Time for a longer look at the Flex 8, the combined RAID, dock and PCIe expansion unit. How does it work with Final Cut Pro and will it turn a MacBook Pro in to a fully configured edit station with just one connecting cable? We find out.
'Having a MacBook Pro that in one minute can change from surfing and emails on your lap, to an edit suite with 24TB of storage, peripherals, wired internet (broadcast output if required) and of course constant battery charging is liberating.'
A few weeks ago I unboxed a new ThunderBay Flex 8 from OWC. You can check out my first article on the Flex 8 here. I run through my first impressions, what's in the machine, the connectivity and of course hint at the flexibility.
If you haven't read the first article, the quickest way to describe the box is to say it's a combination of a RAID storage device, Thunderbolt 3 dock and PCIe expansion box. It's a very clever concept and we always like things that get simpler rather than more cables, more power bricks, more drivers and more complications.
The Flex 8 is aimed at the single-user who requires a large amount of storage with extra connectivity. MacBook Pro editors that means you.
The price isn't bad either. The model I tested is priced at $2,979.00, which is about the same amount as a 24TB 6 disk 'plain RAID' from another well-known storage company. That won't even charge your laptop through the Thunderbolt cable!
So with a bit more time on my hands since the first article, I thought I'd take a closer look and test the unit out editing, running Final Cut Pro X of course!
First up, whip the side covers off and have a look inside. The Flex 8 comes with an Allen key (Never knew they were named after the company that originally made them until I looked it up!) that fits the four short bolts in each corner. Behind the right hand side is just the blank internal wall of the chassis. Taking off the left hand panel reveals the access to the four lane PCIe slot.
Whilst the power was off, I also took the opportunity to check out what drives were installed. In bay one (top left) was a 2TB SSD. Really nice to see sturdy metal carriages for the drives and far more robust than two other competitors' RAID trays I have used.
Curiosity satisfied, I plugged everything back in, slid the cover back on, power cable in, connected it to my iMac Pro and... Nothing.
There is a main power switch on the back, but that was on. As it's a DAS not a NAS (directly attached as opposed to through a network) the Flex 8 should have sprung into life immediately.
My mistake number 1. I had used a USB3 cable that was already connected to my Mac instead of the supplied Thunderbolt 3 cable. You can laugh, but it had me scratching my head for five minutes wondering what was going on.
Thunderbolt 3 cable attached, the Flex 8 instantly woke up and started to make the noises you would expect of a box of disks. The OWC logo on the top left also goes a nice electric blue from standby white. There are two rows of four LEDs that flash to represent the respective individual disk activity.
I did get asked about the noise of the unit in the previous article. I'd say that the fan is quieter than a 4 bay NAS I have nearby. You are still going to hear the disks perform, but this isn't a noisy box. You could have it on your desk and probably wouldn't hear the fan if you were in an office. Could you work next to it all day? Yes, but you would have a bit of relief when powered down, which it does when it goes into standby when the Mac is turned off.
Looking at the Flex 8 in the finder, two instances appeared. The first was the SSD, the second, the seven Toshiba 4TB hard drives in what I thought was a JBOD configuration. (Mistake number 2 just about to happen)
So, as with any new hardware evaluation that contains storage, you have to run the Blackmagic Speed Test. You could argue that with the higher demands of calling for samples for waveform drawing, the BM speed test isn't that relevant anymore and I should test IOPS instead.
The SSD is fast over Thunderbolt 3
The seven-disk collection didn't do too bad either considering that the maximum benchmarked speed a of a single disk is 180 MB/s. We will come on to the lower write speed.
So, my thinking was along the line of 'I'd rather the HDDs run in RAID 5 as opposed to a JBOD'. No problem, the Flex 8 is supplied with a full licence of SoftRAID, which OWC owns.
I thought I'd fire up SoftRAID and make the seven disks into RAID 5. Then I spotted that to run the full version of SoftRAID, you have to toggle off a few security features if your Mac has a T2 security chip. This involves having to restart the machine in recovery mode and turning off some of the Secure Boot settings.
