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Things Have Changed

Toaster RAID Returns, Better Than Ever
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In December 2005, Tom’s Hardware published an article about my Toaster RAID project and featured Toaster RAIDs #2 and #3.

However, since the time of Toaster RAIDs #1 and #2 in 2001, a lot has changed.

  • Processor, bus, drive, memory capacities, and speeds have increased tremendously.
  • There are more single-board computer form factors, more products, more vendors, better prices, and better availability.
  • Linux has evolved.
  • The definition of what is embedded is different, now that small systems have so much more capacity.
  • In 2001, ApplianceWare was about the only network attached storage (NAS) distribution on the market. Now there are many.
  • There seems to be more NAS products on the market than ever before, especially in the two- and four-drive arena, and they do a lot more than just serve as file servers for Unix, Mac, and Windows clients.
  • More people are building small form factor computers in toasters and in other interesting and creative cases.

I have had a lot of fun and have learned a lot building new file servers in a toaster. I have plans to build a few more, too.

Capacities, Speeds, And Feeds

Many things have changed since I built the first two file servers in a toaster back in 2001. Back then, a Coppermine 866 MHz CPU was considered fast and powerful. Maxtor’s 160 GB ATA 133 parallel IDE drives were eagerly anticipated. SATA was about to hit the market, 64-bit PCI-X was powerful, and Gigabit Ethernet was new. Promise was getting ready to market SATA PCI adapters.

Form Factors

Single-board computer form factors are now more standardized and abundant than they were a few years ago. Pico-, nano-, and mini-ITX form  factor motherboards are readily available from many vendors and manufacturers at reasonable prices.

As a reminder, ATX dimensions for desktop PCs are 12" by 9.6". VIA has promoted three smaller form factors:

  • Mini-ITX is 6.7" by 6.7"
  • Nano-ITX is 4.7" by 4.7"
  • Pico-ITX  is 3.9" by 2.8"

VIA is the only manufacturer to offer generally available nano- and pico-ITX boards. All the major manufacturers offer mini-ITX boards, which represent the smallest form factor with four or more SATA ports.

Now, there is BTX, which is a new form factor geared for those of us who are interested in compact case-mod projects (Ed.: Though it's worth noting that development of BTX was halted more than two years ago). There is a good Wikipedia article about form factors for more information.

There is a lot more to form factors than just the measurements. The specifications also cover placement and alignment of components, cooling, power, and more.

The Linux Footprint Is Smaller; Hard Drive Capacity Is Greater.

An embedded Linux operating system once had a footprint of about a 1.5 MB, which is the capacity of a 3 1/2" floppy. With improvements in storage and clock speeds, today a computer running an operating system with a 128 MB footprint is considered compact. CPUs with 3.0 GHz and faster clock speeds now fit on small form-factor system motherboards and 4 GB memory modules can be had at local computer stores for reasonable prices.

Because of all the improvements in capacities and capabilities, plus readily-available small form factor motherboards and drives, I thought it was time to update Toaster RAID. Besides, I needed a new file and DHCP server for my home. I had a few old toasters I had picked up at local tag sales and had some time available over the holidays.

New Processors

Intel's new low-power Atom processor looks interesting and it would be fun to make a Toaster RAID using a motherboard with the CPU in it. For what it's worth, Atom CPUs are soldered on the board and are not removable the way other x86 CPUs are. I only found a few motherboards with Atom processors on them that had four SATA ports. Most of the motherboards on the market that I could find only had one or two SATA ports. Since Toaster RAID is a file server, we really need at least four SATA ports.

VIA has two new boards on the market (the NAB 7500-15DVB and NAS 7800-15LST) that look interesting. It would be a fun to make a toaster
RAID using these two motherboards. Both of these boards have a VIA C7 CPU.

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