Computer build tip: External enclosures, revisiting cable management

A lot of your time in building a computer is going to go into cable management. In October 2013, I upgraded the power supply in my wife’s computer from a Rosewill 500W supply to a Corsair GS850 in preparation for higher-end upgrades coming down the road. In making that changeover, I spent probably three hours on cable management in the mid-tower case that housed it. In building out a water cooling loop in her full tower case, again a lot of time went into cable management.

Mid-tower cases do not leave you a lot of room for managing cables, and there tends to not be a lot of space, if any, behind the mainboard tray for routing and management. Modular power supplies have made the task only a little easier by allowing you to reduce the cable bulk. And reducing cabling is really the only way you can make cable management easier. Even with full tower cases, you’d probably still want to make your life easier.

On this mark, one thing I’m surprised I don’t see advocated more often is the use of external enclosures.

Enclosing the past – USB and eSATA

Now in the past this path has been problematic.

First, USB 2.0 is slow compared to the bandwidth available SATA I – 480 Mbit/s for USB 2.0, compared to 1.5 Gbit/s for SATA I. Even ATA-4, the last PATA standard, was twice as fast at nearly 1 GBit/s. Most hard drives today are also faster than what USB 2.0 can support – SSDs most certainly are – so trying to use a USB 2.0 device as a primary boot device would mean a significant performance penalty.

If you search through Google for articles on trying to run Windows from an external hard drive, you’ll also find that it was problematic and certainly not recommended, though in most cases the discussion focused around USB external devices. I found an article from December 2008 discussing the pitfalls of trying to do this. It was apparently still doable, it just would’ve required a bit of work, and there was no guarantee on stability.

Even with today’s systems and Windows 7 and 8.1, there is still no guarantee it’ll work from a USB 3.0 device. The reason is that USB has traditionally been purely plug-and-play (PnP) with the ability to hot-connect a device (plug or unplug it while the computer is on), and Windows does a PnP device detection during bootup, which could cause your external hard drive to be reset while your computer is trying to boot.

This is where eSATA can make your life much easier, since eSATA goes through the existing SATA bus on your mainboard or SATA interface card. But eSATA as a standard connector option on mainboards didn’t really happen until within the last five years. My previous mainboard I bought in 2007 didn’t have it as an option, and neither did my wife’s. Our current mainboards do.

If you don’t have eSATA connectors, you can buy SATA to eSATA adapters for an expansion card slot, or a SATA controller card with eSATA ports on it, such as this one from SIIG.

Experimenting

Recently I acquired an external RAID enclosure. I’m probably not going to be using it for too long and will replace it with a different one as it doesn’t have all the RAID 1 features I’d like. But the purpose of acquiring the enclosure was to get the hard drives out of my case. I have a full-tower Corsair 750D, and even in full tower cases, hard drive cages affect airflow.

Now many cases have mount points for solid state drives that are completely hidden away – and the 750D is no different. That would only help with airflow, not with cable bulk. Plus SSDs are expensive – to get the kind of storage capacity I currently enjoy through SSDs would cost more than the rest of my computer combined. My wife’s build, Project Absinthe, prompted me to try this. The only thing I don’t like about the build is how the hard drives are mounted. There is better airflow on them compared to the stock hard drive cage that comes with the case, but there’s no doubt they’re a major eyesore.

So the only way to remove the eyesore without breaking the bank is to move everything to an external enclosure. Again this will also help with cable bulk and cable management.

Sure external enclosures can be expensive – especially if you’re going for a RAID cabinet – but it gets an eyesore out of your case while improving airflow. And single-drive enclosures are inexpensive if you’re running only one hard drive. It does leave a void in the case, though, depending on your case and where the hard drive cage is, but if I were running only SSDs, that’d be the situation anyway. In Absinthe, the radiator, pump and reservoir are all in the front section beneath the 5 1/4″ drive bays, and after removing the hard drive cage, I’ll put a fan grill on the exposed fan.

In a build on YouTube by OCTurboJoe called “Neptune 2.0”, he mounted the hard drive in an odd location in his modified case because he couldn’t think of someplace else to mount it and he didn’t want it in view like in his previous build, Neptune. An external enclosure would’ve saved him a bit of a headache on that.

Results

So far I haven’t had any problems with it. As I was migrating an existing system, I needed to image my existing RAID 1 setup before putting the drives in the external enclosure, then write the image back out. It booted without a problem on the first try.

I am also not seeing any performance penalty doing this. I didn’t take any benchmarks, so I cannot say for sure. I’m sure there is probably a small performance penalty, but to me it’s just not noticeable. If you put an enormous amount of emphasis on benchmark numbers, this may not be for you.

One other option as well is to use a pre-packaged external hard drive, but only if there is an eSATA option. This has the potential to be less expensive than buying a hard drive and enclosure separately, but you don’t have control over what hard drive you get, but the performance should still be adequate. I think it’s only if you’re anal about benchmarks, boot times and load times that you might not like that option. Again as attempting to do this through a USB 3.0 device could be problematic, I don’t recommend using that interface.

There are a couple minor downsides to this.

You are removing some cable bulk from inside your case and moving it outside your case. It is one more peripheral to connect to your computer, one more appliance to plug in, so you need to make sure you account for that with regard to your surge suppressor and desk space. If you want to get creative, you can always use 3M VHB tape or high-bond hot glue to stick it to the underside of your desk. It will also use slightly more power than if they were in the case, but it is a negligible difference you won’t notice on your power bill. Make sure to get one that has a fan as well.

In my case, I was able to remove one of the cables from my modular power supply along with several SATA data cables. And not having the hard drives inside the case also improves airflow, which is important for systems with water cooling loops. It can also help maintain positive pressure in your case, which reduces dust, provided your fans are properly configured for that.

Note as well that if you are migrating an existing Windows installation to an external enclosure or external hard drive, you may need to take your system into Safe Mode before it will boot correctly under the “normal” boot option. It may boot clean on the first go, as mine did, but if you encounter problems attempting to boot into it, take Windows into Safe Mode and make sure it boots clean there, then it should boot clean on a normal reboot.

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