That was fairly easy to do, but not something I'd expect somebody who isn't completely comfortable with macOS to achieve. You also have to remember to toggle the settings back after you've finished.
So, on powering up SoftRAID, this is what I saw. Mistake number 2! The seven drives were already configured into RAID 5, which explains the slower write speed we saw earlier. It wasn't just a bunch of disks after all!
I didn't need to have gone anywhere near SoftRAID, it was plug-and-play out of the box.
OWC have told me that all Flex 8's shipped with HDDs are configured as RAID5, the 4 HDDs in the 4+4 config ship as RAID 5, the 4 SSDs as RAID 0. (The top four bays are NVMe U.2 SSD ready.)
If you order just the chassis and populate it with your own disks, it is important to note that the RAID will be built based on the smallest sized drive. For example if you did a RAID array mixing 4TB drives and 6TB drives, it would treat the 6TB drives as if they were 4TB drives. So for optimal use of drives in a RAID array, recommended practice is to use drives of the same capacity.
One upside, SoftRAID installed a monitoring utility into the menu bar which is a handy way of being able to check the health of disks. You also get the option of installing the OWC Dock Ejector, which does exactly what it says on the tin, but safely.
Should you need to replace a disk in the Flex 8, no problem, I'm told it is a relatively simple process and you can watch a video on the swap out here. Rebuilding shouldn't take more than 2 hours per TB and you can still use the volume whilst it rebuilds your data.
One downside here, you can't add more disks to the RAID. So starting with say 4 10TB disks and then adding another 4 won't give you a 80TB RAID. It could however give you two 40TB RAIDs.
So, the advice here is to max it out with the biggest disks you can from the start.
Editing in FCPX with the Flex 8
On to actual usage and I would like to go through two different situations that I've been using the Flex 8 on.
Earlier this year, I edited a new property series for Channel 4 in the UK. I ended up doing quite a few of the shows from home as not only did this cut out a lengthy commute, the COVID restrictions also started to limit travel.
So, I had a few of the episodes I could load up onto the Flex 8. As there are two storage 'disks' that mount from the Flex 8, I decided to put the Library and the cache on the SSD seeing as it runs just as fast as my normal choice of keeping both on the desktop. The media went on the RAID5 disk.
The projects are 1080i made up from 1080p material with the odd Multicam thrown in with a multitrack WAV as well.
As the location of the media had changed, it only took a couple of minutes to relink about 2100 MXF clips back to the Browser. On opening up a ten minute part, the drives spin up generating the waveforms that draw in a minute or so per 12 minute section.
It felt pretty quick, I'm familiar with the media and more importantly, moving the media. It all felt really snappy, no waiting for anything to play, it was all pretty instant. Certainly a lot faster than a four-bay NAS I had the media on originally. It reminded me of the loading and waveform generation speed of a Jellyfish. But, we have to remember that this is DAS not NAS.
Just to give you another idea of the speed of the Flex 8, I couldn't scroll fast enough in the Browser to beat the thumbnail drawing. From no thumbnails generated in the cache, it felt like they were there already, even though it was generating them on the fly. It's quick.
And rather boringly, it all worked, it worked well. The best compliment I can give storage is when you forget it is there. No waiting, no beachball, everything just plays without a lag.
The Downsizing Continues
You might have read in a recent article that my 2013 Retina MBP finally decided to give up. I downsized and replaced it with a new 13 inch MacBook Pro. Now that all the property series media, project and cache were on the Flex 8, I thought I'd try connecting to the Flex 8 by one Thunderbolt 3 cable and see what happens.
The goal here would be to use the box exactly as it was intended: As a RAID, a dock and hopefully get a broadcast signal out of the back using an old Blackmagic card I had sitting in an old cheesegrater Mac Pro.
Ok. First the easy bit, connect my 13" MacBook Pro to the Flex 8 using a Thunderbolt 3 cable. The battery indicator gets the lightning symbol which means it's charging from the Flex 8. Great, that is one cable saved.
Then using the Thunderbolt loop out of the Flex 8 I connected my LG monitor which flicked into life immediately. Another cable saved. You could of course use a monitor from the display port on the back.
