5.6. Advanced Storage Technologies

Although everything presented in this chapter so far has dealt only with single hard drives directly-attached to a system, there are other, more advanced options that you can explore. The following sections describe some of the more common approaches to expanding your mass storage options.

5.6.1. Network-Accessible Storage

Combining network and mass storage technologies can result in a great deal more flexibility for system administrators. There are two benefits that are possible with this type of configuration:

Storage can be consolidated by deploying high-performance servers with high-speed network connectivity and configured with large amounts of fast storage. Given an appropriate configuration, it is possible to provide storage access at speeds comparable to locally-attached storage. Furthermore, the shared nature of such a configuration often makes it possible to reduce costs, as the expenses associated with providing centralized, shared storage can be less than providing the equivalent storage for each and every client. In addition, free space is consolidated, instead of being spread out (and not widely usable) across many clients.

Centralized storage servers can also make many administrative tasks easier. For instance, monitoring free space is much easier when the storage to be monitored exists on a centralized storage server. Backups can be vastly simplified using a centralized storage server. Network-aware backups for multiple clients are possible, but require more work to configure and maintain.

There are a number of different networked storage technologies available; choosing one can be difficult. Nearly every operating system on the market today includes some means of accessing network-accessible storage, but the different technologies are incompatible with each other. What is the best approach to determining which technology to deploy?

The approach that usually provides the best results is to let the built-in capabilities of the client decide the issue. There are a number of reasons for this:

Keep in mind that any client-related issues are multiplied by the number of clients in your organization. By using the clients' built-in capabilities, you have no additional software to install on each client (incurring zero additional cost in software procurement). And you have the best chance for good support and integration with the client operating system.

There is a downside, however. This means that the server environment must be up to the task of providing good support for the network-accessible storage technologies required by the clients. In cases where the server and client operating systems are one and the same, there is normally no issue. Otherwise, it will be necessary to invest time and effort in making the server "speak" the clients' language. However, often this trade-off is more than justified.

5.6.2. RAID-Based Storage

One skill that a system administrator should cultivate is the ability to look at complex system configurations, and observe the different shortcomings inherent in each configuration. While this might, at first glance, seem to be a rather depressing viewpoint to take, it can be a great way to look beyond the shiny new boxes and visualize some future Saturday night with all production down due to a failure that could easily have been avoided with a bit of forethought.

With this in mind, let us use what we now know about disk-based storage and see if we can determine the ways that disk drives can cause problems. First, consider an outright hardware failure:

A disk drive with four partitions on it dies completely: what happens to the data on those partitions?

It is immediately unavailable (at least until the failing unit can be replaced, and the data restored from a recent backup).

A disk drive with a single partition on it is operating at the limits of its design due to massive I/O loads: what happens to applications that require access to the data on that partition?

The applications slow down because the disk drive cannot process reads and writes any faster.

You have a large data file that is slowly growing in size; soon it will be larger than the largest disk drive available for your system. What happens then?

The disk drive fills up, the data file stops growing, and its associated applications stop running.

Just one of these problems could cripple a data center, yet system administrators must face these kinds of issues every day. What can be done?

Fortunately, there is one technology that can address each one of these issues. The name for that technology is RAID. Basic Concepts

RAID is an acronym standing for Redundant Array of Independent Disks[1]. As the name implies, RAID is a way for multiple disk drives to act as if they were a single disk drive.

RAID techniques were first developed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley in the mid-1980s. At the time, there was a large gap in price between the high-performance disk drives used on the large computer installations of the day, and the smaller, slower disk drives used by the still-young personal computer industry. RAID was viewed as a method of having several less expensive disk drives fill in for one higher-priced unit.

More importantly, RAID arrays can be constructed in different ways, resulting in different characteristics depending on the final configuration. Let us look at the different configurations (known as RAID levels) in more detail. RAID Levels

The Berkeley researchers originally defined five different RAID levels and numbered them "1" through "5." In time, additional RAID levels were defined by other researchers and members of the storage industry. Not all RAID levels were equally useful; some were of interest only for research purposes, and others could not be economically implemented.

