Models and options
The standard edition of the ImageMASSter Solo-3 IT comes with cabling for Serial ATA, laptop ATA, and parallel ATA drives, and can copy freely among all three types. There is a SCSI option package for an extra U.S. $1300 that adds all manner of SCSI support -- 50-pin, 68-pin, and 80-pin in all SCSI standards. This includes data and power cables as well as two integrated 68-pin SCSI connectors on the unit itself. Aside from the adapters, cables, and the add-on integrated connectors, the SCSI package and the standard package are physically and electronically the same device.
The Solo-3 IT comes in a soft nylon carrying case, but for an additional $250 you can get the hardpack case, which in addition to being unbelievably durable and rugged, is also much more water-resistant than the soft case. For those who need to use this device in a variety of locations, I definitely suggest buying the hardpack case to better protect the Solo-3 IT in transit.
The Forensic Kit is a specialized edition of the Solo-3 with the hardpack case, the SCSI option, and extra SCSI adapters that will convert SCSI to SATA and SATA to parallel ATA. This edition goes beyond the standard functions and capabilities of the Solo-3 IT, and is designed specifically for forensic data recovery.
Physical and electrical design
The ImageMASSter Solo-3 IT is made of sheet metal, with the data and power connectors firmly anchored to the interior. In other words, it's sturdy and built to last. The LCD screen is of older design -- it reminds me of the early Toshiba laptop monochrome computer LCDs -- but it is backlit, and that's really all it needs to be. It's also a touchscreen display, and comes with a plastic stylus for easier menu navigation. The unit has a flip-top cover that protects the LCD when it's not in use, and doubles as a platform for the source disk when opened and resting on a reasonably flat surface.
The menu system is easy to read and understand, and if that isn't enough, it's fully explained in the included paper documentation. Most sysadmins should be able to use the Solo-3 IT intuitively.
Included with the ImageMASSter Solo-3 IT (with the optional SCSI package) is a huge assortment of data and power cables for almost every variety of modern hard drive imaginable. There are connectors for SCSI 68-pin, 50-pin, and 80-pin; Serial ATA; 80-wire parallel ATA; laptop ATA; and USB 2.0 and FireWire cables to connect to unopened machines. Each data cable and/or adapter (except the SCSI cable, which can be used for two drives) comes in a set of three so that you can hook up one source and two target drives. You can mix and match drive types and sizes without any problem at all -- you can copy from a 40GB laptop hard drive to a 72GB SCSI-3 and/or a 100GB SATA drive.
Aside from the LCD screen, there are four LEDs: one to indicate unit power, and three to indicate drive power. Error conditions are indicated by red lights on the drive LEDs; the same lamps are green when the unit is functioning normally.
Also on the face of the Solo-3 IT is a fingerprint reader, though it is not currently used by the Solo-3 IT software.
The ImageMASSter Solo-3 IT includes a small formfactor bootable CD that runs a customized version of Microsoft Windows. This live CD is intended to access computers that can't be opened; you boot from the CD, and the ImageMASSter software runs from it much like it does on the Solo-3 IT itself. By using the included USB or FireWire cables, you can then connect the computer to the Solo-3 IT and copy data to and from drives connected to it.
Lastly, there is a Cardbus PCMCIA slot in the Solo-3 IT from which you can upgrade the device's firmware, or to which you can save log data. The Solo-3 IT comes with a compact flash (CF) card and a PCMCIA adapter for it; this is where the new firmware or log data is stored. The firmware can also be upgraded through an integrated 9-pin serial port.
The ImageMASSter Solo-3 IT draws about 14w when it is not powering any hard drives, and roughly 10w more for each hard drive connected to it. (The average PC draws anywhere between 80 and 400w; laptop computers are generally in the vicinity of 30w).
Putting it to the test
To test the Solo-3 IT I hooked up every kind of hard drive I could find -- ATA, SATA, SCSI, and some old laptop drives. I was particularly interested in the laptop hard drives because I suspected they contained some interesting data from my distant past. As it turned out, the only thing on them was MS-DOS 6.22 and WordPerfect 5.1, but this is the first time in ten years that I'd been able to access them, so it was worth finding out. In transferring the data, none of the file attributes on either drive were changed, so as far as the source drive was concerned, the last time the drive was written to was sometime in 1996 when the computer the source drive came out of was last used.
The data transfer rate maxed out at 2.5GB/min for the SATA drives (and only a few hundred MB/min for the old laptop drives), and that's the fastest I saw the Solo-3 IT go, though I'm sure it would go up to 4GB/min if I had two high-end SCSI drives to test with. Still, 2.5GB/min is pretty fast -- it took just over an hour to duplicate a 160GB Seagate SATA-V onto two identical drives using the sector-by-sector copy option. If the IQCopy option supported the Linux and FreeBSD partitions on the source drive, I could have used that mode instead and saved a considerable amount of time. Whether you're transferring data to one or two drives has no bearing on the amount of time the process takes.
|The ImageMASSter Solo-3 IT: hard drive duplication made easy|
Using the MultiMASSter copy mode it's possible to put up to 24 FAT or NTFS partitions from multiple source drives onto a single target drive; obviously there has to be enough space on the target drive to accommodate all of the data images, and Linux, Solaris, BSD, and OS X partitions or slices are not supported. Non-Windows users can certainly duplicate a hard drive regardless of the partition or slice types. According to an ICS representative, Linux and other partition types will be supported in a near-future firmware update.
