ioSafe Solo: Water and Fire Proof Storage

We would like to introduce to you ioSafe Solo storage solution. It differs dramatically from numerous other solutions based on 3.5-inch HDDs by a number of quite extraordinary features: it will preserve the data even after spending three days in a 3 m deep pool of water or after 30 minute heating up to 850°C.

by Aleksey Meyev
10/27/2009 | 02:41 PM

What do we usually mean by data protection? Encrypted files, secure data transmission protocols, access rights and other techniques invented to avert unauthorized access to data. Data storage devices are imperfect as well, so regular data backups, clustering and fault-tolerant arrays are employed to solve that problem. In this review we are going to look at the data protection issue from a different angle, though. How do you protect your data from such natural disasters as a fire or flood? Alas, today’s storage devices are mostly fragile. They dislike hot temperature and water. Flash memory drives are more or less water-resistant and you can save data from a wet hard disk drive (but you shouldn’t do that at home as the water inside the drive is no good for the heads gliding over the platters at minimum height), but you’ll have to say goodbye to your data in case of a fire.

 

Of course, there are ways to solve this problem. The best protection is to copy data to a remote (not in an adjacent room, but in a different building or even city) drive. The chance of losing data in both locations simultaneously is much lower. If this is unfeasible for some reason and you have highly valuable data indeed, you may want to consider special storage devices like the ioSafe Solo that we are going to test today.

Closer Look at ioSafe Solo

The name of ioSafe itself hints at security and safeness. The company turns out storage devices that are protected from various disasters. Besides the ioSafe Solo, which is an unconventional external USB drive, the company’s product range includes fire and waterproof NASes and special racks for installing 2.5-inch drives into 3.5-inch bays.

The Solo series includes three models with capacities of 500GB, 1TB and 1.5TB. The only difference between them is the HDD installed inside. Otherwise, these models are identical.

 

The Solo looks like a typical external enclosure for two HDDs. Something like a simple metallic brick. You realize that this is quite a complex thing when you take this enclosure into your hands. It is almost as heavy as 7 kilos! There is nothing unusual for the eye, though, except that the case is made from rather thick metal (0.8 millimeters). There are only vent holes in the front panel, highlighted beautifully at work, while all connectors are at the back together with an On/Off switch. The back panel is quite a standard and rather modest view: a grid with a 50mm fan behind it, a full-size type-B USB port, and a power adapter connector. Alas, ioSafe does not offer products with the faster eSATA interface.

Besides the plate with a unique serial number, there is only one thing that can catch the eye.

The bottom panel of the case sticks out and there is a hole in the protruding ledge. You can use this hole to fasten the device to the floor, desk or wall. That’s not much of protection, but will help against a strong flow of water. It can also baffle a thief for a moment.

Of course, the most interesting things are hidden inside. So, we undo 14 screws (there are no latches or anything) and remove two covers.

 

Most of the interior is occupied by a heat-insulating material that resembles gypsum. It is shaped as two “bricks” that fit tight to each other, although not exactly hermetically. The halves are not fastened to each other. Now it is clear why the ioSafe Solo is so heavy. There is a small metallic plate on the butt-end of one brick. The device’s fan, external connectors and electronics are all fastened to that plate.

The most precious thing can be found between these two bricks. It is a hard disk drive additionally wrapped into a hermetic pack. Take note of the shape of the interior of the bricks. One of them has special grooves for the air from the fan to reach the pack with the drive and then go out of the case through the holes in the front panel. It’s good that the developer has configured the air flow so properly. Running a little ahead, we can say that the fan is not too bad. It is not silent, but not irritating, either. It is just a little louder than the rotating platters of the hard disk and produces a characteristic hum with a high-frequency accent typical of small-diameter fans.

To fix the pack with the drive firmly in the case and also leave some room for air flow, the developer used the following solution. The HDD is fitted into the corresponding hollow of the fill-up material and is additionally secured with four rubber pipes which also protect the HDD against side shocks. You shouldn’t check this protection out with a mallet as you can damage the HDD’s heads actuator even if the latter is parked on the ramp. On the other hand, the HDD is indeed protected against moderate side shocks better than in an ordinary external enclosure.

