Review: Blast off with Cenatek's Rocket Drive

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November 13, 2002 by Mike Chin

The Rocket Drive by Cenatek is an exciting product for anyone seeking high performance computing in a wide variety of applications and platforms. For the silent PC enthusiast, what's really interesting is that this product accelerates system speed without adding any noise. Rocket Drive is a solid state PCI card based on SDRAM that emulates a hard drive.

The makers of Rocket Drive don't really intend it for quiet computing. Cenatek says it is "designed to provide input/output bottleneck improvements in application environments" such as:

  • Databases requiring true random access
  • High-traffic web caching
  • High-speed data acquisition
  • Streaming video services
  • File servers
  • Appliance servers: Web, e-mail
  • Engineering workstations
  • 3D video workstations
  • 2D graphics workstations
  • E-commerce

There's no mention of quieter performance, is there? Regardless, Rocket Drive is fanless and adds little more heat than the memory chips it uses: under 20 watts. Here's what it looks like plugged into a PCI slot on the testing platform:

As you can see, it is a fairly sizable card. The RAM sockets are angled to ensure enough space for a card in the next PCI slot, but it is a very tight fit. You may want to keep the next slot free for some safety margin. Plus, RAM does generate heat, and it may be best to keep that distance to allow for some natural convection air cooling.

Facts from the Rocket Drive specifications sheet:

Access time 0.6µs
I/Os per second 100,000 single sector reads or writes per second, dependent on system overhead and operating system efficiency.
Compliance PCI 2.2 full
Capacity 4 GB
Burst data rate 132 MB/s
Sustained data rate 80 to 100 MB/s
Power <20W
Board voltages +2.5, +3.3, +5 and +12 VDC
Dimensions 9” W x 3.9” H x 7 D
Weight < 1 lb
Operating conditions 0°C - 60°C, 0% - 90% RH
The Rocket Drive is a fully scalable storage device offered in a variety of Synchronous Dynamic Random Access Memory (SDRAM) configurations ranging from 512 MB to 4 GB.
CABLES External power supply A/C power cable.
DISK Installation disk contains O/S Drivers, Installation Notes and Documentation

So to reiterate, it is a PCI board that uses SDRAM to emulates a hard drive. The quickest 15K RPM SCSI hard drives provide random access times of maybe 3-5 milliseconds. Rocket Drive does it in 0.6 microseconds.

SDRAM is volatile, you might be thinking, and you are right. For this reason, Rocket Drive ships with its own dedicated external power supply. Even when the PC is powered down and unplugged from the wall, as long as its power supply is powered and the DC jack from the power supply is plugged into the Rocket Drive, the RAM retains its data. The external power supply is shown below on the test platform:

The combined cable lengths with the power supply in the middle is nearly 12 feet, which provides a lot of flexibility for implementation. In a mission critical setting such as for a web or enterprise file server, the DC jack could be more permanently secured to the Rocket Drive and the power supply plugged into a UPS.

Several versions of the Rocket Drive are available. The two big options are: With SDRAM installed, tested and ready for use or as a bare board without memory -- the latter is called Rocket Drive DL. The 2 GB SDRAM installed and tested version we examined retails for US$2,999 while a bare board is US$399 for one good for up to 512 MB capacity. Note that not all types of SDRAM are recommended; a list of approved memory is provided.

Given the current price of SDRAM and hard drives, their prices admittedly do not look particularly attractive. But compared to other solid state drives, Cenatek's offerings are many times more affordable. Most solid state drives have been high end solutions for enterprise applications that often carry price tags of US$20,000 and higher. (For more information about solid state drives, visit A list of manufacturers is provided.)

A few more facts about Rocket Drive:

Reliability MTBF 1 million hours
Durability Resistant to shock and vibration;operates in environments of up to 136 degrees Fahrenheit.

Microsoft® Windows® 2000, XP and NT 4.0; Red Hat Linux® 7.3; Free BSD®; Solaris® 8/UltraSPARC II

Under Development

MAC® OS X; HP-UX®; AIX®; MS-DOS®; and Microsoft Windows 98, Millennium Edition


As shown in the table above, the Rocket Drive is supported by quite a few operating systems, but not all. This review refers only to installation and use on Windows XP Pro (SP1).

As with most PCI cards, Rocket Drive is simple to install. Unplug the PC from AC, insert card and secure into available slot, plug external power supply into AC and the DC output from the external power supply into the Rocket Drive. Power up the PC. Windows recognizes the new hardware, asks for drivers. Insert provided Win XP driver floppy, follow dialog box instructions. It was all done without any hitches in 5 minutes. As recommended by Cenatek, the Rocket Drive was installed in the slot closest to the CPU, the one right next to the AGP slot. (The photo above was taken earlier.)

AMD XP1600+ test platform (Rocket Drive only used on this system)

  • AMD XP1600+ CPU
  • ABIT KT7A-R motherboard VIA KT133A chipset
  • ATI Radeon 7200 32MB VGA card
  • 256 MB SDRAM PC133 generic, single stick
  • IBM GXP-75 30GHz HDD
  • 10/100 Network card
  • Windows XP Pro SP1

P4-2.8 GHz test platform

  • Intel P4-2.8 GHz CPU
  • Intel D845PEBT2 motherboard
  • Matrox G550 32 MB VGA card
  • 256 MB DDRAM generic, single stick
  • Seagate Barracuda IV 40 GHz HDD (brand new)
  • 10/100 Network built-in to motherboard
  • Windows XP Pro SP1

As seen in the photos, the test platform is on an open test bench, not installed in a case.


Before getting into the nitty gritty of benchmarks and other measurables, just setting Windows XP's virtual memory (cache) and Internet Explorer 6.0's temporary files to the Rocket Drive made the XP1600+ computer seem "twice as fast." Subjectively, everything felt much faster, quicker, more responsive.

On the XP1600+ test platform it was an instantly noticeable difference. It was a big enough difference to make me wonder if the machine now was as fast as a similarly equipped P4-2.8 GHz system which has the benefit of a 533 MHz bus and DDRAM in addition to the 1.4 GHz (!!) clock speed advantage Subjectively, they certainly felt close.

A quick run benchmark test with Sisoftware Sandra showed the throughput of Rocket Drive to be twice as fast the the fastest drive in its database. Results are shown in the table below:

Sisoftware Sandra 2002 Drive Index
Rocket Drive 79.5 MB/s
SCSI U160 15K RPM 18G 40.2 MB/s
IBM 75GXP 30G 22.6 MB/s
Seagate Barracuda IV 40G 24.9 MB/s

That is impressive, and it is virtually the same result obtained using Intel's industry reference input/output benchmark, IOMeter. With transfer block sizes set to a high 512 KB and reads only, IOMeter shows the following:

IOMeter (512 KB block)
Rocket Drive
I/O per second
I/O avg access
227 ms
12 ms

The CPU utilization in both cases was less than 5%, because the processor was not receiving the data fast enough, so it was simply cruising along.

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