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Business Server 2011 : Planning Fault Tolerance and Avoidance - Disk Arrays

7/23/2011 9:11:30 AM
The most common computer hardware malfunction is probably a hard disk failure. Even though hard disks have become more reliable over time, they are still subject to failure, especially during their first month or so of use. They are also vulnerable to both catastrophic and degenerative failures caused by power problems. Fortunately, disk arrays have become the norm for servers, and good fault-tolerant hardware RAID systems are available and supported on SBS. The choice of RAID and the particulars of how you configure your RAID system can significantly affect the cost of your servers. To make an informed choice for your environment and needs, you must understand the tradeoffs and the differences in fault tolerance, speed, configurability, and so on.

1. Hardware vs. Software

RAID can be implemented at the hardware level, using RAID controllers, or at the software level, either by the operating system or by a third-party add-on. SBS supports both hardware RAID and its own software RAID.

Hardware RAID implementations require dedicated controllers and cost somewhat more than an equivalent level of software RAID. However, for that extra price, you get a faster, more flexible, and more fault-tolerant RAID. When compared to the software RAID provided in SBS 2010, a good hardware RAID controller supports more levels of RAID, on-the-fly reconfiguration of the arrays, hot-swap and hot-spare drives , and dedicated caching of both reads and writes.

Software RAID requires that you convert your disks to dynamic disks. We don’t recommend converting your system disk or boot disks, because dynamic disks can be more difficult to access if a problem occurs, and the SBS setup and installation program provides only limited support. For maximum fault tolerance, we recommend using hardware mirroring (RAID-1) on your system drive. Dynamic disks, and the software RAID they support, are also a problem for virtualization and should not be used when you are virtualizing SBS.

2. RAID Levels for Fault Tolerance

Except for level 0, RAID is a mechanism for storing sufficient information on a group of hard disks so that even if one hard disk in the group fails, no information is lost. Some RAID arrangements go even further, providing protection in the event of multiple hard disk failures. The more common levels of RAID and their appropriateness in a fault-tolerant environment are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. RAID levels and their fault tolerance
0N+++- - -Striping alone. Not fault-tolerant—it actually increases your risk of failure—but does provide for the fastest read and write performance.
12N+++Mirror or duplex. Slightly faster read than single disk, but no gain during write operations. Failure of any single disk causes no loss in data and minimal performance hit.
3N+1+++Byte-level parity. Data is striped across multiple drives at the byte level with the parity information written to a single dedicated drive. Reads are much faster than with a single disk, but writes operate slightly slower than a single disk because parity information must be generated and written to a single disk. Failure of any single disk causes no loss of data but can cause a significant loss of performance.
4N+1+++Block-level parity with a dedicated parity disk. Similar to RAID-3 except that data is striped at the block level.
5N+1+++Interleaved block-level parity. Parity information is distributed across all drives. Reads are much faster than a single disk, but writes are significantly slower. Failure of any single disk provides no loss of data but results in a major reduction in performance.
6N+2++++Replicated interleaved block-level parity. Parity information is distributed across all drives, with two parity blocks on separate drives for every stripe. Reads are much faster than a single disk, but writes are significantly slower. Failure of any two disks provides no loss of data but results in a major reduction in performance.
0+1 and 102N+++++Striped mirrored disks or mirrored striped disks. Data is striped across multiple mirrored disks, or multiple striped disks are mirrored. Failure of any one disk causes no data loss and no speed loss. Failure of a second disk could result in data loss. Faster than a single disk for both reads and writes.
OtherVaries++++++Array of RAID arrays. Different hardware vendors have different proprietary names for this RAID concept. Excellent read and write performance. Failure of any one disk results in no loss of performance and continued redundancy.

[1] In the Number of Disks column, N refers to the number of hard disks required to hold the original copy of the data. The plus and minus symbols show relative improvement or deterioration compared to a system using no version of RAID. The scale peaks at three symbols.


RAID is an excellent solution for fault tolerance, but it can’t protect you against corruption caused by hardware or software failures. Only a good backup of data from before the corruption can protect against that.

When choosing the RAID level to use for a given application or server, consider the following factors:

  • Intended use Will this application be primarily read-intensive, such as file serving, or will it be predominantly write-intensive, such as a transactional database? SBS servers are heavily write-intensive, at least on the disks that Microsoft Exchange uses. Virtualization is also highly disk-intensive.

  • Fault tolerance How critical is this data, and how much can you afford to lose?

  • Availability Does this server or application need to be available at all times, or can you afford to reboot it or otherwise take it offline for brief periods?

  • Performance Is this application or server heavily used, with large amounts of data being transferred to and from it, or is this server or application less I/O-intensive? If this is your main SBS server, it’s heavily used.

  • Cost Are you on a tight budget for this server or application, or is the cost of data loss or unavailability the primary driving factor?

