Review: LaCie 6Big RAID drive with Thunderbolt 3

Photography is my life.  But I’ve had some heartbreaks.  But when the light on my hard drive turned red, I knew I had avoided one because my data is stored on a RAID drive.

In a nutshell, a RAID (redundant array of independent disks) allows you to combine multiple hard drives together to act as one.  This can be used for protection against a hard drive failure, as the data can automatically be duplicated to multiple drives.  It can also be used for speed, as spreading your data across multiple drives allows each of them to do some work at the same time.  Or, it can even be used to improve both speed and protection.

As a photographer, I have a huge amount of data that is very important to me.  In fact, I have over 8TB of data, and my laptop can only hold 2TB.  So I need some kind of external storage for my data.  I see two major benefits to using a RAID drive:

  • First, this approach is dramatically cheaper than buying the same amount of storage with solid-state drives (SSD).  That will probably change in the future, but that’s several years from now at least.
  • Second, I can continue working without interruption if one of the drives in my RAID setup fails.  That’s critical for me as a working photographer.  Restoring from a Time Machine could prevent me from working from a couple of days (or more if I have to order a new drive to restore to).  And even if I had a very recent clone drive to start using, it would be much slower and I may have problems merging data if it weren’t perfectly in sync with my Time Machine backup.

But as I wrote in my article about creating a bulletproof backup strategy, RAID is not a backup.  You can lose data on a RAID drive due to fire, theft, malware, accidental deletion, and many other scenarios other than failure of a single HDD.

I’ve used a Pegasus R6 RAID (the original with a Thunderbolt 1 interface) for just over 5 years.  Unfortunately, one of the drive bays has failed.  I kept replacing failed drives in the same slot, until I realized that the drive bay itself was bad (not the new drives I was putting in it).  But I was safe each time, as data is safe against two drive failures in a RAID6 setup.  And I was backed up in case that happened.  But regardless, it was time to upgrade, especially since a failure of the enclosure raises the possibility of the whole drive going down at once.

For my needs, I was looking for a replacement with a fast Thunderbolt3 and support for RAID6 (or the equivalent for 2 drive failure protection).  There are a few matching options on the market, but I opted to get the new LaCie 6Big with Thunderbolt3.  It’s pricier than the comparable Pegasus, but I was intrigued by the 5-year warranty after seeing my Pegasus start to fail, LaCie is owned by Seagate, and the 6Big comes with drives that I trust.  I wouldn’t hesitate to get another Pegasus (I don’t think 5 years of use is unreasonable), but thought it was time to try something new.  I also considered Drobo briefly, but have heard mixed reviews on their reliability (some strong warnings, as well as some super positive feedback).

On paper, the 6Big seemed to have everything I was looking for, other than enough power on the Thunderbolt connection to charge my laptop (it provides a little juice, but sadly not enough to work on the laptop without continuing to drain the battery slowly).  The size is very similar to my old Pegasus, it’s well reviewed, and looks decent.

 

Setup and initial impressions of the 6Big

My first impressions were also very positive.  The included software for OSX looks professional and was generally very easy to use.  I was able to configure the device in just a few minutes.  While my involvement in setting up the drive was just a few minutes, the total setup takes days.  Setting up the drive (should) involve initialization, which is a process where the device automatically inspects the hard drives for any problems.  This took about 2 solid days to complete.  Not a huge deal, but I couldn’t take my laptop with me or turn it off.  Then after initialization, I needed to copy 6.5TB of data to the drive – which required another couple of days.  I use Carbon Copy Cloner to duplicate my existing drive (and check for file corruption in the process).  All in, I spent about 30 minutes unpacking and configuring the 6Big, and felt really good about things at that point.  I just needed to wait 4 days of waiting for the drive get fully initialized.  And that didn’t include letting OSX encryption finish, which added another couple of weeks to complete!  (Note that if you ever want to check the progress of encryption on a Mac drive, use the following command in Terminal:  diskutil cs list)  But, if you don’t want to check for potential disk defects or encrypt your data, the setup takes only a few minutes.

