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Chipset Serial ATA and RAID performance comparo

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OVER THE PAST YEAR, Serial ATA RAID has become one of the most popular checkbox features for core logic chipsets. The latest offerings from Intel, NVIDIA, SiS, and VIA all support Serial ATA RAID, but there can be a world of difference between feature support and real-world performance. To find out which chipset offers the best single-drive, RAID 0, and RAID 1 performance with Serial ATA drives, I've spent the last month running Intel's ICH5R, NVIDIA's nForce3 250Gb, SiS's SiS964, and VIA's VT8237 through a punishing gauntlet of disk subsystem and application tests. The results of this benchathon are enlightening, to say the least.

How does the single-drive, RAID 0, and RAID 1 compare between various chipsets? How does each chipset's performance scale moving from single-drive configurations to striped and mirrored two- and even four-drive arrays? Join me in an epic journey through nearly 200 performance graphs as we uncover the answers.

Lining up the competitors
Before we dive into the stack of graphs I've prepared, let's take a brief moment to go over the chipsets we'll be looking at today. I've highlighted a couple of key differences in a handy little table:

Serial ATA ports RAID support Interconnect
Intel ICH5R 2 0, 1 Accelerated Hub Architecture (266MB/sec)
NVIDIA nForce3 250Gb 2, additional 2 via optional PHY 0, 1, 0+1, JBOD HyperTransport (6.4GB/sec)
SiS SiS964 2 0, 1 MuTIOL (1.06GB/sec)
VIA VT8237 2, additional 2 via optional SATALite interface 0, 1, 0+1, JBOD Ultra V-Link (1.06GB/sec)

Starting at the top, we have Intel's ICH5R, which can be found in 875 and 865-series chipsets for Pentium 4 processors. Intel was the first to bring Serial ATA RAID to core logic chipsets, and it should be interesting to see how the ICH5R's performance holds up more than a year after its release. It should also be interesting to see how the ICH5R's performance compares with the competition given the chipset's relatively puny 266MB/sec interconnect between north and south bridge chips. With each of the ICH5R's Serial ATA ports capable of pushing 150MB/sec, interconnect bandwidth could be a rare commodity.

After the relatively old school ICH5R, it's only fitting that NVIDIA's brand new nForce3 250Gb is next on our list. The 250Gb a single-chip design with two Serial ATA ports, plus support for two more SATA ports via an external PHY interface. It's unclear how many mobo manufacturers will actually go the four-port route with the 250Gb, but we'll examine four-drive RAID 0 and 0+1 performance with our nForce3 250Gb reference board because there's nothing like the hum of four Raptors spinning away.

Moving along, we have SiS's SiS964 south bridge, which is available in both Pentium 4 and Athlon 64 chipsets. There's nothing particularly unique about the SiS964's capabilities when it comes to RAID support or interconnect speed. We've limited our testing of this south bridge to an Athlon 64 platform.

Finally, we have VIA's VT8237, which is available in a wide range of Pentium 4, Athlon XP, and Athlon 64 chipsets. Like the nForce3 250Gb, the VT8237 supports four Serial ATA ports by way of an external PHY interface. However, I was unable to find a motherboard that actually made use of more than the south bridge chip's two internal Serial ATA ports, so our VT8237 testing was limited to two-drive arrays. Since the VT8237 is widely available for different processor platforms, I've tested an Intel-based implementation in the PT880 chipset and an Athlon 64 implementation in the K8T800 chipset.

That sums up the competitors we'll be looking at today. If your head is spinning and you have no idea what RAID is, let alone the difference between RAID 0, 1, and 0+1 arrays, I suggest you check out the RAID school section of our IDE RAID round-up for the lowdown.

A stack of Raptors ready for some exhausting RAID abuse