You need to evaluate each of these factors when you decide which type of RAID to use for a server or portion of a server. No single answer fits all cases, but the final answer requires you to carefully weigh each of these factors and balance them against your situation and your needs. The following sections take a closer look at each factor and how it weighs in the overall decision-making process.

2.1. Intended Use

The intended use, and the kind of disk access associated with that use, plays an important role in determining the best RAID level for your application. Think about how write-intensive the application is and whether the manner in which the application uses the data is more sequential or random. Is your application a three-square-meals-a-day kind of application, with relatively large chunks of data being read or written at a time, or is it more of a grazer or nibbler, reading and writing little bits of data from all sorts of different places?

If your application is relatively write-intensive, you’ll want to avoid software RAID or RAID-5 and RAID-6 if other considerations don’t require them. With RAID-5 and RAID-6, any application that requires more than 50 percent writes to reads is likely to be at least somewhat slower, if not much slower, than it would be on a single disk or a RAID-1 mirror. You can mitigate this to some extent by using more but smaller drives in your array and by using a hardware controller with a large cache to offload the parity processing as much as possible. RAID-1, in either a mirror or duplex configuration, provides a high degree of fault tolerance with no significant penalty during write operations—a good choice for the system disk.

If your application is primarily read-intensive and the data is stored and referenced sequentially, RAID-3 or RAID-4 might be a good choice. Because the data is striped across many drives, you have parallel access to it, improving your throughput. And because the parity information is stored on a single drive rather than dispersed across the array, sequential read operations don’t have to skip over the parity information and are therefore faster. However, write operations are substantially slower, and the single parity drive can become an I/O bottleneck during write operations.


RAID-3 and RAID-4 have been largely supplanted by other RAID technologies, primarily RAID-5 and RAID-10. In an SBS environment, RAID-3 and RAID-4 are unlikely to be an appropriate choice, and you should consider them only for specialized applications.

If your application is primarily read-intensive and not necessarily sequential, RAID-5 and RAID-6 are obvious choices. They provide a good balance of speed and fault tolerance, and the cost is substantially lower than the cost of RAID-1 or RAID-10. Disk accesses are evenly distributed across multiple drives, and no single drive has the potential to be an I/O bottleneck. However, writes require calculation of the parity information and the extra write of that parity, slowing write operations down significantly. Windows Small Business Server file shares are a good fit for RAID 5 and RAID 6, but avoid them for the volume that holds write-intensive database files.

If your application provides other mechanisms for data recovery or uses large amounts of temporary storage that doesn’t require fault tolerance, a simple RAID-0, with no fault tolerance but fast reads and writes, is a possibility. However, we strongly advise against RAID-0 on an SBS server unless you clearly understand that anything on a RAID-0 array is completely unprotected and is actually more likely to fail than a single disk.

2.2. Fault Tolerance

Carefully examine the fault tolerance of each of the possible RAID choices for your intended use. All RAID levels except RAID-0 provide some degree of fault tolerance, but the effect of a failure and the ability to recover from subsequent failures are different.

If a drive in a RAID-1 mirror or duplex array fails, a full, complete, exact copy of the data remains. Access to your data or application is unimpeded, and performance degradation is minimal, although you do lose the benefit gained on read operations of being able to read from either disk. Until the failed disk is replaced, however, you have no fault tolerance on the remaining disk. Once you replace the failed disk, overall performance is significantly reduced while the new disk is initialized and the mirror is rebuilt. Modern RAID controllers can vary the speed of data reconstruction when replacing a failed disk, allowing you to balance the speed of regeneration against the performance degradation.

In a RAID-3 or RAID-4 array, if one of the data disks fails, a significant performance degradation occurs because the missing data needs to be reconstructed from the parity information. Also, you’ll have no fault tolerance until the failed disk is replaced. If the parity disk fails, you’ll have no fault tolerance until it is replaced, but also no performance degradation. Once you replace the failed disk, overall performance is significantly reduced while the new disk is initialized and the parity information or data is rebuilt.

In a RAID-5 array, the loss of any disk results in a significant performance degradation, and your fault tolerance will be gone until you replace the failed disk. Once you replace the disk, you won’t return to fault tolerance until the entire array has a chance to rebuild itself, and performance is seriously degraded during the rebuild process.

In a RAID-6 array, the loss of any disk results in a significant performance degradation, but you will still be fault tolerant. The failure of a second disk will not cause data loss, but it will leave you with no fault tolerance. Once you replace a failed disk, you won’t return to full fault tolerance until the entire array has a chance to rebuild itself, and performance is seriously degraded during the rebuild process.