I have the 6Big directly attached to my laptop via Thunderbolt3 cable.  I then daisy chain from the Thunderbolt3 port via adapted cable to the Pegasus R6, which daisy chains to a Belkin Thunderbolt1 hub for everything else (external monitor, Time machine, keyboard, mouse, etc).  This allows me to plug in a single cable to connect everything but power.  I did have to buy a 6′ Thunderbolt3 cable (the LaCie comes with a 4′ cable), which shockingly costs about $65.  But I’ve been able to avoid having to shell out for a pricey new Thunderbolt3 dock, which wouldn’t speed up anything else for me.

Configuration of the drive was very easy.  Physically, I just had to plug in the Thunderbolt cables and power cord, everything else was ready to go out of the box.  You then download LaCie’s software and turn on the drive.  Select your settings for the array (the default setting for RAID5 is great, I choose the custom option to use RAID6 and turn off caching).  With the 4TB drives and RAID6, this gives me 16TB of extra storage, plenty for what I expect will be the 5-year life of this drive for me.  I recommend accepting the option for background initialization (to manage the possibility of any bad sectors on the unused drives).  After you’ve setup the array, you need format the drive with the default tools in your operating system.  I’ve set mine to OSX journaled/encrypted, but expect that I’ll migrate to Apple’s new file system in the future for a variety of reasons (better data integrity and crash protection, faster initial response times, possibility of some space savings, and possibility of faster backups via snapshots).

 

LaCie customer support

Things got ugly when I was just about ready to start using the drive.  First, let me just state up front that it was a very poor choice for me not to do any device testing before letting the initialization and data cloning run.  I should have tested the device and my RAID settings right out of the box.  That would have save me 4 days of repeating the process after troubleshooting, and a few extra days waiting for responses from LaCie.  The problem was that, after everything was set up, I found that the write speed on the drive was slow. Really slow.  My old drive was 4X faster over Thunderbolt1, even though both systems used comparable 7200 Seagate drives and RAID6 (not entirely apples to apples, but I absolutely expected faster performance, not dramatically worse).  I found a blog showing test data 8X faster than my results, and LaCie’s test data for a RAID5 drive was >10X faster (I expect RAID5 to be faster than 6, but certainly not 10X).

I’m not going to sugar coat it, email support was painful.  Each response took about 18 hours, the answers were incomplete, and they just didn’t seem very knowledgeable.  They even told me that they “hadn’t tested RAID6” and suggested that the solution to my problem should be to give up and reformat the drive for RAID5.  They seemed happy to try to convince me that my RAID6 performance (100MB/s or less) might be reasonable when considering that RAID5 is a little faster (their official spec for RAID5 is 1150MB/s).

So, I decided to call instead – which is exactly what I should have done in the first place.  I was able to speak with a rep quickly, and he was friendly and had a reasonable approach to troubleshooting.  He wasn’t able to find the underlying issue, but I was generally happy with phone support.  I next set about doing a series of tests to either find if the drive was bad, or understand the root issue.

 

Test methods

I connected both my Pegasus and 6Big directly to my 2016 MacBook Pro for all tests, with no use of the daisy chain during testing.

I rebuilt/reformatted the 6Big several times over the course of a good four hours.  I found the issue, and learned a lot in the process.  The bottom line is that my write speeds were being affected by my use of OSX’s built-in disk encryption.  Simply reformatting the drive without encryption immediately bumped my RAID6 write speeds to nearly 800MB/s.  If I enabled encryption after formatting, I still saw good write speeds (so I assume that new data during the conversion process is temporarily left unencrypted).  But if encryption was added while formatting the drive, I saw a massive drop in speed back to my original numbers.

I tested ten base configurations, which included RAID 0, 10, 5, 6, and 50 – each with 64 and 1024K stripe sizes.  I turned caching off for all of those tests, and then additionally tested six more configurations with RAID6 using 128, 256, and 512K stripe sizes and caching both off and on.  My testing included running BlackMagic, as well as saving a TIF file from Photoshop both uncompressed (1.3GB) and with ZIP compression (1.14GB).  The BlackMagic tests offer a broad set of test conditions, and the Photoshop tests help directly test the write condition I care about most.

