Why home RAID won't fly

Why home RAID won't fly

Summary: Fellow ZDnet blogger George Ou posted this morning on Why dumb-downed no-RAID storage is bad for consumers. With all due respect, George couldn't be more wrong.

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TOPICS: Hardware
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Fellow ZDnet blogger George Ou posted this morning on Why dumb-downed no-RAID storage is bad for consumers. With all due respect, George couldn't be more wrong. RAID doesn't solve the home storage problem and its usability stinks.

The vendors who are backing off from selling or promoting RAID in the home are doing the right thing. Consumers don't want RAID, they want to protect their data.

"Dumbed-downed" vs "it just works" RAID, or any technology, is just a tool. Sometimes it is the right tool, sometimes it isn't. RAID isn't the right tool for consumers because it doesn't meet consumer needs.

Well, RAID meets one consumer requirement: it has a catchy name.

RAID's #1 problem: it doesn't work Consumers don't want to lose their data. RAID doesn't solve that problem: it is easy to lose data on a RAID array. It happens every day. Otherwise perfectly competent sysadmins and techs pull the wrong drive. They copy from the empty disk to the data disk. Silent data corruption hoses files and directories. Data disappears, never to return.

The very best that RAID can promise is that it protects your data better than a single disk. But any RAID system is still logically a disk and physically a group of disks. Therefore it will suffer all the ills of disks. A home environment, with crummy power, old cables and dirty air, is a stress test for disks.

So if you sell home RAID promising to protect people's data, get ready for a world of hurt. "Class-action lawsuit" ring any bells?

RAID's #2 problem: ease of use Is the iPod/iTunes combination "dumbed-down" or "smartened-up?" The latter, of course. Even with five years to copy them, reviewers like Walt Mossberg say that no one else has the ease of use of iTunes.

Ease of use means something a little different in the world of RAID. RAID ease of use has to tackle two problems: setup and break/fix.

Setup is easy if you don't mention RAID Consumers have zero interest in RAID levels, and there is no way anyone can make RAID interesting enough that they'll want to learn. So setting up a consumer RAID box means doing it for them.

Maybe that's "dumbing-down" but I think it's smart. And if you're not going to let people set their RAID level, why mention RAID in the first place? Even smarter.

Break/fix is the hairy part RAID's other usability problem is a little different: it breaks ugly. You have to pull out a disk. You have to pull out the right disk. You have to put in a new disk. You have to wait hours after you replace the disk for the system to get back to normal.

Error-prone and impatient consumers are going to screw these up. Often. When they do the vendor will be blamed. And rightly so.

So what does work in home data protection? I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Backup.

Home users want to protect their data. RAID won't do that. Backup will. It is that simple.

Now, there are a lot of possible variations on backup. Backup to disk. Backup to optical. Backup to Carbonite, Mozy or another on-line service.

One of the reasons that iTunes is successful is that backup is the data protection strategy. You store everything on your computer and sync to your iPod. Two copies, all the time.

The Storage Bits take I like what Data Robotics is trying to do with Drobo. As I wrote two months ago:

I’ll be surprised if it isn’t a success, especially as volume ramps and distribution widens. Non-geeks don’t want to manage storage or drives. They just want to store their stuff, safely. Drobo gets that and makes it easy. It is the iPod of mass storage.

It is still an open question whether Drobo actually delivers on the promises. But at least they are making the right promises.

Update: all the good comments helped me sharpen my thinking about home RAID. If you want v2.0 it is over on StorageMojo. Living in a small town in the mountains of northern Arizona, I actually interact daily with the target market for home RAID. That's why I know it won't fly.

Comments welcome.

Topic: Hardware

About

Robin Harris has been a computer buff for over 35 years and selling and marketing data storage for over 30 years in companies large and small.

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117 comments
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  • Right on

    A home server is a silly concept. Just backup your stuff easily and cheaply on an external hard disk in a USB casing. 500 GB storage for about $ 150.

    To top it off: this is a much "greener" solution as well... You only have to power on the thing when you want to perform the backup, so much less power conmsumption.

