Don’t use cheap PCIe SATA expansion cards with Unraid (get a cheap HBA instead)

I don’t recommend using cheap PCIe SATA expansion cards with Unraid. A cheap HBA will give you everything you need without any issues.

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When looking for possibilities on how to increase the number of available SATA ports in your Unraid server, you might come across cheap PCIe SATA expansion cards from the likes of Highpoint or Addonics. Stop right there, don’t do it. Most PCIe SATA expansion cards are as cheap as they are for good reason. They’re just not good and will cause you more trouble than it’s worth. A cheap second-hand HBA is what you want.

In every Unraid server admins life, there comes the time when the storage of the server, built with off-the-shelf desktop computer components, has to be increased. You might then come to the realization that your motherboard has too few SATA ports. As most mid-range to high-end motherboards for both AMD and Intel CPUs have four to eight SATA ports onboard, the limit of what is possible will be reached sooner rather than later. But what if you want to fill your brand new Meshify 2 XL with 18 hard drives?

Table of Contents

How PCIe SATA expansion cards work

You will find PCIe SATA expansion cards listed under different names, such as PCIe SATA controllers or PCIe SATA HBAs (Host Bus Adapters). The latter is not to be confused with a SAS HBA, which I will cover in just a minute. Technically, PCIe SATA HBA would be the correct description, but as I intend for this article to be useful for beginners, I will be sticking to PCIe SATA expansion cards, to avoid any confusion.

PCIe SATA expansion cards add an extra SATA controller to your Unraid server via a PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) or PCI Express card (PCIe). They do not, and will never, interact with your motherboard’s SATA controller as they have theirs included on the card. Your motherboard will generally include the SATA controller as part of the chipset. For example, AMD’s current high-end X570 chipset is capable of providing up to 14 SATA 6Gbps ports.

The I/O of an X570 motherboard showing that it is capable of providing 14 SATA ports.
The I/O of an X570 motherboard

You will also find a few PCIe SATA expansion cards, which claim to be capable of RAID, but as you’re using Unraid, there is no need for that feature. You should definitely stay away from those cards. In layman’s terms, PCIe SATA expansion cards will turn any PCIe slot into additional SATA ports.

Issues with cheap Marvell controllers

Marvell is a manufacturer of controllers for PCIe SATA expansion cards. They are used on certain PCIe SATA expansion cards from Highpoint, Addonics, Rosewill, and SYBA, and are known to cause many issues when used with Unraid. Unraid isn’t the cause of the issue, but by the buggy firmware running on many Marvell controllers. Certain cards have been reported to stop Unraid from booting, and others cause connected drives to be unable to communicate when enabling certain virtualization features in the BIOS.

On a positive note, If you have been using a PCIe SATA expansion card with a buggy Marvell controller, it most likely won’t have caused any data loss or corruption. What you might have experienced are drives dropping offline and parity check errors. Those would almost certainly be caused by the buggy Marvell controller on the card.

SATA port multipliers on AsMedia based cards

If you’re looking to only add two SATA ports to your Unraid NAS, a two-port PCIe SATA expansion card with an AsMedia controller should be fine. But go with a SATA expansion card with more ports than that, and you might encounter major issues. But why go with just two extra SATA ports, when you could get many more from a cheap HBA?

AsMedia based cards with more than two SATA ports typically use a SATA port multiplier. What that does, is split up a single SATA port for multiple drives. You can expect problems in Unraid and also massively decreased read and write speeds.

With AsMedia and Marvell controllers not suitable for Unraid servers, there aren’t many fully working options for PCIe SATA controllers. That is, of course, unless you completely avoid any PCIe SATA controllers and opt for something else. Something potentially cheaper. Something much more suited to Unraid.

What you should go with instead: A cheap SAS HBA

A so-called Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) Host Bus Adapter (HBA) will give you everything you need without any of the issues described above. Instead of SATA ports, these cards have SAS ports, to which you can either connect a super-fast SAS hard drive or four SATA drives per port. So, a SAS HBA with only two SAS ports will allow you to hook up to eight SATA hard drives. And all will perform without any performance limitations caused by the controller.