Here’s what I found:

  • OSX Encryption imposes a massive penalty on write speed (while the drive is in the initial process of being encrypting), but has no real effect on read speed.
  • As expected, uncompressed TIF files saved much faster (3-5s) than compressed TIFs (50-52s).  This is because the compression process is bottlenecked at the CPU, not the drive (see this post for more information on faster file saves in Photoshop).  This very important for my work, as I save nearly all my files as compressed TIFs.  Therefore, none of the various RAID settings have any effect on the speed of my Photoshop work!  They do however mean a lot when I move folders of images in Lightroom from my laptop to the RAID drive.
  • RAID0 performance is terrible.  This was utterly shocking to me.  RAID0 should be the fastest option, as it is purely designed for speed with no redundancy.  LaCie claims 1400MB write/read speeds in RAID 0, but I found 450-550 write speeds and 1100-1200 read speeds.   All of the slowest saves for uncompressed Photoshop files were from RAID0 configurations.  I cannot explain this, but it’s real (at least with this particular unit/firmware).  I rebuilt and re-tested several times because I couldn’t believe the result at first.  If anyone has any good theories as to why I might run into this on a device that’s otherwise performing as expected, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter, as RAID0 is a terrible idea if you want to protect your data.  On this 6-bay device, it would literally be 6X more likely to fail than any one of its individual drives.
  • Larger stripe sizes generally provided somewhat faster write and slower read speeds for RAID 5/6/50, but showed the opposite effect in RAID 0.  The differences were mostly modest, but worth testing your setup if you want to optimize for speed.
  • Turning on disk caching improved write speeds by up to about 10%.

I also pulled one of the drives out while powered on.  The 6Big immediately drew attention to the situation.  It started beeping loudly.  The blue power light turned red.  And I received a couple of automated emails warning me that something was wrong, which is really nice if the unit fails when you are somewhere else.  The warning messages could be improved a big (they sound very scary as if I didn’t have protection for a second drive failure and that I might have lost data – though neither was the case).  Recovery is simple, I just plugged the missing drive back in and the system started a roughly day-long process of rebuilding the drive.

 

Test results

With the new LaCie 6Big in RAID6 with 512K stripe and caching disabled, I achieve 750MB/s write and 600MB/s read as shown in the BlackMagic test results below.  All the numbers I’m reporting at the top summary numbers.

I’m seeing the following performance relative to my other drives:

  • vs the internal 2TB SSD: The internal SSD shows 157% faster writes and 135% faster reads (ie, more than twice as fast at both).  [this drive tested at 1945 write and 1413 read]
  • vs the Pegasus (Thunderbolt 1) in RAID6: LaCie shows 58% faster writes and 91% faster reads (nearly twice as fast for reads).  As expected, the new drive is substantially faster with its use of Thunderbolt 3.   [this drive tested at 479 write and 317 read]
  • vs a 5400RPM external HDD on USB3:  Writing is a whopping 3350% (~34x) faster and reading is 2355% (~24x) faster.  [this drive tested at 21.9 write and 24.6 read]

Please take all these numbers as relative, as drive to drive variability is significant.  I’d expect other tests of similar hardware setup the same way would probably test within +/-20% of the numbers I saw.  A nearly exact match is very unlikely.

For me, the bottom line is that SSD or RAID is the only way to go for storing external data, other than an archival backup.  I use several of them for clones and my Time Machine.  But my cloning has typically been sporadic given the extremely slow process with a regular HDD, and I plan to convert the Pegasus into a fast clone that I can run more often with a simple overnight process.