In the end, there were three RAID levels that ended up seeing widespread usage:

  • Level 0

  • Level 1

  • Level 5

The following sections discuss each of these levels in more detail. RAID 0

The disk configuration known as RAID level 0 is a bit misleading, as this is the only RAID level that employs absolutely no redundancy. However, even though RAID 0 has no advantages from a reliability standpoint, it does have other benefits.

A RAID 0 array consists of two or more disk drives. The available storage capacity on each drive is divided into chunks, which represent some multiple of the drives' native block size. Data written to the array is be written, chunk by chunk, to each drive in the array. The chunks can be thought of as forming stripes across each drive in the array; hence the other term for RAID 0: striping.

For example, with a two-drive array and a 4KB chunk size, writing 12KB of data to the array would result in the data being written in three 4KB chunks to the following drives:

  • The first 4KB would be written to the first drive, into the first chunk

  • The second 4KB would be written to the second drive, into the first chunk

  • The last 4KB would be written to the first drive, into the second chunk

Compared to a single disk drive, the advantages to RAID 0 include:

  • Larger total size — RAID 0 arrays can be constructed that are larger than a single disk drive, making it easier to store larger data files

  • Better read/write performance — The I/O load on a RAID 0 array is spread evenly among all the drives in the array (Assuming all the I/O is not concentrated on a single chunk)

  • No wasted space — All available storage on all drives in the array are available for data storage

Compared to a single disk drive, RAID 0 has the following disadvantage:

  • Less reliability — Every drive in a RAID 0 array must be operative for the array to be available; a single drive failure in an N-drive RAID 0 array results in the removal of 1/Nth of all the data, rendering the array useless


If you have trouble keeping the different RAID levels straight, just remember that RAID 0 has zero percent redundancy. RAID 1

RAID 1 uses two (although some implementations support more) identical disk drives. All data is written to both drives, making them mirror images of each other. That is why RAID 1 is often known as mirroring.

Whenever data is written to a RAID 1 array, two physical writes must take place: one to the first drive, and one to the second drive. Reading data, on the other hand, only needs to take place once and either drive in the array can be used.

Compared to a single disk drive, a RAID 1 array has the following advantages:

  • Improved redundancy — Even if one drive in the array were to fail, the data would still be accessible

  • Improved read performance — With both drives operational, reads can be evenly split between them, reducing per-drive I/O loads

When compared to a single disk drive, a RAID 1 array has some disadvantages:

  • Maximum array size is limited to the largest single drive available.

  • Reduced write performance — Because both drives must be kept up-to-date, all write I/Os must be performed by both drives, slowing the overall process of writing data to the array

  • Reduced cost efficiency — With one entire drive dedicated to redundancy, the cost of a RAID 1 array is at least double that of a single drive


If you have trouble keeping the different RAID levels straight, just remember that RAID 1 has one hundred percent redundancy. RAID 5

RAID 5 attempts to combine the benefits of RAID 0 and RAID 1, while minimizing their respective disadvantages.

Like RAID 0, a RAID 5 array consists of multiple disk drives, each divided into chunks. This allows a RAID 5 array to be larger than any single drive. Like a RAID 1 array, a RAID 5 array uses some disk space in a redundant fashion, improving reliability.

However, the way RAID 5 works is unlike either RAID 0 or 1.

A RAID 5 array must consist of at least three identically-sized disk drives (although more drives may be used). Each drive is divided into chunks and data is written to the chunks in order. However, not every chunk is dedicated to data storage as it is in RAID 0. Instead, in an array with n disk drives in it, every nth chunk is dedicated to parity.

Chunks containing parity make it possible to recover data should one of the drives in the array fail. The parity in chunk x is calculated by mathematically combining the data from each chunk x stored on all the other drives in the array. If the data in a chunk is updated, the corresponding parity chunk must be recalculated and updated as well.

This also means that every time data is written to the array, at least two drives are written to: the drive holding the data, and the drive containing the parity chunk.