Now let’s take a look at the electronics card and the cables. The place where the cables go into the waterproof pack with the disk is sealed with two tight straps and filled with a sealant. So, there is a high chance that water, if the Solo happens to fall into it, won’t get into the pack. Still, we’d recommend you to dry the HDD up before using it again.

There is also a pipe going out of the pack. We guess it is a kind of a valve for letting out excessive moisture or air (under high temperature the air in the pack will expand).

The card with connectors and cables is not protected. So, in case of a fire, the hard disk will survive but you’ll have to connect it in some other way to retrieve your data.

The card has a PATA interface for hard disk drives, too. Perhaps the company has produced products with PATA drives before. SATA is undoubtedly better, though. Wide PATA cables would be much more difficult to lay out and make waterproof.

Summing everything up, the HDD inside this enclosure is indeed protected against any external disaster. The enclosure won’t survive a fire (and, probably, won’t live after falling into water), but the HDD inside it will remain healthy. Seeing is believing, and there are indeed a few clips at YouTube showing attempts to destroy an ioSafe Solo. People from ioSafe claim that the HDD remains healthy even after the Solo has been heated up to 850°C for half an hour or after a 3-day submersion to a depth of 3 meters.

We are going to measure the drive’s speed characteristics, too, but without much detail. You cannot expect anything unusual from USB since this interface limits the performance of today’s hard disk drives greatly.

Testbed and Methods

The following testing utilities were used:

Testbed configuration:

We formatted the drive in FAT32 and NTFS as one partition with the default cluster size. For certain tests 32GB partitions were created on the drive and formatted in FAT32 and NTFS with the default cluster size, too. The drive was connected to the mainboard’s back-panel USB port.

Performance in WinBench 99

As expected, the data-transfer graph is a horizontal straight line that goes somewhat higher than 30MBps. The USB bandwidth is a bottleneck that conceals any differences between today’s HDDs working via this interface.

Performance in Intel IOMeter

Sequential Read & Write Patterns

IOMeter is sending a stream of read and write requests with a request queue depth of 4. The size of the requested data block is changed each minute, so that we could see the dependence of the drive’s sequential read/write speed on the size of the processed data block. This test is indicative of the maximum speed the drive can achieve.

The numeric data can be viewed in tables. We will discuss graphs and diagrams.

IOMeter: Sequential Read & Write

There is no new information here. The read speed is 30MBps with something again. The top write speed is somewhat lower at 26MBps.

Disk Response Time

In this test IOMeter is sending a stream of requests to read and write 512-byte data blocks with a request queue of 1 for 10 minutes. The total amount of requests processed by the drive is much larger than its cache buffer, so we get a sustained response time that doesn’t depend on the drive’s cache.

The read response time is somewhat too high. The HDD in this enclosure must be switched into low-noise mode.

Random Read & Write Patterns

Now we’ll see the dependence of the drive’s performance in random read and write modes on the size of the processed data blocks.

We will discuss the results in two ways. For small-size data chunks we will draw graphs showing the dependence of the amount of operations per second on the data chunk size. For large chunks we will compare performance depending on data-transfer rate in megabytes per second. This approach helps us evaluate the disk subsystem’s performance in two typical scenarios: working with small data chunks is typical for databases. The amount of operations per second is more important than sheer speed then. Working with large data blocks is nearly the same as working with small files, and the traditional measurement of speed in megabytes per second becomes more relevant.

IOMeter: Random Read & Write, operations per second

Today’s HDDs can effectively cache small data blocks at writing, delivering high performance. The modest read speed is due to the high access time.

IOMeter: Random Read & Write, megabytes per second

Nothing can save the day if the interface is much slower than the hard disk drive itself. The Solo reaches its top write speed on 512KB data blocks as the USB interface cannot pump through more data. The read speed hits the ceiling at much larger data blocks.