    Greetz, Pjotr.
    pjotr123
    • External RAID devices

      They make external RAID devices. I didn't read through this entire article because it's rubbish, but I don't think we're talking specifically home server stuff here, just consumer RAID in general.

      http://www.newegg.com/Product/ProductList.aspx?Submit=ENE&DEPA=0&Description=external+raid
      ITguy5678
      • Big miss

        The problem with the discussion is that we're mixing together things that are dissimilar, so the do's and don't works are all over the place. My take is this: RAID can't be sold in general because it's too expensive a solution relative to the cost of the computer. Show me a 500 GB RAID that costs $100 and I'll recant; I can show you a 500 GB external drive that costs $100 - check Buy.com. So the price point keeps it off most people's radar.

        RAID was a solution designed for a different era, and is out of step in the home. When large data center drives were $3,000 a megabyte, using many, much cheaper and less reliable drives that had a failure recovery mechanism (background rebuild and hot spares) was viable. Large datacenters now use RAID as the primary data storage element as a result of the workability of the solution in that environment. Homes? See above $100 external pricing.

        Another issue is consumer tending of computer hardware. For most people, no such thing exists. When it breaks, they call someone or buy a new one. Almost no one I know backs anything up, despite my having harped on the subject with them for 20 years. I get calls all the time about "Geez, it kept working over the last couple of months even though it got slower and slower, and wouldn't boot sometimes, and now I can't get it to work at all. How do I back up my data?" The answer is, of course, "too late!" And most people just accept that their data is gone and start over, irritated at "these damned unreliable computers." Add in viruses, spyware, crapware and bloatware, and the 8 minute boot time and 3 minute shutdown (I just fixed one of these) and the blank stare from people when you ask when the last backup or defrag or scandisk was, and you know that you'll just never get there.

        I think this directly indicts the industry for not knowing its customers, and not building in automatic journaling backup on separate media (like, for example, a built-in thumb drive) with a one-button "recover my computer" solution built into firmware (boot from a recovery Bios and follow the on-screen directions). Unplug the old hard drive and plug in the new one, go make soup, and come back when the system plays TADAA! You'll never get Aunt Milly to manage her computer like an IT guy. Never! She's interested in preserves and pumpkin pie, not data logging and off-site disaster recovery. And all those family pictures will go toes up at some point, for sure.

        And picking WHICH drive to pull out of an array and buying the right drive at the store to plug back in? HA! Or paying for a unit with 4 or 5 drives just to get hardware redundancy with hot sparing? HA! And show me a RAID array that will protect against a software error or a user error that deletes or corrupts a file. That mortals can afford.

        It's not about RAID. It's about journaling and rollback through a reasonably long historical window with separated media and built-in one-button recovery to any new drive. That's what addresses the problem. RAID is a solution to a problem that isn't the problem home users face.
        gsteele531@...
        • But...

          <i>And picking WHICH drive to pull out of an array and buying the right drive at the store to plug back in? HA! </i><br><br>
          How about a super bright red blinking light? As for buying the right drive?if a company does it right, they will sell the replacement drives in carriers, just like Apple, Dell, and every other company that sells RAID arrays. It would probably be mail order.<br><br>
          <i>Or paying for a unit with 4 or 5 drives just to get hardware redundancy with hot sparing? HA! </i><br><br>
          How about just two drives in a RAID 1 configuration?<br><br>
          And show me a RAID array that will protect against a software error or a user error that deletes or corrupts a file. <br><br>
          Even a backup won?t help with this if the user isn?t doing regular (weekly, nightly, daily???) backups. Which according to you <i>Almost no one I know backs anything up, despite my having harped on the subject with them for 20 years</i> they aren?t doing.
          ITguy5678
          • Exactly my point

            "It would probably be mail order."

            Mail order for replacement hard drives? That means your RAID 1 is non-RAID during the exchange. Keep in mind that I am talking home, NOT small business, here. A RAID array needs at least 3 drives, even for RAID 1, which is a non-starter because it more than doubles the cost/GB without a hot spare, and more than triples it with a hot spare.

            "How about just two drives in a RAID 1 configuration?"