A cheap HBA from LSI that is compatible with Unraid
An HBA from LSI

What you want to look for is a SAS HBA with an SAS2008 chipset. While there is also a faster SAS3008 chipset, you most likely won’t make use of the added speed in your Unraid server. Certain cards will work out of the box, such as the LSI SAS 9300-8i HBA (SAS3008) and LSI SAS 9201-8i HBA (SAS2008). Other cards will have to be flashed with an alternative firmware to enable IT-mode. That way, the hard drives connected to the card will appear in Unraid as individual disks and the hardware RAID that an HBA supports, will be completely disabled.

0hv52w Dell 0hv52w Perc H310 6g Sas Sata Pcie Raid Controller
SAS9211-8I 8PORT Int 6GB Sata+SAS Pcie 2.0
LSI Logic Controller Card 05-25703-00 9305-16i 16-Port SAS 12Gb/s PCI-Express 3.0 Host Bus Adapter Single Pack
Title
Dell PERC H310
LSI SAS 9211-8i
LSI SAS 9305-24i
Processor
SAS2008
SAS2008
SAS3224
Connector type
36 pin 4i Mini MultiLane SAS (SFF-8087)
36 pin 4i Mini MultiLane SAS (SFF-8087)
Mini SAS (SFF-8643)
SATA ports
8
8
24
Host bus
PCIe 2.0 x8
PCIe 2.0 x8
PCIe3.0 x8
Price
$76.00
$145.00
$715.00
-
-
-
0hv52w Dell 0hv52w Perc H310 6g Sas Sata Pcie Raid Controller
Title
Dell PERC H310
Processor
SAS2008
Connector type
36 pin 4i Mini MultiLane SAS (SFF-8087)
SATA ports
8
Host bus
PCIe 2.0 x8
Price
$76.00
-
SAS9211-8I 8PORT Int 6GB Sata+SAS Pcie 2.0
Title
LSI SAS 9211-8i
Processor
SAS2008
Connector type
36 pin 4i Mini MultiLane SAS (SFF-8087)
SATA ports
8
Host bus
PCIe 2.0 x8
Price
$145.00
-
LSI Logic Controller Card 05-25703-00 9305-16i 16-Port SAS 12Gb/s PCI-Express 3.0 Host Bus Adapter Single Pack
Title
LSI SAS 9305-24i
Processor
SAS3224
Connector type
Mini SAS (SFF-8643)
SATA ports
24
Host bus
PCIe3.0 x8
Notes
-
Price
$715.00
-

Get a cheap HBA second hand

Although I have provided links to certain SAS HBAs above, the cheapest way of adding a decent SAS HBA to your Unraid system is by scouring the second-hand market. You will find loads of cards that were previously used in data centres for sale. Especially those using the older SAS2008 cheap chipset make frequent appearances. That is why I use a second-hand Dell PERC H310 in my personal Unraid NAS and have done so for many years without a single issue. Just because a cheap HBA is too old for a data centre, doesn’t mean it can’t do a solid job in an Unraid home server.

A red SAS breakout cable
A blue and sleeved SAS breakout cable

If your card doesn’t ship with any, you will also need to grab a couple of SATA breakout/splitter cable to be able to connect SATA hard drives to the SAS ports. There are different types of SAS connectors, so make sure you pick the right cable! For further reading, there is a full list of compatible and tested products in the Unraid wiki, and you will find reports on just about every SAS HBA in the forums.

