The Sonnet Fusion F3
In these days of file-based workflows, reliable and fast storage is even more important than ever before. Camera masters, as well as all the edit data, exist only as digital files, with no tape backup generally available. Fortunately, some variant of Moore's Law has driven hard drive prices down to reasonable levels, while increasing speed. Good, useful, and reliable things do come in small and affordable packages.
The Sonnet Fusion F3 is a RAID enclosure, populated with two permanently installed 3 TB drives. It's fast enough for serious studio use and rugged enough for mobile production and editing tasks. The enclosure itself is one-half an RU-wide, about two-inches high, and weighs in at about 8.5 pounds. The enclosure, made from steel and milled aluminum, is solid and not overly heavy, and features an independent suspension system for each drive that provides shock and vibration isolation. The power supply is universal and built in, and additionally has a built-in surge protector. Front panel controls set the RAID mode and power on/off, and indicate drive activity and status. The unit ships with a slim, soft carrying case, and cables for each interface (FireWire 800, USB 2.0, and eSATA). A rackmounting kit to house either one or two units is an optional extra. Sonnet provides a three-year warranty on the Fusion F3, which includes two years of free basic data recovery in the event of a catastrophic failure, and one year of advance replacement.
The Fusion F3 has several features that make it flexible, easy to use, and easy to integrate into most any editing environment. There is a front panel knob to select the RAID setup: RAID 0, RAID 1, or JBOD (Just a Bunch of Disks), which is only available using a FireWire or USB connection). A blue LED indicates the current formatting; to change format, the user must just select the desired format, insert the end of a paper clip into the hole beneath the selector and hold for six seconds, then use the MacOS X Disk Utility, which comes with all installations of MacOS X, to reformat or repartition the unit. The blue activity indicator LEDs—a set of five for each drive—clearly display drive access activity levels; there is a failure indicator for each drive. An extra nice touch, almost whimsical but very practical in dim studios, is an ambient light detector, which automatically dims the front panel LEDs in low light situation to avoid dashboard blindness.
Since RAID-ing is controlled in hardware, only one port is needed for communication with the host from any of the ports (two FireWire800, one full-size USB 2, and one eSATA). This simplifies setup, reduces the need for ports on the host, adds to flexibility in deployment, and makes possible, for example, a fast 12 TB RAID 0 storage system in 1RU at a very reasonable price. There are two thermally controlled fans inside the enclosure, which keep the entire unit quite cool (and definitely whisper quiet). Finally, the unit ships with a soft-sided, over-the-shoulder bag for transport, under the theory that if the drive is ruggedized and shock-protected, then all that is needed is a soft case. Nice touch.
I used the F3 in my edit studio, connected to a Mac Pro tower, and it performed exactly as expected. Through any of the interface varieties, the unit mounted immediately, was easy to reformat using Disk Utility, and was very quiet—basically, what you want in storage technology—that, plus speed. Actually, the unit performed a bit better than I expected in terms of write and read speeds.
For this review, I ran the AJA System Test, a free utility that tests attached disk I/O for the Kona 3 video card that I use, on the Sonnet Fusion F3 6TB RAID enclosure, mounted and attached to my Mac Pro through various means. I used RAID 0 as the testing standard, reading and writing a HD frame (1920 x 1080). When connected to my edit station by USB 2.0 here's what I got: write: 28.4 Mbps; read: 38.1 Mbps. These were the numbers when I connected by FireWire800: write: 59.9 Mbps; read 76.6 Mbps. When I tried the eSATA connection to a multi-port PCIe card, I got these numbers: write: 230.1 Mbps; read: 256.1 Mbps.
For the record, the drives in the unit tested were Hitachi Deskstar 3 TB drives, running at 7,200 RPM. And just for further comparison, the results obtained from my attached RAID enclosure (RAID 5) with a dedicated high-speed card: write: 361 Mbps; read: 358.8 Mbps.
I don't do a huge amount of field editing, but recently had a call to tweak some instructional videos at a client's studio. I transferred files from my main edit station and, not having a SATA card or port for the laptop, connected the Fusion F3 to my Mac Book Pro via FW800. I was very curious about I/O performance, but didn't have a Kona 3 card in the laptop, so I couldn't run the performance tests in advance. The edit system, running from the F3 RAID, was able to play back several streams of Apple ProRes full HD video along with several streams of mixed audio without seeming strained or dropping frames. The extremely low noise level from the unit allowed us to work on audio and sync using the laptop's built-in speakers—there was no need to resort to external speakers to counter fan noise. The Sonnet F3 is exactly the kind of high-speed storage device that makes location editing possible and easy. It would also be a natural fit for a truck-based installation, with its low profile, great performance, capacity, rackmounting capability, and shock protection.
With the price of hard drives rapidly decreasing, it's always very tempting to try to brew up one's own RAID enclosure, and often the adventure can yield reasonable results at a reasonable cost. But, the price of populated enclosures has also been dropping lately, and the Sonnet Fusion F3 is eminently reasonably priced. It is very well designed—both visually and technically—and performs strongly enough to handle the most demanding standard- and high-definition video work. At roughly $800 (on the street) for 6 TB of rugged, compact, and high performance storage, it's a very cost-effective and easy-to-use addition to any installed or mobile production setup.
Michael Hanish operates Free Lunch, a video/audio/multimedia production house near Guilford, Vt. He may be contacted at email@example.com.