            RAID value comes into play only with higher numbers of drives, where the cost of the parity and hot spare drive are amortized over many more in-process drives - the ones used to store the data. That means 5 or so data drives, plus 2 redundancy drives, gives you an increase in storage cost of only 40%, plus the array controller and housing(s) and power supply. With fewer drives, the parity and support cost is too high a percentage of the total array cost.

            "'And show me a RAID array that will protect against a software error or a user error that deletes or corrupts a file.'

            Even a backup won?t help with this if the user isn?t doing regular (weekly, nightly, daily???) backups."

            Which makes my point exactly. If you have a journaling backup system, you can roll back to the last correct version of a file, and the process is automatic in the background - not user-initiated. To round out the solution - again, for the HOME - you need a recovery process that is brain-dead simple. Like push a button.
            gsteele531@...
          • A little more research on your part

            <i>That means your RAID 1 is non-RAID during the exchange. </i><br><br>
            Just like if your ?backup? hard drive fails you?re not making any more backups until you get a replacement. Or if the data drive fails, unless you restore your data to <i>yet another</i> hard drive, you?re not getting your data until you get a replacement.<br><br>
            <i>A RAID array needs at least 3 drives, even for RAID 1</i><br><br>
            That is not correct. RAID 1 is mirroring and you only need two drives:<br><br>
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAID#Standard_RAID_levels<br><br>
            Maybe you?re thinking of RAID 5 which may or may not be ideal for a home user. Considering the size of hard drives now, most home users could easily get away with a RAID 1 configuration. Just buy big drives in the first place.<br><br>
            <i>RAID value comes into play only with higher numbers of drives, where the cost of the parity and hot spare drive are amortized over many more in-process drives</i><br><br>
            $280 for a RAID 1 device?<br><br>
            http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16816150016<br><br>
            Sure the drives are extra, but I don?t think you?ll be breaking the bank with this.<br><br>
            Anyway, if you?re going to make a backup, you?re going to dedicate another hard drive to the backup. I?m not sure you have ever worked with RAID before, due to your statements. You don?t <i>need</i> a hot spare and you only have parity drives if you?re running a RAID level higher than 1 (keep in mind, most people will dedicate another hard drive to hold the backup anyway). So whether that extra drive is the ?extra? drive in a RAID array or being dedicated to backup, you?re out one extra drive either way.<br><br>
            <i>Which makes my point exactly. If you have a journaling backup system, you can roll back to the last correct version of a file, and the process is automatic in the background</i><br><br>
            That?s fine, but a ?job? still needs to launch. VSS (Microsoft) or Time Machine (Apple) both launch a process that makes a ?journaled? backup of data that has changed on your system since the last time it was run. However, if you?re data (or system) drive fails, you can?t get to your data. And if you?re backup drive fails, you lost all your backups. Forgetting about restore a previous version of a file, using a RAID system will protect against data loss due to hard drive failure and while the array is in a degraded state, you?re still able to access your data like nothing happened. That?s the key point. You continue to work on your computer like the drive didn?t fail. Then when you get a replacement drive, you just pop it in.
            ITguy5678
          • Good Points!

            ITguy made some good points. Raid 1 is quickly becoming more popular in servers. This is especially true of the OS drive. The reason is because it is just easier. With WD 500gb drives nearing $100, and terabyte drives hitting mainstream, raid 1 is a perfectly good solution. Add to this VSS or some form of journaling and we might be on to something. Then if we could get the user to use mozy or similar service for truely irreplacable data (family pics, not limewire files) then we might have a solid backup solution.

            Raid is great but the honest truth is that the average home user can't reinstall from the utility partition without calling tech support, much less open the case and know what is what. I regularly support coworkers who can't install a new hard drive or video capture card. I dont think computer makers or MS wants them attempting to fix a broken raid array. for us techies, I just see unlimited revenue for our side jobs.

            And one thing I want to add; everyone seems to keep stating that hard drives are so prone to failure. But in reality it is getting to the point that they have about 1-2% failure rates. that is lower than most consumer electronics. I see far more failed power supplies than failed hard drives. Use a good brand and it will last. I keep waiting for several 20GB drives I have to die and they just wont! That is 6 years out of a hard drive, much better than you would ever expect out of the computer as a whole.
            slide09
  • Your title should read "why marketing RAID to the home won't fly"

    RAID done in hardware or firmware has ALWAYS been reliable. That's why the entire server world and enterprise storage market uses it. If it were so unreliable and nightmarish to use, the enterprise world wouldn?t use it.

