FireWire Hard Drives and The Future of the TBU

By Deane Barker on June 12, 2004

I bought a FireWire hard drive enclosure the other day, and I’m awfully happy with it. It cost about $45 and I filled it with an old 40GB hard drive I had lying around. It works beautifully — plug it into a FireWire port and you get a G: drive.

It makes me wonder what’ll happen to the venerable tape backup unit (TBU). I have a TBU on my server, but it’s old, slow, cranky, and only holds 20GB. Furthermore, 20GB tapes are like, $30 while hard drives are running less than a dollar per gigabyte these days.

Right now, I can think of no reason why I would use my TBU for anything anymore. Am I missing something? I imagine that tapes are physically pretty durable, certainly more so than a hard drive, but is there anything else?

I’m using this portable hard drive for off-site backups. Once a week, I’ll bring the drive in, copy the latest backups onto it, and take it home where it will sit on my bookshelf for a week until I bring it in again to refresh the backups.

FireWire hard drives, incidentally, are fast as lightning. I have a small RAID Tower which runs via FireWire. You’d never know it wasn’t an internal SCSI drive. Latency is non-existant. In fact, I installed a very CPU- and I/O-intensive server process on it once and it ran beautifully. Again, the simplicity is amazing — plug it in and you get an F: drive, end of story.

(So which is faster, USB 2.0 or FireWire? USB 2.0 is rated at 480 Mbps and FireWire at only 400 Mbps, but I found many resources that said, in practice, FireWire is faster. Here’s one such page that includes numbers claiming FireWire is between 16% and 70% faster than USB 2.0.

The throughput numbers would lead you to believe that USB 2.0 provides better performance. But, differences in the architecture of the two interfaces have a huge impact on the actual sustained “real world” throughput. And for those seeking high-performance, sustained throughput is what it’s all about…

That company sells FireWire peripherals, so they may be biased, but it’s still interesting.)

I’m so impressed with the utility of these things that I’d go so far as call them mandatory equipment for your PC. The enclosure will cost you $45. I found a 40GB Maxtor drive on Froogle for $32. I bought a FireWire card and cable on eBay last year for $15. That’s $92 for 40GB of removable storage that you can throw in a fanny pack — tough to beat.

On my next PC, I’m going to physically separate the operating system from my data files. I’ll keep all my data on an external FireWire unit, and only keep the OS and program files on the internal IDE drive. I’d love for my PC to be essentially disposable. If I have a problem, just pave and reload it knowing that all my data files are safe and secure because they’re physically disconnected from the PC. Perversely, I may mirror them on the internal drive just for redundancy.

For the record, I bought the Metal Gear Box from NewEgg. It was rock simple to get running — grab a hard drive, physically screw it into the unit, connect two cables, then plug it into the PC.

I’m not thrilled with look of the thing — it’s all brushed aluminum and black metal grating (product image above). It kind of makes me feel like a 40-year-old man driving around in a lowered Civic with a big wing on the back. Additionally, when you put it down, there’s no padding or rubber stops, so it kind of clanks against the desk, which makes me a little nervous.

Anyway, the theory is valid. External hard drives: good. FireWire: great. Go get one.

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  1. I think you owe all of us that know you an apology. I cannot get the image of you wearing a fanny pack out of my head. I can only assume it’s one of those hip looking leather ones.

    Seriously though, I’ve been planning on getting one of these for quite a while. Looks like $40-$50 is the going rate. Good investment Deano.

  2. Good plan. I’ve been planning to so something similar for backups at work, but on a larger scale. I’ve got about 500GB to back up, and am doing it right now with VXA tapes. The tape drives do OK, but I’ve had two drive failures in the last year (both under warranty), and they’re terribly slow, especially on restore functions. So what I’ve been planning is to use a Firewire RAID tower with hot-swap drives in place of the tapes. I figure with 80GB drive mechanisms I’ll be getting higher capacity than tape and much higher speeds, and the drive mechanisms are no more expensive than a single tape. See

  3. Must be a trend here, because I see several people all coming to some of the same conclusions about TBU at the same time.

    I’m in the process of installing a new server that will have a Terabyte RAID. The cost of a jukebox with any decent backup and restore speed is almost as much as the server itself. Plus there’s the ongoing cost of the tapes. So I decided that I’m going to purchase several Terabyte FireWire 800 drives (I’m currently looking at LaCie’s Bigger Disk, which is four 250GB drives spanned or stripped in one box.) or a bunch of 250GB drives separately. Either way it’s going to cost about half as much and we’ll have instant access to the files. No more waiting for restores from tape.

    I do kind of wonder about the durability when they get transfered offsite, but we get bad tapes back as well, so I don’t think we’re any worse off.

    I think IIRC, the reason that FireWire is faster for about the same rated speed as USB 2.0 has something to do with USB being serial, obviously, and FireWire not being. FireWire can do asynchronous transfers, read and write at the same time? Sumpin like that. Vague enough for you?

  4. I am a video producer still using tape backup for projects with Retrospect. We have an old DLT machine that uses type 4 tapes. Our projects get stored forever, and are only occasionally recalled for re-editing. Every project runs from 50 to 200 gigabytes. We now use firewire drives to service our two edit bays to simply temporarily store the media — we get it off the system faster and can take our time backing it up. My major comment about the drives is about reliability. Hard drives fail. We have never had a tape go bad or trouble with them — the failures have always happened while recording the data and you can fix that on the spot. It would be undesireable for us to maintain a fleet of drives just to keep programs backed up. Incidently, we are using two Apple G4s for our main edit workstations (with tons of scsi drives for media) and Apple ships them out with IDE drives for your OS and application software. We always install a second IDE to back up the first. These drives fail for us every year. (Fivein four years) In contrast, the scsi drives (two medea’ and four internal 73gig scsi) have NEVER failed. All had five year warranties and two are past them. I think that all firewire drives are IDE, so beware… Maybe because we are video producers, and doing alot of aftereffects (which includes rendering) our hard drives wear out faster. But we have had just about every brand on the market, and both the OEM apple drives and our later additions have all been prone to an early death.

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