Internal HD Mini SAS Cable 0.5M / 1.6FT, CableCreation Internal HD Mini SAS (SFF-8643 Host) - 4X SATA (Target) Cable, SFF-8643 to 4X SATA Cable, SFF-8643 for Controller, 4 Sata Connect to Hard Drive
Cable Matters Internal Mini SAS HD to SATA Cable 3.3 Feet, 1m (SFF-8643 to SATA Forward Breakout)
CableCreation Mini SAS 36Pin (SFF-8087) Male to 4 SATA 7Pin Female Cable, Mini SAS Host/Controller to 4 SATA Target/Backplane, 0.5M / 1.6FT
LiNKFOR 1.6ft Mini SAS to 4 SATA Cable SAS Breakout Cable Mini SAS Male SFF-8087 to 4 SATA Female Cable Multi-Lane Mini SAS Host Internal Cable to Target HDD Hard Drive Splitter Cable
Product
CableCreation Internal HD Mini SAS
Cable Matters Internal Mini SAS
CableCreation Internal HD Mini SAS
LiNKFOR SAS Breakout Cable
Connectors
SFF-8643 to 4 × SATA
SFF-8643 to 4 × SATA
SFF-8087 to 4 × SATA
SFF-8087 to 4 × SATA
Length
50 cm (1.6 ft)
1 m (3.3 ft)
50 cm (1.6 ft)
50 cm (1.6 ft)
Cable
Sleeved
Sleeved
Sleeved
-
Prime Status
-
$16.59
$19.49
$9.79
Price not available
Internal HD Mini SAS Cable 0.5M / 1.6FT, CableCreation Internal HD Mini SAS (SFF-8643 Host) - 4X SATA (Target) Cable, SFF-8643 to 4X SATA Cable, SFF-8643 for Controller, 4 Sata Connect to Hard Drive
Product
CableCreation Internal HD Mini SAS
Connectors
SFF-8643 to 4 × SATA
Length
50 cm (1.6 ft)
Cable
Sleeved
Prime Status
$16.59
Cable Matters Internal Mini SAS HD to SATA Cable 3.3 Feet, 1m (SFF-8643 to SATA Forward Breakout)
Product
Cable Matters Internal Mini SAS
Connectors
SFF-8643 to 4 × SATA
Length
1 m (3.3 ft)
Cable
Sleeved
Prime Status
$19.49
CableCreation Mini SAS 36Pin (SFF-8087) Male to 4 SATA 7Pin Female Cable, Mini SAS Host/Controller to 4 SATA Target/Backplane, 0.5M / 1.6FT
Product
CableCreation Internal HD Mini SAS
Connectors
SFF-8087 to 4 × SATA
Length
50 cm (1.6 ft)
Cable
Sleeved
Prime Status
$9.79
LiNKFOR 1.6ft Mini SAS to 4 SATA Cable SAS Breakout Cable Mini SAS Male SFF-8087 to 4 SATA Female Cable Multi-Lane Mini SAS Host Internal Cable to Target HDD Hard Drive Splitter Cable
Product
LiNKFOR SAS Breakout Cable
Connectors
SFF-8087 to 4 × SATA
Length
50 cm (1.6 ft)
Cable
-
Prime Status
-
Price not available

About Liam Alexander Colman

I first heard of Unraid through the same medium as many of us did: The Linus Tech Tips channel on YouTube. At the time, I was running TrueNAS (or FreeNAS as it was called back then) on my DIY NAS built using a dual-core Intel Pentium G4400 at its heart. I was convinced, I had chosen the better operating system. After all, it was free and open-source and had a large community behind it. One day, after once again facing the need to buy another three hard drives, I seriously started researching Unraid and its features. I bit the bullet and gave it a go, transferring my data on to external hard drives that I later shucked and added to the Unraid array. Since that day, I have not looked back once, and I am now an enthusiastic and experienced user of Unraid. You can find out more about Unraid Guides right here.

2 thoughts on “Don’t use cheap PCIe SATA expansion cards with Unraid (get a cheap HBA instead)”

  1. Hi, I am building a UNRAID 8 drive NAS with Silverstone CS380B Mid Tower case. I don’t quite know what controller card and MB I should buy for my project. In you case, what MB and how much ecc memory did you use with your Dell PERC H310 controller ? My NAS will be backing up data off of 6 computers. Thanks for any help.

    Reply
    • Hi there. That’s a nice-looking case! It’s difficult to make a recommendation. I have 32 GB of RAM with Plex and about 20 other Docker containers running and I never max it out. I don’t use ECC as my motherboard doesn’t support it but depending on how important your work is, you might want it (I say if you can afford it, go for it). Motherboard again depends on your use. I use a standard off-the-shelf desktop motherboard because my Unraid rig serves mainly as a media server. If you want ECC you will have to make sure the CPU and motherboard support it.

      Reply

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