    I will agree with you that *MARKETING* RAID to the consumer electronics world won?t fly; it has to be under the hood and giving a snazzy warm-and-fuzzy word. Data Robotics uses RAID but they actively advertise the fact that they DON?T use RAID. They just show consumers a video how you can yank any drive out and not lose their data while the device is playing back a video. Consumers absolutely RAVE over this fault tolerance feature when it?s not marketed in this fashion.

    Any implementation of RAID for the home MUST be hidden. Any failure in a RAID-5 volume MUST have CLEAR indicator lights telling the user which drive has failed. This is exactly how the server market has always worked and no one is complaining. You make some legitimate points but you?re greatly exaggerating the scare stories which pertain to poor implementations in the worst case scenario.

    The bottom line is that there is NO OTHER economic way to fault tolerance other than striping with parity. There is no other way to build an array where you only lose one drive to capacity that allows you to survive a drive failure other than something like RAID Level 5. It just can?t be marketed as RAID and Data Robotics has shown how RAID can be marketed without calling it RAID.
    georgeou
  • Also, you're misrepresenting the facts

    "RAID?s #1 problem: it doesn?t work"

    That's nonsense.

    "?Dumbed-downed? vs ?it just works""

    That's also nonsense. Hardware RAID when it's set up out-of-the-box also "just works".

    The entire server and enterprise storage world must be wrong and only you're right I guess.

    You?re not doing consumers any favors by misleading them.
    georgeou
    • There is NO setup for hardware RAID ...

      It is that simple. I have used hardware RAID in the past and it is extremely simple AND foolproof. The ONLY issue is cost and now with the advent of sata RAID controllers, even the cost is coming down rapidly. Hardware RAID basically tells you with drive to remove and if the consumer can't follow simple instructions, this will be the least of their nightmares. I am have been using software RAID on multiple Linux systems for several years now and have been able to recover fairly painlessly from drive failures and would never go back. But software RAID does take some degree of expertise. On the other hand, hardware RAID is perfect for 'dummies'. It is totally transparent on the software and OS level. The hardware controller does all the work. But on the consumer level, very few people really understand how hardware RAID works or how simple it is. Kudos to Mr. Ou for bringing it front and center.
      George Mitchell
      • Cost of "firmware-level RAID" is zero now

        It's built in to the motherboard now. The Intel motherboards give you one of the fastest 6-port RAID solutions for free bundled on the motherboard. And you're right, there is NO setup for the consumer and it's invisible to the OS. It technically uses a little of your CPU but we have these super-fast multicore processors today where the second CPU core sits there doing nothing anyways.
        georgeou
    • First point has some validity

      He's arguing that RAID setups don't work as backup devices and he might be right. Every place I've worked has never took the change of not backing up the RAID storage either through redundant disk storage or tape.
      gtdavies33@...
      • Of course it isn't a backup, but 99% of consumers NEVER backup

        Of course it isn't a backup, but 99% of consumers NEVER backup as much as they should.
        georgeou
        • jeez

          They never backup because it isn't a simple and automatic operation. People have to be reminded to take time out
          of their busy schedules to change the oil in their car.
          Why can't we just put the technical stuff aside for a little
          bit and actually try to understand the users? I have yet
          to find a program that makes backup a dead-simple operation.
          Until we get our technical heads out of our #####, stupid users
          will continue to lose data.
          hillman.d@...
    • It works until it doesn't - then it is a royal PITA

      George,
      <br>
      <br>
      Consumer stuff that costs hundreds of dollars and promises to perform an
      important function has to work. Since RAID is intended to work when a disk is
      broken, it needs to fail in a way that regular people can deal with.
      <br>
      <br>
      Since even professionals screw up RAID drive replacements why won't civilians do
      so even more often?
      <br>
      <br>
      While I admire the concept behind Drobo, for the price of the empty box you can
      buy several 500 GB USB drives. When one of them fails, you toss it. Seems much
      simpler to me. <br>
      <br>
      Robin
      R Harris
      • Oh but it DOES work well and it can be very cheap

        It DOES work well. I just don't know who you're trying to cite as so incompetent that they can't even figure out how to pull a hard drive that's blinking red. It?s funny how people who think RAID is some sort insect killer watched the Drobo video and thought being able to replace any drive without losing any data is the best thing since sliced bread. If those people can understand a red light means REPLACE drive, I don?t understand why you think it doesn?t work.

