What is RAID for dummies?

RAID stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks. It is a data storage technology that combines multiple disk drive components into a logical unit. RAID allows data to be distributed across multiple disks, while also providing data redundancy in case one or more disks fail. The main goals of RAID are to provide increased storage capacities, improved performance, and enhanced fault tolerance.

What are the different levels of RAID?

There are several standard architectures or levels of RAID, each providing different combinations of performance, redundancy, and efficiency. Here are the main RAID levels:

  • RAID 0: Also known as disk striping. Data is split across multiple disks in a way that maximizes throughput. Provides improved performance but no redundancy.
  • RAID 1: Also known as disk mirroring. Data is duplicated on a secondary disk to provide fault tolerance. Provides good performance and redundancy.
  • RAID 5: Data is striped across multiple disks, with parity information distributed across the array. Can withstand the failure of one disk without data loss. Good performance and redundancy.
  • RAID 6: Similar to RAID 5 but can withstand the failure of two disks. Provides high fault tolerance.
  • RAID 10: Combines disk striping (RAID 0) with disk mirroring (RAID 1). Very high performance and redundancy.

What are the benefits of using RAID?

Implementing RAID in a storage system provides several key advantages:

  • Increased storage capacity: RAID combines multiple inexpensive disks into a larger logical unit. This allows for greater overall storage capacity compared to using single large disks.
  • Improved performance: Certain RAID levels (e.g. RAID 0, 5, 10) can significantly improve read/write speeds by distributing data across multiple disks that can operate in parallel.
  • Redundancy and fault tolerance: Disk mirroring and parity schemes in RAID protect against disk failures. If a disk fails, data can be rebuilt from the remaining disks.
  • Availability: By providing redundancy, RAID minimizes downtime and interruptions to data availability in the event of a disk failure.

In summary, RAID provides inexpensive, highly available, fault tolerant storage at higher capacities and performance levels than single disks can offer.

What are the limitations of RAID?

Despite its advantages, RAID has some drawbacks to consider:

  • Increased complexity: Configuring and managing a RAID system is more complex than a single disk. It requires specialized RAID software and hardware.
  • Slower writes: Write speeds may be impacted for some RAID levels due to parity calculation or disk mirroring overhead.
  • RAID is not a backup: While RAID provides redundancy, it is not a substitute for regular data backups. Data can still be lost if multiple disks fail.
  • Lower storage efficiency: Due to parity and mirroring overhead, some RAID levels reduce the overall disk capacity available to store data.

While RAID removes the single point of failure risk of single disks, complete protection requires regularly backing up RAID volumes to guard against catastrophic failure.

What do the different RAID levels mean?

The main RAID levels represent different configurations optimized for various combinations of performance, redundancy, and efficiency. Here is a more detailed overview of the RAID levels:


  • Also called disk striping.
  • Data is split and distributed evenly across multiple disks with no redundancy.
  • Ideal for highly read-intensive workloads that require high performance but do not require fault tolerance.
  • Provides fast performance but no protection against disk failure.


  • Also known as disk mirroring.
  • Data is duplicated on a secondary disk for redundancy.
  • Provides good performance along with complete data redundancy.
  • Can withstand failure of one disk drive.


  • Data is striped across disks like RAID 0, but parity information is also distributed across the array.
  • Can withstand failure of one disk without data loss.
  • Good balance of performance and redundancy for general use.
  • Write performance may be impacted by parity calculation overhead.


  • Similar to RAID 5 but can withstand failure of up to two disks.
  • Provides extremely high fault tolerance at the expense of some storage capacity.
  • Ideal for mission critical data that requires high availability.
  • Higher parity overhead can impact write performance.


  • Combines mirroring (RAID 1) and striping (RAID 0).
  • Provides performance similar to RAID 0 along with redundancy of RAID 1.
  • Can withstand multiple disk failures as long as no mirrors fail.
  • Provides very high performance and fault tolerance.

How does RAID improve performance?

There are two primary ways certain RAID levels can deliver increased performance compared to standalone disks:

  • Parallelism: RAID 0 stripes data evenly across multiple disks with no parity or mirroring. By distributing reads and writes across multiple disks that can operate in parallel, overall throughput is multiplied.
  • Caching: Many RAID controllers include caching to reduce disk bottlenecks. Frequently accessed data is stored on the fast cache rather than being read from slower disks. This speeds up repetitive accesses to the same blocks.

In addition, rebuilding data after a failed disk can be faster with RAID 5 or 6 versus RAID 1 mirroring, as the parity blocks allow missing data to be reconstructed across disks rather than having to be fully recopied from the mirror.

