Storage

The battle for control: Evergreen's USB 2.0/IEEE 1394 PCI Combo controller challenge

Does getting two speedy bus technologies on one controller card sound too good to be true? Find out how Evergreen Technologies' recently revealed Combo controller stacked up against alternative USB 2.0 and IEEE 1394 solutions.

In the past, external storage for the enterprise never seemed to be fast enough, large enough, cheap enough, or compatible enough for the enterprise environment. Today, however, cost and size are no longer issues, because 40-GB hard drives are readily available at almost any retail outlet for about $125. Speed and compatibility concerns have also been wiped away with the advent of FireWire (IEEE 1394) and USB 2.0.

While adapting existing IDE or SCSI products over to IEEE 1394 and USB 2.0 is relatively simple, it will be a few months until enterprise computers are equipped by default with one or the other. In the meantime, PCI Controller cards must fill the gap to take advantage of these powerful technologies.

In this Daily Drilldown, I'll look at Evergreen Technologies' new USB 2.0/IEEE 1394 PCI Combo controller to see how it measures up with two alternative controller solutions. For our competitors, we selected the Universal BUSlink PCI controller for USB 2.0 analysis and the Creative Labs Audigy MP3+ sound card for the IEEE 1394 trial. I'll examine each controller and provide the results from a benchmark test performed using another Evergreen product, the fireLINE Pocket HotDrive.

Evergreen Technologies IEEE 1394/USB 2.0 Combo controller
Evergreen Technologies, a company familiar to many in the IT industry for its processor upgrade products, has introduced a series of external storage devices and controllers intended for maximum throughput storage solutions. The most versatile in its controller lineup is the fireLINE 1394/USB 2.0 Combo card. It supports both IEEE 1394 and USB 2.0 for maximum flexibility, while only taking up a single PCI slot. The controller is available on Evergreen Technologies' Web site for $119.99, after an instant rebate.

This port-laden controller has two external USB 2.0, two external IEEE 1394, one internal USB 2.0, and one internal IEEE 1394 port. The software it comes with includes a driver disk and a copy of Ulead Video Studio 5.0. The remaining components provided are a FireWire cable, IEEE 1394-to-iLink adapter, and a four-wire hard drive-type power lead to tap into the computer's power supply.

Note the iLink adapter…
The inclusion of the iLink adapter is notable, as the iLink interface only has four data wires and is about half the size of a typical IEEE 1394 port. The iLink adapter often appears on laptops and compact devices. Standard FireWire is a six-wire cable that can provide power to devices, a feature that USB also supports.

The documentation that came with the controller was sparse and amounts to “insert card into PCI slot, connect cables, and insert driver disk.” This lack of instruction caused a problem during my installation because to use the four-wire power lead, you must change the jumpers on the card. Failure to do so will result in inert bus-powered devices. This issue is addressed on Evergreen's Web site, and the company told me that the instructions will be updated soon.

BUSlink USB 2.0 PCI controller
For the last few years, Universal BUSlink has been establishing itself as a maker of inexpensive, no-frills devices. This USB 2.0 PCI controller is no exception to that rule. Coming in at $39.99, there’s no risk of breaking the IT budget here.

This simple controller has four external USB ports and one internal port. It does have two root hubs between the five ports, which should help with performance. The driver disk is frighteningly austere, consisting of nothing more than the NEC controller .inf, a few system and install files, a known bugs ReadMe.doc, and two PDFs explaining how to install the USB drivers on Windows 98 and Me. The ReadMe.doc details the following four issues concerning the PCI controller of which BUSlink is aware:
  • No high-speed isochronous support:  "High-speed isochronous support" refers to the maximum transfer rate possible under USB 2.0. Isochronous mode is intended for real-time audio/visual devices like microphones and video cameras. The lack of support is understandable because, like UDP streaming media traffic, it is more important to keep the data moving quickly than to get the data exactly right.
  • No remote wake-up support:  Remote wake-up is not a commonly used feature over USB, but it might be an issue if your computer has a “sleep” mode that ignores any commands from the PCI bus.
  • No overcurrent detection support:  It is unlikely, but not impossible, for a powered device to put excess current on the lines.
  • Multiple USB 2.0 hubs plugged into the Host Controller at startup will not work:  The workaround for this issue is to cascade hubs or plug in a second hub after the system is up.

Want more details on USB transfer rates?
Check out our USB Drill Down.

Creative Labs Sound Blaster Audigy MP3+ PCI card
In addition to being a robust sound card, the Sound Blaster Audigy MP3+ also possesses an IEEE 1394 FireWire port. The Audigy MP3+ sells for under $100 and, because it's a multifunction PCI card, it should be comparable to the FireWire ports integrated on most motherboards. The Audigy has only limited support for bus-powered devices because it does not have the power-supply lead that the Evergreen Combo controller does. While Creative Labs does not guarantee that it will operate more than one device at a time, the Audigy had no problem handling our test hard drive during my performance tests.