Reboots

I didn’t see any issues during the initial setup of the drive, but after I started using it regularly, my 2016 Macbook Pro started crashing and rebooting.  It was generating an error report with the warning “CATERR detected! No MCA data found.”  CATERR is a generic warning of a “catastrophic error”.  Not terribly helpful, but there are numerous reports of the new Macbook Pro generating this error, particularly in combination with some use of an external drive (both Thunderbolt and USB drives) and Time Machine.  I contacted LaCie again, and they suggested I remove the drive from the daisy chain (ie, don’t connect other devices through it) to help see if that was part of the issue.  Apple support had me reset the computer’s SMC, NVRAM, and reinstall OSX (not reformat, just reinstall).

After making those changes, the reboots have changed to Finder and the desktop freezing.  It occurs with the computer simply left on with no apps running, just background processes.  Since that includes the background use of Time Machine (and encrypting the Time Machine), the drives are in use (as the restored data on the new drive represents 6.5TB of data to be backed up by Time Machine).  When the problem occurs, I can’t even shut down the computer normally.  There’s no error message, it just stops working (though I can keep using any open application).  Needless to say, that’s super frustrating.  Apple believes that reformatting my hard drive and reinstalling has a reasonable chance of fixing the problem.  That would prevent me from working for a couple days, so I’m not too thrilled about that.  It’s possible that it’s a hardware issue in my laptop, which would require 2 days of my computer being tested at the Apple Store, followed by 3-5 days to get it repaired.  And it’s possible that the drive is defective, but that would also require a lot of time to fix (and I don’t know if LaCie would let me keep using the old drive while waiting for a new one).  I’m confident the problem can be addressed, but it’s an awful process to fix.

Thankfully, I could keep using the drive by connecting it via its USB 3.1 connection.  I have no issues in that configuration.  Unfortunately, that also slows down the speed to a crawl.  BlackMagic is showing 30.1 MB/s write and 34.9 MB/s read speeds, which is hardly faster than a single external drive and really doesn’t make sense to me.  But this allowed Time Machine to complete backing up after a few days of continuous operation.  After that, I reconnected the drive to Thunderbolt 3, and have yet to see a crash – but have also not had a situation where a significant amount of data was being backed up to Time Machine.  Either way, I’ve been able to use the drive at full speed with production work – and the difference is really notable when I move files from my laptop to the drive or re-save 2-4GB layered files on the drive.

It’s an annoying risk, but I’ll just monitor it for now.  If it starts to recur, I’ll fix it when I have a period of time where I don’t need the computer daily.  Likely starting with a reformat and reinstall after the new MacOS High Sierra has been out and showing stability for a bit.  The fact that Time Machine seems to be involved suggests to me that a clean installation of the OS may be the solution.  To be completely fair to Apple and LaCie, I have never done a clean installation since I bought my first Mac 9 years ago.  It’s probably time to clean out the cobwebs.  I have no reason to think that other users would see this same issue with LaCie, nor to think that I wouldn’t see the same problems with other Thunderbolt 3 drives on this computer.  But that’s just my hunch; based on extensive troubleshooting and research I’ve done thus far, Apple’s feedback and recommendations, and the 9 years I’ve done of installing operating systems over each other.

 

Conclusions on the LaCie 6Big

My experience with LaCie’s email customer service was disappointing, and the outstanding issues with hangs/crashes are frustrating.  But I don’t have any reason to think the crashes would be common or can’t be resolved. I would still recommend the 6Big if you have a lot of important data and a budget that would allow such an extravagant purchase.  Now that I’m setup and not currently seeing reboots, it really is a fantastic drive.  RAID6 gives me speed, protection against 2 drive failures, and the ability to continue working without interruption if a drive fails.  The drive looks nice and is as quiet as my laptop.  The Thunderbolt3 interface is super quick, offering real-world benefits over my old Thunderbolt1 RAID.  The software is intuitive and has everything I need. If you ever need support, just be sure to skip the email and go right to the phone.

