Storage

SolutionBase: Create a test lab on a single PC with a Combo Hard Drive kit

You may not have space or money to dedicate to multiple test machines. Here's how to create multiple test machines with one workstation using Addonics' Combo Hard Drive kit.

Do you have a collection of old IDE hard drives in a box somewhere gathering dust? Have you ever wished that there was an easy way you could put those drives to good use in a test lab? If so, you'll be interested to learn more about the Combo Hard Drive kits from Addonics Technologies. There are six very inexpensive kits designed to allow you to turn 3.5- and 2.5-inch IDE hard drives into external hard drives, removable hard drives, or even a RAID system. Furthermore, you can choose from a variety of connection options that include PCMCIA, USB 2.0, and Firewire. You can even use Serial ATA (SATA) connections along with the Addonics Serial ATA PCI host controller and the Addonics IDE-Serial ATA converter, which allows you to run any standard IDE hard drive as a SATA device.

System compatibility

Before I get started, I need to point out that during my testing, I was unable to get the Addonics Serial ATA PCI host controller to work in an older 1-GHz Dell 4100 system. While working closely with a technical support representative from Addonics Technologies, I was unable to get the controller to function properly. We determined that there was some sort of incompatibility with the motherboard chipset or the onboard AGP chip and the SATA controller that was insurmountable—no matter what troubleshooting techniques we tried.

Addonics Technologies assured me that they have tested this controller extensively and have never had a problem like the one I encountered with this particular system. They suggested that I try it in a different system. Sure enough, getting the Serial ATA PCI host controller to work in more recent systems was not a problem. So keep in mind that the Serial ATA PCI host controller might not work in older systems.

Taking a look at the Combo Hard Drive kit

The Combo Hard Drive kit itself is made up of two components: the cradle and the enclosure. As we look at these components, it's helpful to draw an analogy by thinking of the cradle as a floppy disk drive and the enclosure as the floppy disk.

The cradle, shown in Figure A, is designed to mount into a standard 5.25-inch drive bay. The panel in the front is actually a spring-loaded door that folds down when you insert the enclosure. To the right of the door are power and hard disk activity lights. Below the lights is a slide lock that secures the enclosure and activates the drive.

Figure A

The cradle mounts in a standard 5.25-inch drive bay and essentially functions like a floppy disk drive for hard disks.

At the back of the unit is a small circuit board that reroutes and combines the standard 40-pin IDE interface connection and standard 5V power connection with the male end of the special connector. While it's difficult to see, just to the right of the circuit board is a small 1.5-inch brushless fan designed to increase the airflow inside the cradle.

Looking at the back end of the cradle, as shown in Figure B, you can see that on the other side of the circuit board is the male end of a standard IDE 40-pin interface connector as well as the male end of a standard 5V power connector. On the circuit board, between the fan and the IDE interface connector, you'll notice a small two-prong power connector. This is to allow the IDE-Serial ATA converter to tap into the power connection.

Figure B

At the back of the cradle, you'll find standard IDE and 5V power connectors.

The enclosure, shown in Figure C, is a compact unit into which you place a 3.5-inch IDE hard disk. As you can see, inside the enclosure is the female end of a standard IDE 40-pin interface connector and the female end of a standard 5V power connector. The front end of the enclosure is actually a handle, which flips up from the bottom and allows you to pull the enclosure cleanly out and away from the cradle. While not shown here, it's important to point out that the enclosure comes with a cover that slides into place once you insert the hard disk.

Figure C

The front of the enclosure is actually a handle that flips up and allows you to pull the unit out of the cradle.

On the back side of the enclosure, as shown in Figure D, is a small circuit board that contains the female end of a special connector that joins the enclosure to the cradle. You'll notice that the circuit board also contains a sliding switch and a round power connector. The sliding switch controls where the enclosure get its power: from the cradle when it's configured as an internal drive or from an external power supply when it's being used as a stand-alone external drive. In the case of the latter, the round power connector would connect to an external power supply.

Figure D

At the back of the enclosure, you'll find the female end of the connector that joins the enclosure to the cradle.

You'll notice that at the front of the enclosure there is another small 1.5-inch brushless fan designed to increase the airflow inside the enclosure. As you can imagine, the combination of the fan in the enclosure and the fan in the cradle means the Combo Hard Drive kit as a whole has more than adequate airflow and will definitely ensure that any hard disk stays cool enough to operate properly.

Taking a look at the SATA package

As I mentioned, the IDE-Serial ATA converter package is made up of two components: the IDE-Serial ATA converter and the Serial ATA PCI host controller. The IDE-Serial ATA converter, shown in Figure E, is actually a very small device considering the impressive task that it performs. The side facing the front consists of the black SATA connector and a white power connector.

Figure E

The IDE-Serial ATA converter is a very small device, about two inches long.

The other side simply contains the female end of a standard IDE 40-pin interface connector. This allows the IDE-Serial ATA converter to attach to the back of the cradle, as shown in Figure F.

Figure F

You'll attach the IDE-Serial ATA converter to the IDE connector on the back of the cradle.

The Serial ATA PCI host controller, shown in Figure G, contains two SATA interface ports. This card is actually a SATA/RAID controller made for Addonics Technologies by Silicon Image. However, unless the RAID support is enabled, the card simply functions as a SATA controller.

Figure G

The Serial ATA PCI host controller is a standard PCI card.

Putting all the components together creates the Combo Hard Drive kit, as shown in Figure H, that will work for the basis of the test lab in a single PC setup.