Next up, connect my custom FCPX keyboard. The only USB-A ports are on the front, so no choice but to run the cable down the side of the unit and into the front. It works, but I would have really have liked to have plugged these in at the back to make it neater and free up the front ports. Another cable saved though.
How about the Internet? Yes there is wifi, but uploading video files over wireless is slow, I need to be hard-wired to my router. No problem, a cheap USB to Ethernet adaptor connected and my emails pinged almost immediately. Another cable to the MBP saved, although again it had to be plugged in on the front.
So, the next task was to try to install a I/O PCie card into the Flex 8. I'll cut quite a bit out of the story by saying the only card I had lying around was an 2006 vintage Blackmagic HD Extreme, which was about 15mm too big to get in. Maybe PCIe card sizes have changed since then? Looking at the newer Blackmagic cards, they look a third of the size!
So, using the Flex 8 to provide broacast I/O will have to wait until the next chapter of this story when the box gets passed on to the next user.
Also worth mentioning that putting a network PCIe card won't convert the unit into an instant multi-user server and eGPUs are not supported.
Likes & Dislikes?
What I liked?
Well, a lot. The Flex 8 is very flexible, so I'd like to think that builds-in some longevity to the box.
I'm used to having many cables out of the back of a computer, so connecting with just a single Thunderbolt 3 cable is a revelation. Having a MacBook Pro that in one minute can change from surfing and emails on your lap, to an edit suite with 24TB of storage, peripherals, wired internet (broadcast output if required) and of course constant battery charging is liberating.
There's no fuss when converting between the two, and let's be honest, sometimes I look for any excuse not to do something! Another thought is that this makes the perfect 'edit station' if you have more than one person with a MBP. If you need to edit with good monitoring and a decent keyboard, just plug yourself in.
It's well built, I like the metal disk caddys and the fact that there are no outward facing plastic parts. So it is probably going to outlast your Mac. If you buy the unit populated with enterprise dives, OWC will supply a five year warranty.
It feels and acts like a box that has had a lot of thought gone in to it, not let down by simple design flaws as I've seen on other units.
What I didn't like
I've only got a few dislikes. Not being able to add disks to an existing RAID might be seen as a problem by some, others might want to have two separate sections anyway.
eGPU support would have helped me with my 13" MBP downsizing, although I understand the bandwidth needed to satisfy that and the storage/peripherals can't go down a T3 cable.
Yes, the box has a lot of connectivity, but I'd like a couple of USB-A connectors on the back for a keyboard/interrnet adaptor etc. Keep the ones on the front though so I can plug in other disks. This could be fixed of course by dropping in a USB-A PCIe card. There's one on Amazon with 7 ports!
Finally, should you venture into SoftRAID, it is not the easiest thing to turn off the security features needed to change the RAID configuration.
If you are a one-man-band who shoots and edits, this box has been designed for you.
Having storage, connectivity and PCIe expansion together will simplify everything. You will get good speeds from the disks, be able to plug in camera cards, be connected to a monitor, keyboard and put a PCIe card in of your choice in.
If you do location editing, especially with a MacBook Pro, then the Flex 8 can provide all your peripheral connectivity and storage in one box. A lot easier than carrying around a separate RAID and a dock with you. Reminds me of the days when you could load up a cheesegrater Mac Pro with 4 disks and an I/O card for monitoring and take that on the road.
It doesn't stop there. We can see music composers using the box with an audio I/O card installed and DITs using it as a 'base station,' with the OWC Interchange System carrier trays.
I like the Flex 8 a lot and when you think you get a PCIe expansion box and a Thunderbolt 3 dock 'thrown in' for the price of a competitor's simple RAID5 unit, it seems very good value.
This was the first stop on the Flex 8's world tour. Who and where will be it be going to next?
Full disclosure - OWC help us keep the lights on and the servers humming at FCP.co. We also use affiliate links. However we would tell you if this box sucked, which it doesn't, in fact it is going to be a pain rewiring everything through adaptors once it has gone as we can't keep it.