For really big jobs, like digital video editing, storage can be the biggest bottleneck on a modern PC. That’s why, for this week’s Microsoft Challenge, I asked TechRepublic members to help me find the fastest, most reliable storage subsystem for my Millennium Dream Machine. For cost reasons, I’ve rejected SCSI out of hand—by my back-of-the-envelope calculations, a full-strength Ultra 160 drive array with RAID 0 could cost $1,000 more than its IDE equivalent.

The overwhelming majority of responses urged me to go with the Promise FastTrak 100 RAID controller. TechRepublic member Jay.Winks suggested an upgrade to the top of the Promise line: the SuperTrak100 RAID controller, calling it “the winner … in the bang/buck litmus test—a 6-channel RAID 5 ATA-100 controller. (That’s up to 12 spindles at ATA prices!) It does RAID 0, 1, 3, 5, or JBOD configurations, with the cache holding up to 128MB of RAM, and the 960 RISC processor is really pushing it. It is superior to what you get for the same $$$ in Ultra160 SCSI without RAID.”

That’s tempting, indeed, but it’s not the only choice. Adaptec made its name in SCSI but now has a credible IDE alternative in the AAA-UDMA. TechRepublic member compumedic said, “I throw a 64-MB EDO ECC RAM chip on it, load up four Ultra 66 EIDE drives, and reap the benefits of speed and data integrity on NTFS drive partitions. Of course, this puppy with the extra RAM is not cheap, but then the good things in life usually aren’t. Only problem with the Adaptec is it isn’t ATA 100. Yet.”

But why stop at two alternatives? TechRepublic member digitweak snuck in past the deadline with this compelling argument: “Why is everyone so stuck on the Promise? … The 3Ware Escalade 6800 IDE controllers combined with IBM 7200 RPM drives average about 86-mbps second writes and have awesome support. The 3Ware is high-end stuff, definitely server-quality gear. I run eight 80-GB Maxtors without a single problem, and another box has six 45-GB IBMs that run flawlessly. If cheap is the point here, Promise wins. On price/performance, Adaptec takes the cake. But if you want all-out performance, the 3Ware will smoke them all.”

Decisions, decisions. If I can ever separate these three contenders, I’ll then have to deal with which drives to plug in. Every leading drive manufacturer got a thumbs-up in this Challenge, but Jay.Winks said there’s no contest: “If you want the Cadillac (At the price, who wouldn’t?), you get IBM 75GXP 7200 RPM drives. Low latency is good, especially when you back it up with a full 2-MB cache, for peaking sustained data, media, and interface transfer rates. This latency/cache combo is particularly important for I/O-sensitive apps like 2D/3D/video/audio editing that will not suffer inferior I/O. But it’s also crucial for applications that are merely I/O hungry, like DB servers and compilers doing large projects. No worry, if you’ve configured RAID arrays wisely, you’ll be able to bleed every drop of speed out of your machine.”

Of course, I might be jumping the gun here. With the right motherboard, I could save the cost of a separate controller card completely. The Promise controller is integrated into several high-end motherboards, noted Guru Greg: “Of all the motherboards I’ve played with, the best I’ve had up to this point is the ABIT VP6. It is a dual-processor mobo and runs on the latest Via chipset. It will allow you to run your IDE hard drives in RAID 0, 1, or 1+0. I have two IBM 75GXP Deskstars and have had zero problems with them. Get a VP6, a couple IBM HDs, 256 MB of quality PC-133 RAM, and a couple of PIII 933 processors. You’ll thank me in the morning. The price on everything is falling at an unbelievable rate, and the whole rig shouldn’t cost over $1,000.”

I’ve had good luck with Promise products and IBM drives through the years, so I’m leaning in that direction. But I’m also sorely tempted by the VP6, especially when it means I don’t have to shell out for an external controller.

Thanks to everyone who participated in this week’s Challenge!

Here’s Ed’s new Challenge
Once upon a time, installing a Microsoft Service Pack was automatic. When a new SP came out, we updated every system in sight without even thinking twice. But several high-profile flubs in the Office 2000 product line have changed all that. I’ve heard from angry Office administrators who won’t allow Office Service Pack 2 anywhere near their users’ machines. How about you? Do you handle service packs differently these days? Are you skipping SP2 for Office 2000? Will you take a wait-and-see approach before installing SP2 for Windows 2000? Share your thoughts with fellow TechRepublic members and earn a share of the 2,001 points I’ve set aside for this Challenge. If you think you’ve got the answers, click here to tackle this week’s Microsoft Challenge.