Database Patterns

In the Database pattern the drive is processing a stream of requests to read and write 8KB random-address data blocks. The ratio of read to write requests is changing from 0% to 100% with a step of 10% throughout the test while the request queue depth varies from 1 to 256.

You can click this link to view the tabled results for the IOMeter: Database pattern.

The graph is indicative of very low performance. The USB interface is the culprit again. As opposed to eSATA, USB does not support queuing requests on the drive. The queue can only be built in the USB driver. As the result, it is only at long queue depths that there is a noticeable performance growth.

Web-Server, File-Server and Workstation Patterns

The drives are tested under loads typical of servers and workstations. The names of the patterns are self-explanatory. The Web-Server pattern consists of reads only. The File-Server pattern has about 10% write requests. The Workstation pattern is used with the full capacity of the drive as well as with a 32GB partition. It has a larger percentage of writes and more diverse variants of disk access. The request queue is limited to 32 requests in the Workstation pattern.

Since external drives are not usually used for such purposes (people usually save copies of data to an external drive rather than use one as a computer’s main disk subsystem), we will only show you diagrams with performance ratings. This should be enough to get a general notion of the drive’s performance under such characteristic loads. For the File-Server and Web-Server patterns the performance rating is the average speed of the drive under every load. For the Workstation pattern we use the following formula:

Rating (Workstation) = Total I/O (queue=1)/1 + Total I/O (queue=2)/2 + Total I/O (queue=4)/4 + Total I/O (queue=8)/8 + Total I/O (queue=16)/16.

Well, this drive is much slower than any modern HDD from our latest reports. It can only cope with low server loads.

The Solo is hardly any good for a workstation although its results here are not downright poor. Once again we can note a performance boost when the test zone is limited to a 32GB partition.

Multithreaded Reading and Writing Patterns

The multithreaded tests simulate a situation when there are one to four clients accessing the virtual disk at the same time – the clients’ address zones do not overlap. We will discuss diagrams for a request queue of 1 as the most illustrative ones. When the queue is 2 or more requests long, the speed doesn’t depend much on the number of applications. You can also click the following links for the full results:

The interface being such a bottleneck, you might expect that there should not be any more performance hits due to the specific load. However, the multithreaded reading test shows that the drive is slower at reading multiple threads than just a single thread.

The Solo has no problems at multithreaded writing: it delivers the same speed irrespective of the number of write threads.

Performance in FC-Test

For this test two 32GB partitions are created on the drive and formatted in NTFS and then in FAT32. A file-set is then created, read from the drive, copied within the same partition and copied into another partition. The time taken to perform these operations is measured and the speed of the drive is calculated. The Windows and Programs file-sets consist of a large number of small files whereas the other three patterns (ISO, MP3, and Install) include a few large files each.

We’d like to note that the copying test is indicative of the drive’s behavior under complex load. In fact, the drive is working with two threads (one for reading and one for writing) when copying files.

The following table shows detailed FC-Test results.

The results are predicable irrespective of the file system. The drive is almost as fast on large files as in IOMeter: Sequential Read & Write, its writing being somewhat worse than reading again. The speed is lower on smaller files because the overhead for organizing a large number of small disk requests grows up. The speed of copying is only half as high as the speed of reading or writing (which is logical as each file must first be read, transferred to the computer and then returned and written to the external drive) and does not depend on the distance. The partitions we create are too small (32GB only) to make any difference.

Conclusion

We must confess we like the ioSafe Solo. Secure storage devices that might help protect your precious confidential data are still rather rare. Although hardly a mass product, the ioSafe Solo will surely find its customer, being superior to ordinary external drives in terms of data protection. If you need a waterproof and fireproof storage device, the Solo is unrivalled.

We also hope that ioSafe’s products will be developing further. First of all, the interface should be replaced with a faster one. The product range might be expanded, too. Although the company offers multi-disk NASes, a dual-disk RAID1 would be a good addition to the Solo series. You know, sometimes hard disks fail for no particular reason. And as a final touch, some backup software would also make a proper accessory to this product.