You can also copy a smaller hard drive's data onto a larger drive using sector-by-sector mode, but the larger drive will be partitioned identically to the smaller one, so the remaining space will be left unpartitioned. IQCopy can scale up NTFS and FAT partitions to encompass the entirety of a larger target drive. In any mode, if bad sectors are detected, they are written to the target drive as zeroes so that the partition remains identical to the source drive.
Copying from a larger hard drive to a smaller one will result in a truncated partition unless you're dealing with FAT or NTFS partitions and use IQCopy mode, as mentioned above (though in this case the target partition will scale down to fit the smaller drive). If your disk has other partition types, some of the data will be transferred to the smaller drive, and some will not. This happens regardless of how much actual data is on the source drive because most partition types do not store files sequentially from the "beginning" of the partition to the "end."
The Solo-3 IT copy modes are: IQCopy, which can transfer files from one FAT or NTFS partition to another regardless of drive size incongruency; sector-by-sector (% of disk), which copies everything verbatim; block copy, which allows you to select a range of sectors to transfer; and MultiMASSter Creator and MMCreator %, which allow copying multiple FAT or NTFS partition images to a single drive. Optionally you can verify the copied data with an MD5 or CRC32 hash.
In addition to copying, the ImageMASSter Solo-3 IT can also erase drives in two modes: WipeOut Fast and WipeOut DoD. The former erases the drive; the latter conforms to U.S. Department of Defense specifications for erasing a hard drive: three passes of two write operations are made, filling the drives with ones, then with zeroes. A seventh iteration then writes a government-specified code to the entire drive surface, then an eighth pass performs a read-verify review.
I had some trouble with the remote USB connection options. I hooked up a drive to the source port of the Solo-3 IT, and then connected the USB cable and turned on both the computer and the Solo-3 IT. I could easily access the data on the Solo-3 IT's source drive from GNU/Linux. Windows XP, however, could not find a driver for the Solo-3 and refused to connect to it. If I booted my test machines from the included LinkMASSter CD, I could not access the remote or the local drive on a Lenovo ThinkPad T60p. Hopping over to a desktop computer based on an Asus A8N-E motherboard, the LinkMASSter software would see the local drive, but not the remote drive hooked up to the Solo-3 IT. After working with a very responsive and responsible tech support representative, the determination was that the correct Windows XP drivers for my test equipment were not yet implemented in the LinkMASSter live CD. The ICS support technician told me that updated drivers would be included in the next build of the software, which was expected to be available around the beginning of November 2006.
Both the source and the target drives remain unpowered until they are actually being used; since this requires screen input from the user, it's not something that can happen by accident. Since the drives are not powered unless they're in use, you can connect and disconnect them without having to reset or shut off the Solo-3 IT. These precautions prevent you from accidentally writing or damaging the drive under most conditions. Obviously if you mishandle any of the drives while they are powered on, there is a risk of data loss.
I copied several hard drives that had GNU/Linux, FreeBSD, and Windows XP partitions on them, and the boot loaders all remained intact and working. File permissions were also unaffected. Once duplicated, there was no way to tell the difference between the two drives.
These days I'm more of an armchair sysadmin, but I used to manage a small business network, and for several years I made my living as a computer technician. Were I to get back into either of those professions, the ImageMASSter Solo-3 IT would be among the tools that I would want on my bench. Beyond fixing and maintaining computers, the Solo-3 IT would also be a huge asset for workstation deployment. Instead of spending hours or days developing a network install procedure or installing and configuring the software on each machine, you could simply perform one standard installation and then duplicate it onto the hard drives of the other workstations at a rate of about four per hour. If a hard drive fails in the future, a saved duplicated backup could get the machine back online more quickly than any other remedy.
The IQCopy feature is really amazing in what it can do -- scaling partitions, locating data even on large fragmented partitions, and in general saving a lot of time that would otherwise be spent copying empty space from drive to drive. The only disappointment is the lack of partition type support, though that should be changing before the end of the year, according to ICS.
You can't hide the price of this machine; $2000 is steep for small businesses and self-employed computer technicians. For the IT manager or sysadmin who has the budget, though, the ImageMASSter Solo-3 IT is a must-have.
|Device||Hard drive duplicator|
|Manufacturer||Intelligent Computer Solutions|
|Device support||Parallel and Serial ATA, laptop ATA. SCSI drives of all kinds are supported through an add-on package.|
|Market||System administrators, IT managers, computer repair technicians|
|Price (retail)||U.S. ~$2000. The SCSI package is an additional $1300.|
|Product Web site||Click here|