Fundamentals of Storage Systems – RAID, An Introduction

In previous articles, we have covered the system bus, host bus adapters, and disk drives. Now we will move up the food chain at take a look at getting several disks to operate as one.

In 1988 David A. Patterson, Garth Gibson, and Randy H. Katz authored a seminal paper, A Case for Redundant Arrays of Inexpensive Disks (RAID). The main concept was to use off the shelf commodity hardware to provide better performance and reliability and a much lower price point than the current generation of storage. Even in 1988, we already knew that CPUs and memory were outpacing disk drives. To try to solve these issues Dr. Patterson and his team laid out the fundamentals of our modern RAID structures almost completely RAID levels 1 through 5 all directly come from this paper. There have been improvements in the error checking but the principals are the same. In 1993, Dr. Patterson along with his team released a paper covering RAID 6.

RAID Level Disk Required Usable
RAID 0 2 N 325px-RAID_0.svg
RAID 0 is striping without parity. Technically, not a Redundant array of disks just an array of disks but lumped in since it uses some of the same technical aspects. Other hybrid raid solutions utilize RAID 0 to join other RAID arrays together. Each disk in the array holds data and no parity information. Without having to calculate parity, there are no penalties on reads or writes. This is the fastest of all the RAID configurations. It is also the most dangerous. One drive failure means you lose all your data. I don’t recommend using RAID 0 unless you are 100% sure losing all your data is completely OK.
RAID 1 2 N/2 325px-RAID_1.svg
RAID 1 is mirroring two disks. RAID 1 writes and reads to both disks simultaneously. You can lose one disk and still operate. Some controllers allow you to read data from both disks; others return only data from the disk that delivers it first. Since there are no parity calculations, it is generally the easiest RAID level to implement. Duplexing is another form of RAID 1 where each disk has its own controller.
RAID 5 3 N-1 675px-RAID_5.svg
RAID 5 is a striped array with distributed parity. This is similar to RAID 0 in that all data is striped across all available disks. Where it differs is one stripe holds parity information. If a drive fails, the data contained on that drive is recreated on the fly using the parity data from the other drives. More than one disk failure equals total data loss. The more drives you have in a RAID 5 array the greater the risk of having a second disk failure during the rebuild process from the first disk failure. The general recommendation at this time is 8 drives or less. In general, the larger the drive the fewer of them you should have in a RAID 5 configuration due to the rebuild time and the likely hood of a second drive failure.
RAID 6 4 N-2 800px-RAID_6.svg
RAID 6 is a striped array with dual distributed parity. Like RAID 5 it is a distributed block system with two parity stripes instead of one. This allows you to sustain a loss of two drives dramatically reducing the risk of a total stripe failure during a rebuild operation. Also known as, P+Q redundancy using Reed-Solomon isn’t practical to implement in software due to the math intensive calculations that have to take place to write parity data to two different stripes. The current recommendation is to use 8 drives or more.
RAID 10 4 N/2 180px-RAID_10
RAID 10 is a hybrid or nested striping scheme combining RAID 1 mirrors with a RAID 0 stripe. This is for high performing and fault tolerant systems. Like RAID 1, you lose half your available space. You could lose N/2 drives and still have a functioning array. Duplexing each mirror between two drive chassis is common. You could lose a drive chassis and still function. The absence of parity means write speeds are high. Along with excellent redundancy, this is probably the best option for speed and redundancy.
RAID 0+1 4 N/2 180px-RAID_0 1
RAID 0 + 1 is not interchangeable with RAID 10. There is one huge difference and that is reliability. You can lose only one drive and have a functioning array. With the more drives in a single RAID 0 stripe the greater the chance you take. Speed characteristics are identical to RAID 10. I have never implemented RAID 0 + 1 when RAID 10 was available.
RAID 50 6 (N-1)*R 320px-RAID_50
Since RAID 5 becomes more susceptible to failure with more drives in the array keeping the RAID 5 stripe small, usually under 8 drives and then striping them with RAID 0 increases the reliability while allowing you to expand capacity. You will lose a drive per RAID 5 stripe but that is a lot less than loosing half of them in a RAID 10. Before RAID 6, this was used to get higher reliability in very large arrays of disks.
RAID 60 8 (N-2)*R 400px-RAID_60
RAID 60 is the exact same concept as RAID 50. Generally, a RAID 6 array is much less susceptible to an array failure during a rebuild of a failed drive due to the nature of the dual striping that it uses. It still is not bullet proof though the RAID 6 array sizes can be much larger before hitting the probability of a dual drive failure and then a failure during rebuild than RAID 5. I do not see many RAID 60 configurations outside of SAN internal striping schemes. You do lose twice as many drives worth of capacity as you do in a RAID 50 array.
RAID 100 8 N/2 320px-RAID_100
RAID 100 is RAID 10 with and additional RAID 0 stripe. Bridging multiple drive enclosures is the most common use of RAID 10. It also reduces the number of logical drives you have to maintain at the OS level.

Speed, Fault Tolerance, or Capacity?

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. In the past, it was hard to justify the cost of RAID 10 unless you really needed speed and fault tolerance. RAID 5 was the default because in most situations it was good enough. Offering near raid 0 read speeds. If you had a heavy write workload, you took a penalty due to the parity stripe. RAID 6 suffers from this even more so with two parity stripes to deal with. Today, with the cost of drives coming down and the capacity going up RAID 10 should be the default configuration for everything.

Here is a breakdown of how each RAID level handles reads and writes in order of performance.