If a drive in a RAID 0+1 or RAID-10 array fails, a full, complete, exact copy of the data remains. Access to your data or application is unimpeded, and performance degradation is minimal. Until the failed disk is replaced, however, you have incomplete fault tolerance on the array. A second disk failure, if it occurs on the opposite side of the mirror, will cause data loss. Once you replace the failed disk, overall performance is significantly reduced while the new disk is initialized and the mirror is rebuilt. Modern RAID controllers can vary the speed of data reconstruction when replacing a failed disk, allowing you to balance the speed of regeneration against the performance degradation.

RAID systems that are arrays of arrays can provide for multiple failure tolerance. These arrays provide for multiple levels of redundancy and are appropriate for mission-critical applications that must be able to withstand the failure of more than one drive in an array.

2.3. Availability

All levels of RAID, except RAID-0, provide higher availability than a single drive. However, if availability is expanded to also include the overall performance level during failure mode, some RAID levels provide definite advantages over others. Specifically, RAID-1 and its derivatives, RAID-10 and RAID 0+1, provide enhanced availability when compared to RAID levels 3, 4, 5, and 6 during failure mode. The performance degradation is minimal when compared to a single disk if one half of a mirror fails, whereas a RAID-5 or RAID-6 array has substantially compromised performance until the failed disk is replaced and the array is rebuilt.

In addition, RAID systems that are based on an array of arrays can provide higher availability than RAID levels 1 through 6. Running on multiple controllers, these arrays are able to tolerate the failure of more than one disk and the failure of one of the controllers, providing protection against the single point of failure inherent in any single-controller arrangement. RAID 1 that uses duplexed disks running on different controllers—as opposed to RAID-1 that uses mirroring on the same controller—also provides this additional protection and improved availability.

Hot-swap drives and hot-spare drives can further improve availability in critical environments, especially hot-spare drives. By providing for automatic failover and rebuilding, they can reduce your exposure to catastrophic failure and provide for maximum availability.

2.4. Performance

The relative performance of each RAID level depends on the intended use. The best compromise for many situations is arguably RAID-5 or RAID-6, but you should question the adequacy of that compromise if your application is fairly write-intensive. Especially for relational database data and index files where the database is moderately or highly write-intensive, the performance hit of using RAID-5 or RAID-6 can be substantial. A better alternative is to use RAID 0+1 or RAID-10.

Whatever level of RAID you choose for your particular application, it will benefit from using more small disks rather than a few large disks. The more drives contributing to the stripe of the array, the greater the benefit of parallel reading and writing you’ll be able to realize—and your array’s overall throughput will improve.

2.5. Cost

The delta in cost between RAID configurations is primarily the cost of drives, potentially including the cost of additional array enclosures because more drives are required for a particular level of RAID. RAID-1—either duplexing or mirroring—is the most expensive of the conventional RAID levels because it requires at least 33 percent more raw disk space for a given amount of net storage space than other RAID levels.

Another consideration is that RAID levels that include mirroring or duplexing must use drives in pairs. Therefore, it’s more difficult (and more expensive) to add on to an array if you need additional space on the array. A net 144-gigabyte (GB) RAID 0+1 array, comprising four 72-GB drives, requires four more 72-GB drives to double in size—a somewhat daunting prospect if your array cabinet has bays for only six drives, for example. A net 144-GB RAID-5 array of three 72-GB drives, however, can be doubled in size simply by adding two more 72-GB drives, for a total of five drives.

RAID arrays based on 2.5-inch drives are rapidly replacing traditional 3.5-inch drives. The smaller 2.5-inch drives take up less physical space for the same amount of total storage, while consuming substantially less power and generating less heat. The initial cost of the array is essentially similar to that of an equivalent array using 3.5-inch drives, but the ongoing costs are less. Our current preferred array system uses eight 2.5-inch SAS drives configured as RAID 0+1. The entire array fits in the space of a pair of standard CD/DVD drives.

3. Hot-Swap and Hot-Spare Disk Systems

Hardware RAID systems can provide for both hot-swap and hot-spare capabilities. A hot-swap disk system allows failed hard disks to be removed and a replacement disk to be inserted into the array without powering down the system or rebooting the server. When the new disk is inserted, it is automatically recognized and either will be automatically configured into the array or can be manually configured into it. Additionally, many hot-swap RAID systems allow you to add hard disks into empty slots dynamically and automatically or manually increase the size of the RAID volume on the fly without a reboot.

A hot-spare RAID configuration uses an additional, preconfigured disk or disks to automatically replace a failed disk. These systems can be configured to automatically regenerate the array in the event of a failure, thus maintaining maximal redundancy. When combined with a RAID configuration that can withstand multiple drive failures, such as RAID-6, a hot-spare system provides a very high degree of redundancy and availability.

Even where you don’t have a hot-spare drive already configured into your array, it makes sense to always keep a matching spare drive available in your replacement-parts cabinet. Hard drives aren’t all that expensive, and having a spare will save you time if you have a drive failure in your array. Plus, with drive sizes and technology changing rapidly, it can be annoying to try to find a matching drive two or three years after you buy the original array.

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