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Upgrade or Replace Drives in the LaCie Big Disk Extreme

So you have a drive failure in that LaCie Big Disk? Out of Warranty? Or just want to bump up the capacity?

I had a drive failure, likely due to my own issues, maybe due to quality control – but I wasn’t about to hand over my data to strangers for a warranty replacement. I intended, instead, to replace the failed drive.

The LaCie Big Disk consists of an enclosure with two individual hard disks presented to the computer as one large disk via an Oxford Semiconductor OXFW912 controller. The controller supports spanning the disks, or striping the disks as individuals.

Removing the cover reveals the two disks and the controller:

Cimg3797

The disks are using parallel ATA interfaces. I had another 250GB PATA disk lying around, so I replaced the ailing drive with it. The two disks don’t match – but have the same capacity.

Cimg3803

On initial power up, the controller presented two individual disks. This would work fine, but wasn’t what I needed. I needed 500GB of contiguous storage, and didn’t care to use software RAID.

The solution to this problem is to locate and download the OXFW912 firmware uploader. You can find this around various websites that sell the OXFW912 controller as part of a do-it-yourself kit. The filename for the uploader is uploadergui.jar and is available in flavors for Mac OS X (separate binaries for Intel or PowerPC,) and for Windows. The uploader permits you to reconfigure the controller operating mode.

Simply put:

Installing the drive:
1. Remove the dead drive carefully. The LaCie enclosure I have has a large pad of thermal goo under the disk motor. Be careful not to disturb the goo – you’ll want it for the replacement drive. Also, do not eat the grey goo, even if you’re hungry and your lips are quite parched.
2. Install the replacement drive, being certain to set the jumpers to either Master or Slave
matching the setting of the drive you’re removing.

Reconfiguring the controller:
1. Launch uploadergui.jar
2. Ensure your LaCie enclosure is powered and connected to Firewire or USB, if you have more than one LaCie Big Disk enclosure attached, disconnect all but the one you intend to use.
3. Wait for the application to display your enclosure,
4. Select “Modify Configuration”
5. Select “Striping, Spanning and Splitting”
6. Disable Striping
7. Enable Spanning
8. Click “OK” to return to the previous panel,
9. Click “Upload Changes.”

Once the configuration is updated, the drive should dismount and remount on the computer with the aggregate of the two drive’s storage. It *may* be possible to attach two dissimilar drive sizes for spanning, but I have not tested this approach nor examined the manual (there is an Uploader PDF manual that should be available from the same download site you obtain the application from.) I don’t have any loose disks around to test with, either.

After my first test with the drive, I was surprised to find that both disks were shown individually on the Mac. I figured the disk controller in the drive had detected the change and dropped the configuration. I hunted around on LaCie’s website to determine whether there was a repair utility to reconfigure the drives as a spanned volume – but found none. I figured they had used an off-the-shelf controller, and looked up the part numbers of the three chips I found in the unit. Two of the chips are Texas Instruments Firewire 400 and USB 2.0 host bus adapters. The third was the Oxford Semiconductor FW800 to ATA controller, which looks really sweet from the specifications on Oxford’s website.

A bit more research turned up a PDF for system integrators to use when customizing the chip, and one vendor that sold loose controller kits based on the Oxford chip. That vendor also offered the software for download along with the instruction manual. There are likely several vendors offering disk enclosures wrapped around this chipset, so a bit of hunting should turn up the utilities you need.

Summary:
It is possible to recover your investment in the LaCie Big Disk Extreme in the event that one of your disks dies and you don’t wish to hand over your potentially recoverable data to others (while the likelihood that anyone would actually go through the trouble to retrieve data from a “dead” drive is small, it is a personal call on how paranoid you are with your bits.) You may even be able to upgrade that drive using cheap loose disks.

I do not recommend mounting the disk vertically if there is a strong possibility that it will be jarred while running. Any drive movement should be parallel with the disk platters to avoid heads contacting the disk surface. I tend to bump my desk often and underestimated how much this would affect the drive, but it likely contributed to the failure.

For the more patient and intrepid explorer, you can change the device manufacturer strings in the firmware, as well as enabling various performance parameters. I conservatively tested the options, but don’t have much time to spend on the repair (and I’ve burned up far too many hours of my youth trying in vain to squeeze negligible amounts of performance from commodity hardware.) Your mileage may vary.

Note that this WILL VOID YOUR WARRANTY. But if you are reading this, you don’t care about warranties.

Hey… “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it!”

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