We all have a half-dozen or so USB thumb drives laying around. You know, the ones you bought to replace the ones you thought you lost, but then found a week later? Maybe they were free at a trade show? I had my fair share and decided to do something about it: I created my new favorite and totally portable live-work "SSD." Considering I just needed one, $16 accessory, it all seemed pretty reasonable to me.
While I did use my spare drives for the test, I later found a deal on some 128GB PNY USB 3.0 thumb drives that I couldn't pass up for a proof of concept. The results were great, so that's what I'm going to discuss, here.
While many know that USB keys aren't great for fast transfers of a bunch of tiny files (i.e. a folder full of a few thousand images), they are fantastic for larger files like movies. Still, if you RAID them together, the speed slowly doubles as you add more drives (in theory -- read on for caveats). And eventually, it doesn't matter what kind of file you want to transfer, you'll have the speeds you want in no time. But how do you RAID USB keys?
Before we go into "How," here's why you might want to:
1.) Your unused USB keys are a waste of space and a constant reminder of waste
2.) You've always wanted a fast hard drive to work from on-the-go, but don't want to spend hundreds on SSDs
3.) The speed and capacity benchmarks per dollar spent are pretty amazing: $176 for 512GB that get over 250MB/s read and write speeds -- and that's if you buy your USB drives new (as opposed to using some you have laying around)
How to do this yourself in just a few minutes:
The first step is to decide how many USB keys you want to use. I recommend 2 or 4, but in any case, the process is the same. You'll want them to be the same size and speed to get the most out of them. As I said before, I saw a deal on some fast and ever-affordable 128GB USB 3.0 PNY USB keys (I bought two 2-packs at $80 each, or $40 per key for four total). This allowed me to get 512GB of storage for what ended up being just under $160. If you use your own USB keys, you just need to worry about the next step.
Second, you'll need to connect them to your computer all at the same time. I have 2 USB 3.0 ports on my Retina MacBook Pro, so I got an external USB 3.0 hub to expand the number of available ports. While many hubs will want to be plugged directly into a wall, this one allows you to attach an additional power source to your other USB port. While this means both of my ports will be used (one for data from the hub, and the other for power), I still have four ports on the hub, which means I've still doubled my USB 3.0 port count in a still-portable package.
Now for the real magic:
I'm on a Mac, for starters, and Mac users have an awesome tool called Disk Utility, within which we can do what's called a "software RAID." You'll notice I reformatted my USB drives to Mac OS Extended (Journaled), but that's just because I'll only be using it with my Mac. The choice is up to you... but MS-DOS (FAT) will be necessary to use this with your PC.
After selecting the RAID tab on Disk Utility, we can use the Mac's software to virtually RAID two or more hard drives:
This can work for mirroring hard drives (for backup) as well, but I'm selecting "striped" so that the hard drives (USB keys, in this case) can be seen as a RAID 0 configuration. This means that data will be split between both USB keys for twice the speed (theoretically).
Once you select your options at the top, you can drag in all of the disks that you want to use in your RAID system (don't accidentally grab the wrong one if you have others currently connected that you DO NOT want to use, like my separate Promise Thunderbolt R4 setup that I definitely don't want to touch):
Click "Create" at the bottom right, and confirm your selection (continuing past this point will erase your hard drives and create your RAID set, so DO NOT have the wrong drive selected):
And that's it! You now have your RAID setup. Don't be daunted by the remaining and showing four drives. Just ignore them and pay attention to the new, larger volume ready for use. This is the only one that will show up on your desktop, too:
The nice part about this is that the computer will recognize the RAID configuration no matter which port you have your USB keys plugged into. You don't need to have them in the same spot every time -- they just need to both be in use to work.
Naturally, there are a few caveats to all of this:
1.) The speeds tend to top out after going from 2 to 4 USB keys. You can try to get an 8-port hub, but it'll probably need even more power, and you won't see the same significant gains.
2.) Using similar and fast USB keys also helps, naturally. But you can still increase your speeds to over 100MB/s quite easily with standard USB keys.
3.) If one drive fails, you've lost everything. This is always an issue with striped systems. But as long as you keep this in use purely for your live work, you should be okay. Just back it up every now and then. The good news is that a replacement "drive" will be easy to find and rather affordable. Reformat, start over, and enjoy your system as you did before.
4.) Speeds aren't the most reliable. While you can count on fairly quick speeds, they do vary greatly depending on the types of files you're transferring.
Below are some specifications based on my tests with the 4 PNY keys in single-drive, dual-drive striped, and quad-drive striped setups:
Single USB Key:
Transfer time for a 42.4GB folder (almost 16,000 individual files): 6 minutes, 27 seconds OR 109MB/s
Transfer time for a 7.84GB DVD Rip: 58 seconds OR 135MB/s
Dual-USB Key RAID Setup:
Transfer time for a 42.4GB folder (almost 16,000 individual files): 4 minutes, 2 seconds OR 175MB/s
Transfer time for a 7.84GB DVD Rip: 38 seconds OR 206MB/s
Quad-USB Key RAID Setup:
Transfer time for a 42.4GB folder (almost 16,000 individual files): 3 minutes, 37 seconds OR 195MB/s
Transfer time for a 7.84GB DVD Rip: 32 seconds OR 245MB/s
Do you have your own DIY storage solution? Share it with us or let us know how this solution worked for you in the comments!