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What is RAID? Why would I ever use it?


Originally from http://linas.org/linux/Software-RAID/Software-RAID.html

RAID is a way of combining multiple disk drives into a single entity to improve performance and/or reliability. There are a variety of different types and implementations of RAID, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, by putting a copy of the same data on two disks (called disk mirroring, or RAID level 1), read performance can be improved by reading alternately from each disk in the mirror. On average, each disk is less busy, as it is handling only 1/2 the reads (for two disks), or 1/3 (for three disks), etc. In addition, a mirror can improve reliability: if one disk fails, the other disk(s) have a copy of the data. Different ways of combining the disks into one, referred to as RAID levels, can provide greater storage efficiency than simple mirroring, or can alter latency (access-time) performance, or throughput (transfer rate) performance, for reading or writing, while still retaining redundancy that is useful for guarding against failures.

Although RAID can protect against disk failure, it does not protect against operator and administrator (human) error, or against loss due to programming bugs (possibly due to bugs in the RAID software itself). The net abounds with tragic tales of system administrators who have bungled a RAID installation, and have lost all of their data. RAID is not a substitute for frequent, regularly scheduled backup.

RAID can be implemented in hardware, in the form of special disk controllers, or in software, as a kernel module that is layered in between the low-level disk driver, and the file system which sits above it. RAID hardware is always a "disk controller", that is, a device to which one can cable up the disk drives. Usually it comes in the form of an adapter card that will plug into a ISA/EISA/PCI/S-Bus/MicroChannel slot. However, some RAID controllers are in the form of a box that connects into the cable in between the usual system disk controller, and the disk drives. Small ones may fit into a drive bay; large ones may be built into a storage cabinet with its own drive bays and power supply. The latest RAID hardware used with the latest & fastest CPU will usually provide the best overall performance, although at a significant price. This is because most RAID controllers come with on-board DSP's and memory cache that can off-load a considerable amount of processing from the main CPU, as well as allow high transfer rates into the large controller cache. Old RAID hardware can act as a "de-accelerator" when used with newer CPU's: yesterday's fancy DSP and cache can act as a bottleneck, and it's performance is often beaten by pure-software RAID and new but otherwise plain, run-of-the-mill disk controllers. RAID hardware can offer an advantage over pure-software RAID, if it can makes use of disk-spindle synchronization and its knowledge of the disk-platter position with regard to the disk head, and the desired disk-block. However, most modern (low-cost) disk drives do not offer this information and level of control anyway, and thus, most RAID hardware does not take advantage of it. RAID hardware is usually not compatible across different brands, makes and models: if a RAID controller fails, it must be replaced by another controller of the same type. As of this writing (June 1998), a broad variety of hardware controllers will operate under Linux; however, none of them currently come with configuration and management utilities that run under Linux.

Software-RAID is a set of kernel modules, together with management utilities that implement RAID purely in software, and require no extraordinary hardware. The Linux RAID subsystem is implemented as a layer in the kernel that sits above the low-level disk drivers (for IDE, SCSI and Paraport drives), and the block-device interface. The filesystem, be it ext2fs, DOS-FAT, or other, sits above the block-device interface. Software-RAID, by its very software nature, tends to be more flexible than a hardware solution. The downside is that it of course requires more CPU cycles and power to run well than a comparable hardware system. Of course, the cost can't be beat. Software RAID has one further important distinguishing feature: it operates on a partition-by-partition basis, where a number of individual disk partitions are ganged together to create a RAID partition. This is in contrast to most hardware RAID solutions, which gang together entire disk drives into an array. With hardware, the fact that there is a RAID array is transparent to the operating system, which tends to simplify management. With software, there are far more configuration options and choices, tending to complicate matters.

As of this writing (June 1998), the administration of RAID under Linux is far from trivial, and is best attempted by experienced system administrators. The theory of operation is complex. The system tools require modification to startup scripts. And recovery from disk failure is non-trivial, and prone to human error. RAID is not for the novice, and any benefits it may bring to reliability and performance can be easily outweighed by the extra complexity. Indeed, modern disk drives are incredibly reliable and modern CPU's and controllers are quite powerful. You might more easily obtain the desired reliability and performance levels by purchasing higher-quality and/or faster hardware.



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