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[ The PC Guide | Systems and Components Reference Guide | Hard Disk Drives | Hard Disk Performance, Quality and Reliability ]

Redundant Arrays of Inexpensive Disks (RAID)

    -- TV commercial for RAID bug spray

There are many applications, particularly in a business environment, where there are needs beyond what can be fulfilled by a single hard disk, regardless of its size, performance or quality level. Many businesses can't afford to have their systems go down for even an hour in the event of a disk failure; they need large storage subsystems with capacities in the terabytes; and they want to be able to insulate themselves from hardware failures to any extent possible. Some people working with multimedia files need fast data transfer exceeding what current drives can deliver, without spending a fortune on specialty drives. These situations require that the traditional "one hard disk per system" model be set aside and a new system employed. This technique is called Redundant Arrays of Inexpensive Disks or RAID. ("Inexpensive" is sometimes replaced with "Independent", but the former term is the one that was used when the term "RAID" was first coined by the researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, who first investigated the use of multiple-drive arrays in 1987.)

The fundamental principle behind RAID is the use of multiple hard disk drives in an array that behaves in most respects like a single large, fast one. There are a number of ways that this can be done, depending on the needs of the application, but in every case the use of multiple drives allows the resulting storage subsystem to exceed the capacity, data security, and performance of the drives that make up the system, to one extent or another. The tradeoffs--remember, there's no free lunch--are usually in cost and complexity.

Originally, RAID was almost exclusively the province of high-end business applications, due to the high cost of the hardware required. This has changed in recent years, and as "power users" of all sorts clamor for improved performance and better up-time, RAID is making its way from the "upper echelons" down to the mainstream. The recent proliferation of inexpensive RAID controllers that work with consumer-grade IDE/ATA drives--as opposed to expensive SCSI units--has increased interest in RAID dramatically. This trend will probably continue. I predict that more and more motherboard manufacturers will begin offering support for the feature on their boards, and within a couple of years PC builders will start to offer systems with inexpensive RAID setups as standard configurations. This interest, combined with my long-time interest in this technology, is the reason for my recent expansion of the RAID coverage on this site from one page to 80. :^)

Unfortunately, RAID in the computer context doesn't really kill bugs dead. It can, if properly implemented, "kill down-time dead", which is still pretty good. :^)

Next: Why Use RAID? Benefits and Costs, Tradeoffs and Limitations

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