One key point to keep in mind is that the parity chunks are not concentrated on any one drive in the array. Instead, they are spread evenly across all the drives. Even though dedicating a specific drive to contain nothing but parity is possible (in fact, this configuration is known as RAID level 4), the constant updating of parity as data is written to the array would mean that the parity drive could become a performance bottleneck. By spreading the parity information evenly throughout the array, this impact is reduced.

However, it is important to keep in mind the impact of parity on the overall storage capacity of the array. Even though the parity information is spread evenly across all the drives in the array, the amount of available storage is reduced by the size of one drive.

Compared to a single drive, a RAID 5 array has the following advantages:

  • Improved redundancy — If one drive in the array fails, the parity information can be used to reconstruct the missing data chunks, all while keeping the array available for use[2]

  • Improved read performance — Due to the RAID 0-like way data is divided between drives in the array, read I/O activity is spread evenly between all the drives

  • Reasonably good cost efficiency — For a RAID 5 array of n drives, only 1/nth of the total available storage is dedicated to redundancy

Compared to a single drive, a RAID 5 array has the following disadvantage:

  • Reduced write performance — Because each write to the array results in at least two writes to the physical drives (one write for the data and one for the parity), write performance is worse than a single drive[3] Nested RAID Levels

As should be obvious from the discussion of the various RAID levels, each level has specific strengths and weaknesses. It was not long after RAID-based storage began to be deployed that people began to wonder whether different RAID levels could somehow be combined, producing arrays with all of the strengths and none of the weaknesses of the original levels.

For example, what if the disk drives in a RAID 0 array were themselves actually RAID 1 arrays? This would give the advantages of RAID 0's speed, with the reliability of RAID 1.

This is just the kind of thing that can be done. Here are the most commonly-nested RAID levels:

  • RAID 1+0

  • RAID 5+0

  • RAID 5+1

Because nested RAID is used in more specialized environments, we will not go into greater detail here. However, there are two points to keep in mind when thinking about nested RAID:

  • Order matters — The order in which RAID levels are nested can have a large impact on reliability. In other words, RAID 1+0 and RAID 0+1 are not the same.

  • Costs can be high — If there is any disadvantage common to all nested RAID implementations, it is one of cost; for example, the smallest possible RAID 5+1 array consists of six disk drives (and even more drives are required for larger arrays).

Now that we have explored the concepts behind RAID, let us see how RAID can be implemented. RAID Implementations

It is obvious from the previous sections that RAID requires additional "intelligence" over and above the usual disk I/O processing for individual drives. At the very least, the following tasks must be performed:

  • Dividing incoming I/O requests to the individual disks in the array

  • For RAID 5, calculating parity and writing it to the appropriate drive in the array

  • Monitoring the individual disks in the array and taking the appropriate action should one fail

  • Controlling the rebuilding of an individual disk in the array, when that disk has been replaced or repaired

  • Providing a means to allow administrators to maintain the array (removing and adding drives, initiating and halting rebuilds, etc.)

There are two major methods that may be used to accomplish these tasks. The next two sections describe them in more detail. Hardware RAID

A hardware RAID implementation usually takes the form of a specialized disk controller card. The card performs all RAID-related functions and directly controls the individual drives in the arrays attached to it. With the proper driver, the arrays managed by a hardware RAID card appear to the host operating system just as if they were regular disk drives.

Most RAID controller cards work with SCSI drives, although there are some ATA-based RAID controllers as well. In any case, the administrative interface is usually implemented in one of three ways:

  • Specialized utility programs that run as applications under the host operating system, presenting a software interface to the controller card

  • An on-board interface using a serial port that is accessed using a terminal emulator

  • A BIOS-like interface that is only accessible during the system's power-up testing

Some RAID controllers have more than one type of administrative interface available. For obvious reasons, a software interface provides the most flexibility, as it allows administrative functions while the operating system is running. However, if you are booting an operating system from a RAID controller, an interface that does not require a running operating system is a requirement.