RAID Level Write Operations Notes Read Operations Notes
RAID 0 1 operation High throughput, low CPU utilization.
No data protection
1 operation High throughput, low CPU utilization.
RAID 1 2 IOP’s Only as fast as a single drive. 1 IOP Two read schemes available. Read data from both drives, or data from the drive that returns it first. One is higher throughput the other is faster seek times.
RAID 5 4 IOP’s Read-Modify-Write requires two reads and two writes per write request. Lower throughput higher CPU if the HBA doesn’t have a dedicated IO processor. 1 IOP High throughput low CPU utilization normally, in a failed state performance falls dramatically due to parity calculation and any rebuild operations that are going on.
RAID 6 6 IOP’s Read-Modify-Write requires three reads and three writes per write request. Do not use a software implementation if it is available. 1 IOP High throughput low CPU utilization normally, in a failed state performance falls dramatically due to parity calculation and any rebuild operations that are going on.

Choosing your RAID level

This is not as easy as it should be. Between budgets, different storage types, and your requirements, any of the RAID levels could meet your needs. Let us work of off some base assumptions. Reliability is necessary, that rules out RAID 0 and probably RAID 0+1. Is the workload read or write intensive? A good rule of thumb is more than 10% reads go RAID 10. In addition, if write latency is a factor RAID 10 is the best choice. For read workloads, RAID 5 or RAID 6 will probably meet your needs just fine. One of the other things to take into consideration if you need lots of space RAID 5 or RAID 6 may meet your IO needs just through sheer number of disks. Take the number of disks divide by 4 for RAID 5 or 6 for RAID 6 then do your per disk IO calculations you may find that they do meet your IO requirements.

Separate IO types!

The type of IO, random or sequential, greatly affects your throughput. SQL Server has some fairly well documented IO information. One of the big ones folks overlook is keeping their log separate from their data files. I am not talking about all logs on one drive and all data on another, which buys you nothing. If you are going to do that you might as well put them all on one large volume and use every disk available. You are guaranteeing that all IO’s will be random. If you want to avoid this, you must separate your log files from data files AND each other! If the log file of a busy database is sharing with other log files, you reduce its IO throughput 3 fold and its data through put 10 to 20 fold.

RAID Reliability and Failures

Correlated Disk Failures

Disks from the same batch can suffer similar fate. Correlated disk failures can be due to a manufacturing defect that can affect a large number of drives. It can be very difficult to get a vendor to give you disks from different batches. Your best bet is to hedge against that and plan to structure your RAID arrays accordingly.

Error rates and Mean Time Between Failures

As hard disks get larger the chance for an uncorrectable and undetected read or write failure. On a desktop drive, that rate is 10^14 bits read there will be an unrecoverable error. A good example is an array with the latest two-terabyte SATA drives would hit this error on just one full pass of a 6 drive RAID 5 array. When this happens, it will trigger a rebuild event. The probability of hitting another failure during the rebuild is extremely high. Bianca Schroeder and Garth A. Gibson of Carnegie Mellon University have written an excellent paper on the subject. Read it, it will keep you up at night worrying about your current arrays. Enterprise class drives are supposed to protect against this. No study so far proves that out. That does not mean I am swapping out my SAS for SATA. Performance is still king. They do boast a much better error rate 10^16 or 100 times better. Is this number accurate or not is another question all together. Google also did a study on disk failure rates, Failure Trends in a Large Disk Drive Population. Google also found correlated disk failures among other things. This is necessary read as well. Eventually, RAID 5 just will not be an option, and RAID 6 will be where RAID 5 is today.

What RAID Does Not Do

RAID Doesn’t back your data up. You heard me. It is not a replacement for a real backup system. Write errors do occur.As database people we are aware of atomic operations, the concept of an all or nothing operation, and recovering from a failed transaction. People assume the file system and disk is also atomic, it isn’t. NTFS does have a transaction system now TxF I doubt SQL Server is using it. Disk drives limit data transfer guarantees to the sector size of the disk, 512 bytes. If you have the write cache enabled and suffer a power failure, it is possible to write part of the 8k block. If this happens, SQL Server will read new and old data from that page, which is now in an inconsistent state. This is not a disk failure. It wrote every 512-byte block it could successfully. When the disk drive comes back on line, the data on the disk is not corrupted at the sector level at all. If you have turned off torn page detection or page checksum because you believe it is a huge performance hit, turn it back on. Add more disks if you need the extra performance don’t put your data at risk.

Final Thoughts

  1. Data files tend to be random reads and writes.
  2. Log files have zero random reads and writes normally.
  3. More than one active log on a drive equals random reads and writes.
  4. Use Raid 1 for logs or RAID 10 if you need the space.
  5. Use RAID 5 or RAID 6 for data files if capacity and read performance are more important than write speed.
  6. The more disks you add to an array the greater chance you have for data loss.
  7. Raid 5 offers very good reliability at small scale. Rule of thumb, more than 8 drives in a RAID 5 could be disastrous.
  8. Raid 6 offers very good reliability at large scales. Rule of thumb, less than 9 drives you should consider RAID 5 instead.
  9. Raid 10 offers excellent reliability at any scale but is susceptible to correlated disk failures.
  10. The larger the disk drive capacity should adjust your number of disks down per array.
  11. Turn on torn page for 2000 and checksum for 2005/08.
  12. Restore Backups regularly,
  13. RAID isn’t a backup solution.
Series To Date:
  1. Introduction
  2. The Basics of Spinning Disks
  3. The System Bus
  4. Disk Controllers, Host Bus Adapters and Interfaces
  5. RAID, An Introduction – You are here!
  6. RAID and Hard Disk Reliability, Under The Covers
  7. Stripe Size, Block Size, and IO Patterns
  8. Capturing IO Patterns
  9. Testing IO Systems