In today's world of exponential data growth, digital storage space always seems to be in short supply. This is most often true in the home where technical resources are usually more limited. Add to that the rise in prevalence of the Solid State Drive (SSD), a more expensive technology than the traditional Hard Disk Drive (HDD) meaning smaller storage drives for the same price, and the amount of free digital storage space available to the home user is at constant risk of being overwhelmed.
Why do you need a hot swappable drive bay case?
More and more drives
One way to keep up with this ever-expanding need for disk space is to keep buying more and larger external storage drives. However, a number of problems arise with this strategy, most notably with the power supplies that come with each new storage device purchase. Homes have a limited number of power sockets so constantly adding more storage drives each with its own power-plug requirements presents an obvious problem. In addition, in the interests of fire safety, adding more and more power plugs to a multi-plug adapter is also not a good idea, as at some point, you will begin exceeding the rated amperage for the multi-plug adapter, resulting in the blowing of a fuse, the triggering of a circuit breaker, or worse, the starting of a fire!
More hard drives means more wiring
Adding more individual digital storage drives also means adding more and more wiring to the home computing set-up, both for the power requirements and for the data connection to the computer. This can get messy very quickly and can be a nightmare to keep organised. In addition, computers have a limited number of data ports, so adding more individual external drives usually means either fumbling around at the back of the computer unplugging and plugging in the correct data connections for different hard drives, or using a separate data connection hub, which can mean another power supply and yet more wiring!
Recycling old laptop and desktop drives
Most of us change our laptop and desktop computers every few years, as their processing power becomes outdated and unable to keep up with the latest computing environments. However, the hard drives or solid state drives inside these machines are often still very much in their prime. As a result, it is becoming increasingly common these days to pop the HDD or SSD out of the old computer and purchase an enclosure for the drive in order to convert it into an external storage drive. This works fine initially but over a multitude of years leads to having a collection of external hard drives, once again each with their own wiring and port requirements.
The multi-bay hard drive enclosure
A clever solution to the problem of 'external hard drive-overload syndrome' is the multi-bay hard drive enclosure. Multi-bay hard drive enclosures for the home user come in all shapes and sizes, housing anywhere from 2 hard drives or SSDs up to 10 of them in the 10 bay hard drive enclosure. They usually comprise of a desktop case with hot swap drive bays and usually run off a single data connection to the computer as well as a single power supply, so alleviate many of the typical issues of having too many individual hard drives. So what should one look for in a multi-bay hard drive enclosure? Let's take a look.
What to look for in a multi-bay hard drive enclosure
The 8-bay hot swap chassis
There are a few things to consider before taking the plunge and buying your first multi-bay hard drive enclosure. First and foremost amongst them is the number of drives the enclosure can accommodate. We at Desktopvibes.com favour the 8-bay and above hot swappable drive bay case as most of us already have several spare hard drives from old laptops lying around, with more on the way from current computer tech that is on the road to obsolescence. As a consequence, we focus here on these bigger capacity enclosures, but many of the same principles can be applied to enclosures with fewer hard drive bays if those happen to suit your needs better.
The standard size for laptop hard disks drives and solid state drives is the 2.5" drive. For desktop computers, it is a 3.5" drive, which usually has more storage capacity due to its bigger physical size and less expensive per gigabyte storage space. So if you are buying extra HDD or SSD storage, the preference is for 3.5" drives since you get more bang for your buck. Fortunately, the majority of multi-bay hard drive enclosures primarily accommodate 3.5" drives, however, we still would like it to handle 2.5" drives as well in order to breathe new life into our old laptop drives. Only some multi-bay enclosures have been designed to handle 2.5" drives natively in addition to the 3.5" ones. For others, a special adapter tray can often be purchased separately that holds a 2.5" drive while fitting into the 3.5" bay of the enclosure.
JBOD vs RAID vs Large
What is JBOD, and how does it differ from RAID or a Large configuration? This is probably the most fundamental question when it comes to setting up your new multi-bay hard drive enclosure, and it will almost completely depend on your needs with regards to hard drive back ups and resilience against data loss. In addition, knowing the configuration that you intend to use your multi-bay enclosure in is an important pre-purchase criterion, as each multi-bay enclosure comes with a different range of configurations to which it can be set. So what are these configurations?
SATA vs SAS
Hard drives and SSDs are designed to connect internally to computing hardware via one of a number of ports. The most prevalent of these internal connections is the SATA port, which is particularly common amongst consumer hardware. The SATA port has been around for quite some time and over the years has progressed through three different iterations, SATA I, SATA II, and SATA III, with each version doubling the theoretical maximum data transfer speed over the previous version. An alternative to SATA is the Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) port which is more commonly found in hardware designed for servers. It too has developed over the years with its latest iteration, SAS-4, able to transfer data at a whopping 22.5 Gbps. SAS is superior to SATA in several ways but it is also generally more expensive. The main differences between SATA and SAS are as follows:
Consequently, SAS hardware tends to be the preferred technology for more professional applications, but is viewed as overkill for consumer applications, this is why most products available to home users are SATA-based hardware. This is also the case for consumer-focused multi-bay hard drive enclosures with the internal connections to the hard drives most often via SATA. However, an important criteria to watch out for when choosing a multi-bay HDD enclosure is the SATA iteration the hard drive case supports, as some were designed to run data only at SATA II speeds (although still compatible with SATA III drives).
