the array according to your preference—RAID0 for my testing.
Hold on to your socks, lest they get knocked off. I tested the A08S3-PS mainly with Final Cut Pro X, DaVinci Resolve 9, and After Effects using RAW footage from a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, 4K ProRes 422 footage from a Blackmagic Production Camera, and 4K compressed footage from a Panasonic GH4.
With such high quality footage available at such low costs these days, it's easy for your disk to get bogged down and start dropping frames. That was never the case for the A08S3-PS. Even in situations like having multiple 4k ProRes streams playing at once with effects applied to each, I never detected a hiccup. Here are a few numbers for your consideration, these tests were run via Thunderbolt 2 on a Retina iMac:
Which easily bests the Pegasus R4, which I use for almost all of my current editing projects:
A Chart, Because of Attention Spans
Accusys actually makes a variation of the model I tested called the A08S2-TS that acts more like a traditional direct-attached RAID, removing the SAN functionality from it. I figured I would compare this to the most similar Thunderbolt 2 RAID array on the market: the Pegasus2 R8.
|A08S2-TS + C1M||Pegasus2 R8|
|OS||Mac, Windows, Linux||Mac, Windows|
|Interface||Thunderbolt 2 (20Gb bandwidth)|
|Max Capacity||Over 32TB||32TB (Maybe more? Couldn't verify)|
|Hard Disk Support||Enterprise SATA||Desktop SATA|
|Drives Included?||Sold with or without||Sold with|
|RAID Levels||0, 1, 5, 6, 10, JBOD||0, 1, 5, 6, 10, 50, 60|
|Shared Storage||Direct only||SANLink 2 provides Thunderbolt 2 clients direct connections to Fibre Channel SANs|
|Standard Warranty||3 Years||2 Years|
|Approx. Cost (32TB)||$4,328||$4,461|
So, all told the two systems have quite a bit in common. You get the ability to buy the ExaSAN drive-less which might be appealing to some people, though the Enterprise drives it recommends are slightly pricier.
The lack of a second Thunderbolt port on the ExaSAN for daisy-chaining is disappointing, but not a dealbreaker as long as you keep it at the end of the chain.
About the Noise...
Fast Now, Fast in the Future
Speed and compatibility are the two features that pretty much dictate my storage purchasing habits. While USB 3 drives are great for their backwards compatibility, ubiquity, and large storage sizes, they're just not up to snuff when used as a scratch drive for video editing. That leaves Thunderbolt and PCIe connections, both of which are supported here with the A08S3-PS.
As 4K and UHD gain more and more traction as shooting formats, you'll need to consider carefully how you plan to store and work with this footage. This RAID array will serve you incredibly well out of the box and into the future as you can install eight 4TB hard drives for a mind-blowing 32TB of storage.
At the price tag of roughly $4300 (less if you choose to buy it without hard drives installed), I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to a post-production house that required huge amounts of storage and performance. With the addition of a PCIe switch and a little configuring in the software, it goes from being direct storage to shared storage (hence the whole "SAN" part), which makes it infinitely more useful in a studio setting.
To an individual editor, despite how many awesome things I have to say about this exact RAID array, I think it's going to be a tough sell. Most people will just do a Google search for "Thunderbolt RAID" and buy one of the first three results... I know because I own all three of those brands.
For those folks, I would definitely recommend the A08S2-TS, that acts more like a traditional direct-attached RAID. You can probably count on the price being about half as much by removing a single feature you may not even require.
Overall, the A08S3-PS is a powerhouse and will definitely deliver results in even the most demanding situations.
A Note About Ethics
Everything you read here is my personal opinion. The unit I reviewed was on loan from Accusys for a period of one month and I was not compensated in any way for this review. I was provided a short set of testing procedures but beyond that told to use it in normal conditions and present my findings honestly.