It’s hard to stand out in the world of external storage devices, and doubly-hard to compete with the hard disk drive makers themselves. This hasn’t stopped folks like Iomega, Verbatim, and LaCie from trying to impress customers with flashy cases, software bundles, and clever functionality. But clever new twist on the external hard drive concept just rolled into the Pack Rat lair: The ioSafe SoloPRO is fireproof and waterproof. Cool!
A New Kind of Data Protection
I’m an enterprise storage specialist. I talk about backups, snapshots, mirroring, replication, and archiving all the time. I’ve also delved deeply into the physical reliability of hard disk drives versus flash, tape, and RAID systems. But pretty much every data protection conversation takes for granted that storage is not meant to be robust. We just assume that the disk itself will be lost in the event of fire or flood, so we had better figure some way to protect the data off-site.
But what id this wasn’t the case? What if the disk itself could survive a house fire, standing up to the heat, crushing weight of collapse, and a thorough soaking from the fire hose? That’s exactly what ioSafe is promising with their line of storage devices!
The ioSafe line has a few tricks up its sleeve:
- The hard disk drive mechanism is wrapped in a “HydroSafe” water barrier
- This is encased in a thick layer of “DataCast” endothermic insulation, releasing water which evaporates and cools the drive when exposed to extreme heat
- The “FloSafe” cooling channels allow airflow during normal operation but seal shut in a fire
- A tough steel case surrounds everything, offering some protection against physical damage and allowing the device to be bolted to the floor for theft protection
- Every ioSafe drive also includes data recovery services in the event of a fire or drive failure
All these CamelCase trademarks appear to work just fine, thank you. Numerous tests have been performed by amused journalists and bloggers, including backyard fires, dousing the unit in a swimming pool, and running over it with a bulldozer. In each case, the housing is ruined but the data survives. My favorite is the following video from HomeServerReview, but a quick glance through YouTube is worth the time if you like watching people destroy perfectly-good technology!
The Pack Rat Test: Performance
When ioSafe offered to send me a SoloPRO for evaluation, I was excited to burn, drown, and mutilate it. But considering just how many torture tests were already performed, I decided to give that a miss. Instead, I hooked the SoloPRO to my test rig to see how well it handled everyday storage tasks. After all, most owners will never experience the kind of damage the ioSafe line can sustain!
My tests used Intech Software’s ZoneBench and QuickBench tools on a late-2009 iMac. The ioSafe SoloPRO was connected to the iMac’s secondary internal SATA port using my iMac eSATA mod. This is a 3 Gb/s SATA connection and ought to sustain just about anything a spinning disk can currently sustain. Tests were performed on a freshly-booted Mac OS X 10.6.4 64-bit system with no other programs running.
The SoloPRO uses a 7200 rpm Hitachi DeskStar 7K1000.C (HDS721010CLA332) hard disk drive. This is a modern, quick mechanism with a 32 MB buffer and 3.0 Gb/s SATA interface. Kudos to ioSafe for picking such a solid performer for this unit – I expected a slower 5400 rpm “green” drive given the modest performance expected by most buyers.
Connected to my iMac with eSATA, the SoloPRO could outrun the internal hard disk drive, both in benchmarks and real-world use. Moving data back and forth was a joy, and backing up the internal disk using Time Machine was amazing: I averaged over 100 MB/s, with Activity Monitor showing frequent peaks over 160 MB/s during the operation!
Although I did perform these tests using the USB interface, the outcome is predictably disappointing. USB 2.0 just can’t go faster than about 35 MB/s in sequential throughput, so the graphs and comparisons look awfully predictable. That said, the ioSafe SoloPRO was able to hit that 35 MB/s mark with ease.
The Pack Rat Test: Usability
The SoloPRO was delivered in a large box with generous packing material. It’s amazingly large, really, considering that it contains a single 3.5″ hard disk drive mechanism. ioSafe includes both USB and eSATA cables, though the latter cable was the short-necked “type I” variety.
The SoloPRO is larger and heaver even than it looks, with solid build quality. The power supply and switch aren’t much to get excited about, however, but no cheaper than the power devices most other manufacturers use. I would have like a power connector that locked in more securely, however.
I appreciate the protruding steel flange with holes for floor-mounting, and finally located a Kensington-style lock hole next to the fan. I was surprised that the holes in the face do not light up when using eSATA, though they do glow while using USB. On the other hand, the flashing light show is pretty distracting for a desktop drive.
The SoloPRO is somewhat noisy, though not any more than a desktop PC. The built-in fan runs continually, though the drive itself will spin down if the computer allows it to. Due to the short range of the cables, an under-desk location is about all an eSATA user can hope for. USB users will likely move it a bit further away so they won’t have to listen to the fan noise. Of course, it would be just fine in a wiring closet attached to a small server.
As mentioned, the SoloPRO is a mid-range offering from ioSafe. They also offer a basic USB 2.0 model (the Sol0), versions of the SoloPRO with SSD or USB 3.0, and an internal drive. This last is particularly clever: It packs the fire- and water-protection technology into a standard 3.5″ SATA drive form factor for use inside a computer.
My biggest complaint about the ioSafe products is that they’re all single-drive only. Although I appreciate their design and construction, all of the protective features ignore the most-common causes of data loss: Logical corruption and the loss of a disk. No storage system can protect data from a “fat-finger” error or operating system fault, but many do include reliability features for the device itself. The ultimate data protection system would include more than one disk drive and would go beyond merely mirroring the data and instead use advanced math (erasure coding, perhaps?) to ensure the consistency of data.
Perhaps ioSafe will consider using two 2.5″ drives and erasure coding in a smarter unit in the future. They could call it the “DuoPRO” – in fact, maybe that’s why they chose the curious “Solo” moniker to begin with!
No one is suggesting using such a drive as one’s only copy of data, but it makes lots of sense to back up your home or small-office computer to an on-site ioSafe drive. In fact, I would go so far as saying that it makes no sense not to use an ioSafe drive for on-site backups! The drives are somewhat more expensive than basic alternatives but well worth the premium.
A USB-only 1 TB ioSafe Solo costs just over $200 on Amazon, about 50% more than a basic external drive. The eSATA SoloPRO I tested does not appear to have reached Amazon, Buy.com, or NewEgg yet, but ioSafe sells it online for $249. The PRO unit includes the faster eSATA or USB 3.0 port, making it easier to fill up, but not every computer has one of these ports.
Update: The ioSafe SoloPRO is now available online! Amazon lists it for about $250.
For comparison, the only real competition, a SentrySafe Waterproof 160 GB Hard Drive, is $300 for 160 GB! Another option is the SentrySafe Data Storage Chest, which accepts your 2.5″ portable USB drive for a massively-discounted $55. The 250GB ioSafe Pilot internal drive is much more expensive ($250 for 250 GB) but might be just what the doctor ordered if you want to protect data inside a computer.
I am very impressed overall by the ioSafe product. It is solidly-built, and I believe their fire- and water-proof claims. I would not hesitate to recommend this type of drive to small-business owners or “pro-sumer” users concerned about data protection. I do advise keeping an off-site copy of critical data, but the ioSafe is the safest method yet to store an on-site backup.
Disclosure: ioSafe provided the SoloPRO free of charge for testing after I expressed interest in the product