        The Drobo is very expensive and that?s its downfall for many buyers. RAID doesn?t have to be expensive though and the technology is now FREE since it?s built in to the motherboard. It?s now possible to build NAS or Windows Home Server devices that have RAID built-in out-of-the-box with hot-swap drives for consumers to use with gigabit Ethernet for about $300 (manufacturers cost). This is the new trend.

        Buying lots of independent external USB drives is exactly what people have been doing and they?re SICK of. When you have a drive failure, your stuff on that drive is gone forever since 99% of consumers NEVER backup. When you have a RAID Level 5 array that just works - and this stuff has been working flawlessly for years and I have no idea where you get the idea it doesn?t ? all your data is safe even if a single drive fails. When that red light blinks, it?s time to replace it with another hard drive and all your stuff is still safe unless a second drive fails before you replace the drive. Statistically that?s very unlikely unless you?re really lazy and you leave the system in degraded mode for a really long period of time.
        georgeou
        • sorry george-- never underestimate the 70%

          You know, I've been a programmer for longer than I care to remember, and just as I was reading this story I get this call from one of the analysts that gives us requirements for the software we build. She gave me a requirement, we built it and put the screen feature exactly where she asked for it. So she just calls me to ask me "where is it?"

          Which brings me to my point-- never underestimate the ignorant. Bear in mind the bell curve. Bear in mind that 70% of the world is on one side, while 30% is on the other. The top 30% can probably take a couple of seconds to look at a blinking red light or follow on screen instructions whereas the rest-- excel at screwing up even the simplest of tasks.

          So any sort of complexity, even slight, is more than I'd care to challenge consumers with.

          Hell, the success of the Windows and iTunes and the fact that both permanently marry you to one vendor should be indication enough of the rampant ignorance that abounds the consumer market.
          kckn4fun
        • ok

          This argument doesn't work. I've been an on-site tech before
          and people will screw up the simplest of operations. Some can't
          even figure out how to hookup an Ipod or a PDA. I'll say it again: making users have to spend extra money and do extra work isn't going to work. They are not IT people living in an IT shop with unlimited budgets. All they want to know is they can get back whatever it is they stored on the computer when it breaks, without going broke. When the red light blinks, they'll
          ignore it if the computer continues to work. The ones that
          are worried about it but can't fix it will call Geek Squad.
          hillman.d@...
      • Why do you keep saying this?

        <i>Since even professionals screw up RAID drive replacements why won't civilians do so even more often?</i><br><br>
        There are lights on the drives; usually big red ones when the drives go bad. Companies could make the lights even bigger for home users. You would literally need to me a moron to pull the wrong drive.<br><br>
        I?ve never heard of any IT professional screwing up replacing a bad drive in an array. Maybe if they dropped the replacement hard drive and hit it with a hammer?
        ITguy5678
        • You need to get out more

          ITguy,

          Here's the latest <a href="http://www.techworld.com/storage/news/index.cfm?
          newsid=8341" >example</a> where a tech screwed up a mirrored RAID.

          A close friend works in enterprise tech support and he gets several calls each
          week from sysadmins who've screwed up a RAID array. They pull the wrong drive,
          copy from the wrong drive, don't realize the rebuild is still happening and a dozen
          other errors.

          Even pros make mistakes. Civilians make even more. Flashing lights don't cut it.

          What would work: a drive that ejects itself when it fails, while the others remain
          mechanically locked in place. Its been considered for a number of products but
          rejected for cost reasons. Plus it makes it obvious that the vendor thinks admins
          are idiots.

          Cheers,

          Robin
          R Harris