Figure H

When you put all the components together, the Combo Hard Drive kit is complete.

The SATA advantage

Before we move on, let's take a closer look at the IDE-Serial ATA converter package and the advantage it brings to the Combo Hard Drive kit. To begin with, let's clarify some terminology. The term IDE is interchangeable with the term ATA. Furthermore, the ATA standard is also referred to as Parallel ATA (PATA) because this standard transmits data in a parallel manner as opposed to SATA, which transmits data in a serial manner.

By now, you've probably read about the advantages of the SATA interface, which is the next step in the evolution of the ATA physical storage interface. In brief, the main benefits of SATA are increased performance and a better cabling system. (For more detailed information on SATA, investigate Peter Parson's article "TechRepublic Tutorial: A closer look at Serial ATA" as well as the official Serial ATA Working Group's Web site.)

However, SATA is a complete system and includes a SATA controller on one end and a SATA hard drive on the other end. So how does the IDE-Serial ATA converter work, and what advantages does it bring to the table?

To begin with, the IDE-Serial ATA converter takes advantage of the fact that the SATA standard is backward-compatible with the existing PATA standard. As such, the main component on the IDE-Serial ATA converter's circuit board is a bridge controller chip designed to convert the parallel and serial signals back and forth.

An IDE drive attached to a SATA host controller by way of the IDE-Serial ATA converter won't provide the same speed realized by a full SATA system—especially on older IDE hard drives. However, Addonics Technologies claims that on the latest fast ATA hard drives, the combination of the Silicon Image SATA controller and the IDE-Serial ATA converter will unleash the potential of these new drives that is now limited by the old IDE standard. (See the "Serial ATA Quick Tutorial" on the Addonics Technologies Web site for more details and a benchmark comparison of the data transfer for IDE vs. the Serial ATA with a Western Digital ATA100 120-GB hard drive.)

Regardless of the performance increases, the main benefit that the combination of the Silicon Image SATA host controller and the IDE-Serial ATA converter brings to the Combo Hard Drive kit is the ability to boot from removable IDE drives.

On the other hand, if you were using the Combo Hard Drive kit to add secondary removable storage or RAID to your system, this combination adds hot swap capability to IDE hard drives that was not possible before. Of course, in order to being hot-swappable, the drive must be set up as a secondary drive, and the primary, or bootable, drive must be running Windows 2000 or Windows XP.

Preparation

Before you begin the actual installation, you'll want to create a SATA host controller driver installation disk and print out the User Guide, which contains detailed instructions for installing the driver under a number of situations and each of the supported operating systems (Windows 98/Me/NT4/2000/XP). To do so, simply insert the CD and follow the on-screen instructions for accessing the driver and copying the files to a floppy disk. You can then view and print the Users Guide, which is in PDF format.

Performing the installation

Installing the Combo Hard Drive kit and the SATA host controller into your system is a pretty straightforward procedure. To begin, remove the IDE hard drive(s) from the system. Then, mount the cradle into a front-accessible 5.25-inch drive bay and connect it to the power supply. Next, insert the SATA host controller into an available PCI slot and connect the SATA cable to the host controller and to the cradle.

At this point, you're ready to insert an IDE hard drive into the enclosure. However, before you do so, it's extremely important that you set the drive's jumper to the Master setting. If the drive isn't configured as the Master, it won't be recognized by the SATA host controller. As you can imagine, inserting an IDE hard drive into the enclosure is a simple procedure, as shown in Figure I. Once the drive is in the enclosure, you can snap on the cover to secure the drive in place.

Figure I

Inserting a drive into the enclosure is easy.

For my test lab in a single PC setup, I placed two 20-GB Quantum Fireball drives and a 10-GB Quantum Fireball drive in three enclosures, as shown in Figure J. Once you have the hard drive installed, insert the enclosure into the cradle and lock it into place.

Figure J

My test lab in a single PC setup uses three hard drives.

At this point, you're ready to turn on the system and install the SATA host controller driver. The method you choose will depend upon what version of Windows you're using and whether the operating system is already installed or you'll be performing a clean installation. Each of the various installation options is described in the User Guide in step-by-step format.

On my test system, I performed a clean install of Windows XP during which I was prompted to install the SATA host controller driver. I also installed the SATA host controller driver on an existing Windows 2000 installation as well as on an existing Windows 98 installation. In each case, the steps in the User Guide were easy to follow and right on target.

Using multiple removable hard drives

Once you install the hardware and drivers, using multiple removable hard drives is a snap. You simply insert the enclosure into the cradle, lock it in place, and turn on the system. When you want to change to a different drive and a different operating system, you simply shut down the system, remove the enclosure, insert a different enclosure, and turn on the power. While it may sound like a lot of effort, it's actually a very easy procedure and really doesn't require a lot of time.

And, as a bonus, I discovered that I was able to install and activate the same copy of Windows XP on identical hard drives without any WPA repercussions. This really expands my testing capabilities, as I now have easy access to two identical Windows XP environments in order to perform comparison and analysis experiments with various software.

Getting your kit

The Combo Hard Drive kit along with the IDE-Serial ATA converter sells for $89.00 and includes one enclosure. Additional enclosures can be purchased for $33.00 apiece. The Serial ATA PCI host controller sells for $29.00. So the total cost for my test lab in a single PC setup would be $217.00, plus tax and shipping.

You can purchase these products at the Addonics Online Store. In addition, you can find Addonics products through many of the major catalog companies as well as a host of online retailers.

About Greg Shultz

Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

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