The biggest question probably comes down to cost.  At $2700, this drive costs more than many people spend on a laptop or camera.  If you are using a robust backup strategy, even a $100 external drive can be a reasonable way to hold your extra data, especially if it’s data that you only need to access occasionally.  Other options including buying an older generation device (slower interface) or one that only supports 4 drives.  In five years or so, I hope I’ll be able to buy a large solid-state drive reasonably and replace this bulky RAID drive.  But for at least the next several years, I’m really happy to have such a fast and secure way to hold all my precious photos.

My general recommendations for extra storage of working data (from most desirable functionality to least expensive):

  • LaCie 6Big with Thunderbolt3, configured to RAID6.  I like the 5-year warranty (vs 3 years for Pegasus), 7200 RPM Seagate IronWolf drives (I assume the Pegasus drives may be lower quality or 5400 RPM drives, as there is no mention of this in its specifications), and slightly better software.  This also includes a USB3.1 interface, which makes it an excellent future-proofing choice if your current computer does not support Thunderbolt 3, but you anticipate you may get one in the next few years.
  • Pegasus R6 with Thunderbolt3, configured to RAID6.  I haven’t used their new model, but have been very happy with the old one.
  • Pegasus R4 with Thunderbolt2, configured to RAID5.  This will be fast and reliable, definitely a good option on medium-sized budget.  [If you can’t use Thunderbolt, you might want to look at the Drobo 5C (USB-C) or Drobo 5D (USB3 and Thunderbolt2) drives.  I have no experience with either.]
  • External SSD with USB3 or Thunderbolt.  This is the way to go if you need a portable option, but sizes are very limited (2TB is about the max right now realistically).  This is probably only a good option if you have a very small amount of data, but are willing to pay a premium for speed and protection.  Do some research on the speed, as not all SSDs are equal.
  • External hard disk drive, ideally 7200 RPM and USB3.  Any reputable brand is fine, but it’s worth doing some research on reliability. You may wish to consider extra clone drives, as this type of drive has a good risk of failure and restoring from a Time Machine or similar backup might mean that you lose a day or two while waiting for the data to be restore (or longer if you need to order a new drive and wait for it to be shipped).  For reference, my 6Big in RAID6 is 34 times faster than one of my 5400RPM external drives.  In other words, I can expect to transfer about 1000 of my 42MB images from a Nikon D810 in about 1 minute with the 6Big, about 24 minutes with a 7200 RPM drive, or about 32 minutes with a 5400 RPM drive.  Which is perfectly fine if I plan to do it in the background.

All of the above options should be paired with a robust backup strategy.  Even a 100% reliable drive could get damaged, stolen, succumb to malware, or have accidental deletion of data.

 

General recommendations on RAID settings

My general recommendations for photographers using RAID:

  • Use RAID5 if cost, speed, or total storage capacity are most important to you.  Use RAID6 if data protection is most important.
  • Use a 512K stripe size for a good balance of read and write speeds.  Or if you want to get every possible ounce of performance, test the various stripe sizes when you first configure the drive (but I think the value here is pretty minimal).
  • If you want to decrease the theoretical risk of a “write hole” being created if the power goes out, you can safely turn off caching without causing any noticeable loss of speed.  I have disabled it, as I once had corruption of data in a file allocation table, which resulted in nearly complete loss of data on that drive.  But it a white hole is a small risk in the first place, and turning off caching does not completely cut the risk.  If you’re concerned, you might consider getting a UPS (uninterruptible power supply).
  • Be sure to schedule background maintenance.  I run “background check and fix” weekly.  Other drives have similar options to check the redundancy/validity of your data.
  • If it really matters to you, test it yourself.  A lot of what I found flies in the face of conventional wisdom and the advice of others.  I wouldn’t claim that my results are going to hold true with other devices, but I think they are pretty reasonable recommendations – especially if you don’t want to spend many hours testing like I have.
  • If you do any speed testing, make sure background processes are done (initialization, encryption, etc).

 

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. See my ethics statement for more information.

  • Great, thorough, honest review. Thanks Greg!! 🙂

  • You bet! As a follow-up, it has been working flawlessly since I posted the review. So while it was a very mixed first experience, all has been solid for a while now.


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