Don't get burned by RAID Zero

RAID level zero increases the chances that a hard disk failure will wipe out your data. You may be using it and not be aware.

To a computer nerd like myself, RAID refers not to a bug spray but to various ways of hooking together multiple hard disks. The various approaches are referred to as levels. Raid levels one through five are designed to decrease the chances that a hard disk failure will result in lost data. Typically RAID configurations are used in server machines as opposed to personal computers.

Raid level zero, however, is the black sheep of the RAID family. It's goal is performance rather than reliability. I'm writing this posting because two of my clients have been burned by their inadvertent use of RAID level zero. Consider this a word to the wise.

Client one purchased an external hard disk from LaCie. This person needed lots of storage space and, at the time, this particular model was top of the line, offering the most storage capacity. The reason it offered more storage than cheaper competing models is that internally there were two 3.5-inch hard disks instead of the usual one. While it looked to the outside world like one chunk of 500 gigabytes, the internal reality was that there were two 250 GB hard disks.

Client two owned a high end Dell XPS tower with two internal hard disks. This person wanted the latest and greatest and fastest computer. Thus, Dell configured the two internal hard disks for speed--RAID level zero. Like the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for, you may get it.

The hard disk is significantly slower than the processor and RAM. Thus to get the fastest read/write performance, RAID level zero stores half of a file on one hard disk and half on the other. Using both hard disks in parallel should reduce the total time needed to write a file.

To someone designing a computer system, the term single point of failure is like kryptonite to Superman. The term refers to a single point in the system which should it fail, would bring down the whole house of cards (so to speak). In an automobile, each tire is a single point of failure, thus they all have a spare in the trunk.

In a personal computer the hard disk is a single point of failure. However, in a RAID level zero configuration, there are three separate single points of failure involving the hard disks. Should either hard disk fail, all is lost because each disk contains half of every file. Oops.

In addition, both of my clients were also dependent on the RAID hard disk controller, the thing with the intelligence to split files as they are written out to the hard disks and re-assemble them back together when read. If the hard disk controller fails, the files may still be alive and well and happy on the hard disks, but you can't read them. Recovering from a RAID level zero controller error might cost thousands of dollars, as its a job for the most sophisticated data recovery companies.

RAID Zero with a failed disk
RAID Zero with a failed disk. Click for full-size.

In the case of the client with the Dell computer, it was fairly easy to determine that the problem was with one of the hard disks. Replacing it, re-establishing the Raid zero environment and then restoring a disk image backup got the machine up and running. Disk image backups will be the subject of an upcoming posting on this blog.

The client with the external hard disk lost everything. Not that it mattered, but I couldn't even determine if the problem was with one of the hard disks or the RAID controller.


Update: July 8, 2007. Originally I had said the hard drive was the slowest thing inside the computer, except for the fan. Someone pointed out that optical drives are even slower, so that sentence now says the hard disk is slower than the processor and ram, which was the point I was trying to make.
Note: See the comments on the original posting.

Update: July 13, 2007. See Following up on RAID Level Zero

About the author

    Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

    He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.

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