Installation and results
Installation of all the cards was a snap. Just insert the card into an open PCI slot, start the computer, and insert the appropriate driver disk when prompted. The external hard drive was “installed” by simply plugging in the correct cable to the correct port and waiting for the operating system (Windows 2000) to recognize it. Except for the difficulty of configuring the Evergreen’s power source, it was completely automatic. See the outcome of the Winbench disk and application tests in Table A below:
Table A
Evergreen
BUSlink
Evergreen
Audigy
USB 1.1
USB 2.0
USB 2.0
1394
1394
Winbench 99 disk results:
Business disk WinMark 99 (KBps)
1840
4850
4830
4780
4180
Disk access time (milliseconds)
23.7
20.7
20.9
21
21
Percent CPU utilization
6.29
5.1
5.28
4.13
4.06
Bus overall performance (KBps)
1840
4850
4830
4780
5180
Transfer at beginning (KBps)
1040
17100
18400
23600
23700
Transfer at end (KBps)
1040
13500
13500
13500
13600
Disk WinMark
1900
11800
12300
12700
13300
Winbench application results:
AVS Express (KBps)
2010
12500
12700
14900
13700
FrontPage 98 (KBps)
33900
49400
49200
53000
53100
Microstation SE (KBps)
4240
17400
18000
19700
17400
Photoshop 4.0 (KBps)
761
5880
6120
6010
6670
Premier 4.2 (KBps)
1300
9920
10800
10200
12000
Sound Forge 4.0 (KBps)
1900
11300
11400
12500
12900
Visual C++ 5.0 (KBps)
3220
13400
13800
14000
15100
Performance tests were done under Windows 2000 on a 266-MHz Pentium II to replicate a worst-case scenario. USB 1.1 support was tested using the motherboard's integrated USB controller. The test drive was a fireLINE Pocket HotDrive, which is based on a 2.5” IDE drive.

I combined the data on the disk transfer rates into a single graphic for easy comparison (Figure A). The two IEEE 1394 controllers provided nearly identical results (+/- 1 percent) on this test and were combined for readability.

Figure A
You can see that IEEE 1394 was significantly faster than USB 2.0 and only limited by the speed of the 2.5” IDE hard drive. It wasn’t until the drive dropped below 17 Mbytes/sec that USB 2.0 and IEEE 1394 were comparable. USB 1.1 was left far behind at 1 Mbyte/sec.


IEEE 1394 performance
The Evergreen controller turned in application performance results in IEEE 1394 mode 10 percent slower than that of Creative Labs' Audigy MP3+ card. The differences in raw performance (disk transfer speeds, access times, and CPU utilization) were nearly identical, so I can only gather that the differences were due to the drivers. I had expected the Audigy to perform worse, as FireWire was an afterthought on the Audigy MP3+. These results forced me to reevaluate my opinion of Creative Labs' design team.

USB 2.0 performance
The BUSlink controller was able to eek out 18.4 MBps, while the Evergreen was limited to 17.1 MBps in raw transfer speeds. Application tests were also favored by the BUSlink but only by a slim margin and just barely outside the tests’ margin of error. Only during long file transfers will the difference become noticeable, as more than half the time the BUSlink had a 1-MBps advantage.

Some people might be surprised by USB 2.0’s results, as its raw bandwidth readily provides for up to 50 Mbytes/sec of throughput. However, USB 2.0 specifications recommend that devices use between 30-40 percent of the available bandwidth to allow multiple USB 2.0 devices to operate simultaneously and still leave enough bandwidth for USB 1.1 devices like mice and keyboards. The BUSlink and Evergreen controllers came in at 28.5 percent and 30.6 percent bandwidth, respectively, so both are behaving appropriately.

More USB 2.0 information
For more detailed information on the inner workings of USB 2.0, check out this article.

The verdict
While there is no clear-cut winner, there are several advantages to choosing one type of controller solution over another. The BUSlink USB 2.0 PCI card’s performance, combined with a price under $40, gives it the most bang for the buck, but I consider it a bit delicate given the controller's known issues. The Audigy MP3+ isn’t really marketed as an IEEE 1394 solution, but as we have seen, it manages admirably compared to the Evergreen Combo controller. The Evergreen Combo controller came close to losing to the alternative solutions due to the lax documentation and its similar performance results. However, this controller has a plethora of ports, a $119.99 price tag, and only requires a single PCI slot to provide IEEE 1394 and USB 2.0, making it a worthy alternative to a two-controller solution.
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