USB 3.0 vs eSATA
Now that we have the hard drives and SSDs connected to the multi-bay enclosure, the only question remains is how is the hard drive enclosure itself connected to the computer. There are two main methods through which this connection is most often facilitated: USB and eSATA. The USB standard has evolved over a couple of decades and is currently within its third iteration, USB 3. As of this writing, the most common form is USB 3.0 with a maximum data transfer rate of 5 Gbps, which is currently found on the majority of multi-bay HDD enclosures. There is a more recent USB standard, USB 3.1, which sees the doubling of this data rate to 10 Gbps, however, this is not yet commonly present on multi-bay HDD enclosure hardware, and may even be considered unnecessary on SATA-based hardware since the data transfer rate is anyway limited to the 6 Gbps maximum of internal SATA III connections.
An eSATA port is also found on many multi-bay hard drive enclosures and is equivalent to the internal SATA connections of the device but designed for external cable use. The eSATA port on the multi-bay hard drive enclosure is not as frequently used as the USB port since eSATA ports are not often included on computing hardware for the consumer. In addition, to use eSATA on a multi-bay HDD case, a component known as a 'Port Multiplier' needs to be incorporated either within the HDD enclosure itself or within the computing hardware, whereas with USB, port multipliers are unnecessary.
UASP or USB Attached SCSI Protocol is a protocol that speeds up USB data transfer getting it to come closer to its theoretical maximum data transfer speed, so for example in the case of USB 3.0, speeds will come closer to its 5 Gbps maximum. For UASP to work its magic, it needs to not only be supported within the multi-bay HDD enclosure itself, but it also needs to be supported within the computer and operating system as well. Fortunately, most modern computers and operating systems support UASP, including Mac OS 10.8 and above, Windows 8 and above, and Linux version 3.15 and above, so it is a good idea to make sure the multi-bay enclosure you purchase also supports it.
Popular external hard drive array storage towers
** Compatible with SATA III drives (but at the lower SATA specification speeds)
^ JBOD = "Just a Bunch Of Disks" - Each HDD appears as an individual drive
NB: USB 3.0 is backwards compatible with USB 2.0
Best Hot Swap Hard Drive Bay Cases
ICY BOX IB-3810u3 Review
The ICY BOX IB-3810u3 from the German company RaidSonic is a contender for the top spot in the best hot swap hard drive bay enclosure category in the UK. This hard drive enclosure can hold a whopping 10 hard disk drives (HDDs) or solid state drives (SSDs) of unlimited capacity, with all the drives powered by a single power supply and simultaneously connected to a computer via a single data cable.
The ICY BOX 10-bay case accepts 3.5-inch drives natively, however with bespoke adaptors (sold separately), the 3.5-inch bays can also easily be converted to accept 2.5-inch drives instead. The hard drive / SSD bays on the enclosure are also hot swappable, require no tools to insert either 3.5-inch or adaptor-enclosed 2.5-inch drives, and the individual drive bays are all individually lockable using a simple key (supplied) to ensure that the working drives are not accidentally removed while in use.
The ICY BOX IB-3810u3 works with all the major operating systems in a “just a bunch of disks” or JBOD configuration with each hard drive in the enclosure showing up as an independent drive on the desktop. The ICY BOX enclosure is, however, not a true RAID drive enclosure as the chipset does not support most RAID levels particularly the parity storage or fault-tolerance ones.
As for data-transfer speeds on the ICY BOX IB-3810u3, the enclosure interfaces internally with the HDDs and SSDs via a SATA III connection which provides a theoretical maximum data-transfer speed of 6Gb per second, and which is also backwards compatible with the slower SATA II and SATA I interfaces. Externally, the ICY BOX IB-3810u3 connects to a computer via a single USB 3.0 connection, providing a theoretical maximum data-transfer speed of 5Gb per second and which is also backwards compatible with older USB 2.0 and USB 1.1 hardware. In addition, the JBOD case also supports UASP, which pushes the actual USB data-transfer speed towards its theoretical maximum when used with computers and operating systems that also support UASP (includes most modern systems). Unlike some multi-bay hard drive enclosures however, the ICY BOX IB-3810u3 does not have an eSATA port nor does it support an eSATA connection, however, this is a relatively minor point as the prevalence of eSATA connections, particularly amongst regular consumers, is minimal.
Physically, the design of the ICY BOX IB-3810u3 is pretty smart looking with an outer case made mostly from pressed steel, which also happens to act as a kind of heat sink to remove the excess heat generated by working drives. Further cooling is also achieved via a large 140mm computer-style fan that also helps to remove the waste heat from inside the enclosure. Other notable features on the 10-bay HDD / SSD enclosure include having individual power switches for each drive which means that only the necessary hardware need be turned on when accessing data from specific drives, saving on both energy costs and disk drive lifespans. The ICY BOX IB-3810u3 also allows for automatic power down of individual drives which are not being actively accessed, however, this is contingent on the drives themselves as well as the computer operating system supporting this feature too.
Overall, the ICY BOX IB-3810u3 enclosure is an excellent option for anyone looking to increase their disk drive storage capacity, either via the purchase of brand new drives or via the re-purposing of old ones. However, it is worth reiterating that this 10-bay HDD case is primarily designed to support the JBOD configuration and not RAID setups, so anyone looking for a RAID HDD enclosure should look elsewhere.