Because there are so many different RAID controller cards on the market, it is impossible to go into further detail here. The best course of action is to read the manufacturer's documentation for more information. Software RAID

Software RAID is RAID implemented as kernel- or driver-level software for a particular operating system. As such, it provides more flexibility in terms of hardware support — as long as the hardware is supported by the operating system, RAID arrays can be configured and deployed. This can dramatically reduce the cost of deploying RAID by eliminating the need for expensive, specialized RAID hardware.

Often the excess CPU power available for software RAID parity calculations greatly exceeds the processing power present on a RAID controller card. Therefore, some software RAID implementations actually have the capability for higher performance than hardware RAID implementations.

However, software RAID does have limitations not present in hardware RAID. The most important one to consider is support for booting from a software RAID array. In most cases, only RAID 1 arrays can be used for booting, as the computer's BIOS is not RAID-aware. Since a single drive from a RAID 1 array is indistinguishable from a non-RAID boot device, the BIOS can successfully start the boot process; the operating system can then change over to software RAID operation once it has gained control of the system.

5.6.3. Logical Volume Management

One other advanced storage technology is that of logical volume management (LVM). LVM makes it possible to treat physical mass storage devices as low-level building blocks on which different storage configurations are built. The exact capabilities vary according to the specific implementation, but can include physical storage grouping, logical volume resizing, and data migration. Physical Storage Grouping

Although the name given to this capability may differ, physical storage grouping is the foundation for all LVM implementations. As the name implies, the physical mass storage devices can be grouped together in such a way as to create one or more logical mass storage devices. The logical mass storage devices (or logical volumes) can be larger in capacity than the capacity of any one of the underlying physical mass storage devices.

For example, given two 100GB drives, a 200GB logical volume can be created. However, a 150GB and a 50GB logical volume could also be created. Any combination of logical volumes equal to or less than the total capacity (200GB in this example) is possible. The choices are limited only by your organization's needs.

This makes it possible for a system administrator to treat all storage as being part of a single pool, available for use in any amount. In addition, drives can be added to the pool at a later time, making it a straightforward process to stay ahead of your users' demand for storage. Logical Volume Resizing

The feature that most system administrators appreciate about LVM is its ability to easily direct storage where it is needed. In a non-LVM system configuration, running out of space means — at best — moving files from the full device to one with available space. Often it can mean actual reconfiguration of your system's mass storage devices; a task that would have to take place after normal business hours.

However, LVM makes it possible to easily increase the size of a logical volume. Assume for a moment that our 200GB storage pool was used to create a 150GB logical volume, with the remaining 50GB held in reserve. If the 150GB logical volume became full, LVM makes it possible to increase its size (say, by 10GB) without any physical reconfiguration. Depending on the operating system environment, it may be possible to do this dynamically or it might require a short amount of downtime to actually perform the resizing. Data Migration

Most seasoned system administrators would be impressed by LVM capabilities so far, but they would also be asking themselves this question:

What happens if one of the drives making up a logical volume starts to fail?

The good news is that most LVM implementations include the ability to migrate data off of a particular physical drive. For this to work, there must be sufficient reserve capacity left to absorb the loss of the failing drive. Once the migration is complete, the failing drive can then be replaced and added back into the available storage pool. With LVM, Why Use RAID?

Given that LVM has some features similar to RAID (the ability to dynamically replace failing drives, for instance), and some features providing capabilities that cannot be matched by most RAID implementations (such as the ability to dynamically add more storage to a central storage pool), many people wonder whether RAID is no longer important.

Nothing could be further from the truth. RAID and LVM are complementary technologies that can be used together (in a manner similar to nested RAID levels), making it possible to get the best of both worlds.



When early RAID research began, the acronym stood for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks, but over time the "standalone" disks that RAID was intended to supplant became cheaper and cheaper, rendering the price comparison meaningless.


I/O performance is reduced while operating with one drive unavailable, due to the overhead involved in reconstructing the missing data.


There is also an impact from the parity calculations required for each write. However, depending on the specific RAID 5 implementation (specifically, where in the system the parity calculations are performed), this impact can range from sizable to nearly nonexistent.