How does RAID provide fault tolerance?

RAID provides redundancy and fault tolerance through mirroring and distributed parity schemes. Here’s how they work:

  • Mirroring (RAID 1): Data is duplicated on a secondary set of disks. If one disk fails, data can be accessed from the mirrored copy without interruption.
  • Distributed parity (RAID 5, 6): Parity information is spread across multiple disks. If a disk fails, the missing data can be recreated using the parity blocks on the remaining disks.

By writing the same data across multiple disks, RAID protects against complete data loss if one (or more) individual disks fail. The redundancy allows disk failures to be tolerated without interrupting access to data.

What is the difference between hardware RAID and software RAID?

RAID can be implemented in hardware or software:

  • Hardware RAID: Uses a dedicated RAID controller, usually built into the motherboard or an add-in card. All RAID processing is handled independently by the controller hardware.
  • Software RAID: RAID features are implemented at the operating system level. The OS handles all RAID calculation and organization. Does not require specialized hardware.

Hardware RAID advantages:

  • Faster performance – specialized hardware accelerates RAID computations
  • Frees up CPU resources
  • Operating system independent

Software RAID advantages:

  • Cost – does not require expensive RAID controller hardware
  • Flexibility – can be configured on any system without RAID ports
  • Ease of management – configured through OS rather than separate interface

For performance-critical applications, dedicated hardware RAID controllers are preferred. For home or small office use, software RAID provides a low cost option.

What are some scenarios where using RAID makes sense?

Here are some example use cases where implementing RAID delivers significant benefits:

  • Database servers: RAID 10 provides the performance, capacity, and redundancy needed for demanding database workloads.
  • File servers: RAID 5 gives file servers increased capacity plus the ability to withstand drive failures.
  • Web servers: RAID 1 provides good redundancy for web server data and the fast mirror rebuild times needed to minimize downtime.
  • Media editing workstations: Large media files demand both performance and data protection. A RAID 5 or 6 array is ideal.
  • Point-of-sale systems: The transactional nature of POS systems requires high availability. RAID 1 mirrors meet this need.

Any application where downtime cannot be tolerated are good candidates for deployment on RAID subsystems.

What are some tips for implementing RAID?

Here are some best practices to follow when planning and configuring RAID:

  • Select the appropriate RAID level based on your performance and redundancy needs.
  • Use high-quality enterprise-grade hard drives designed for RAID environments.
  • Always go with hardware RAID for mission critical environments. Software RAID introduces CPU overhead.
  • Use RAID controller caching to boost performance.
  • Keep hot spares available to allow quick rebuilding after a disk failure.
  • Monitor disk health to detect problems before multiple disk failures occur.
  • Ensure proper airflow and cooling across your array.

By selecting the right RAID level, using quality components, and following best practices, you can build a RAID array that delivers the optimal blend of performance and protection.

What risks does RAID have?

While RAID improves upon standalone disks, it does not completely mitigate all risks. Potential issues include:

  • Multiple disk failure: If more disks fail than the RAID level can tolerate, data will be lost. RAID is not a backup.
  • Controller failure: A failed RAID controller can bring down the entire array.
  • Disk rebuild time: Rebuilding arrays after a disk failure carries risk until redundancy is restored.
  • Misconfiguration: Choosing the wrong RAID level or improper disk configurations can cause issues.
  • No parity protection: RAID 0 arrays have no redundancy making them risky for critical data.

To guard against risks, admins should closely monitor RAID health, promptly replace failed disks, perform regular backups, and properly configure arrays.

How can you monitor the health of a RAID array?

Monitoring tools help identify issues in RAID arrays before they cause failures. Recommended practices include:

  • Monitor for disk errors and SMART status using RAID controller tools.
  • Watch for disks running outside normal temperature ranges.
  • Configure email/SMS alerts for faults and predictive failures.
  • Review array rebuild times as prolonged rebuilds can indicate problems.
  • Track performance metrics like latency spikes that flag disk problems.
  • Schedule periodic patrol reads to verify drive readability.
  • Monitor parity consistency in arrays like RAID 5/6.

Using a combination of RAID monitoring tools and vigilant administrators can help maximize uptime of RAID arrays.

How long does it take to rebuild a failed RAID array?

RAID rebuild times depend on several factors:

  • RAID level – RAID 1 is fastest as data is simply recopied from the mirror. Parity-based RAID takes longer.
  • Drive capacity – Higher capacity drives take longer to rebuild. Expect 1-2 hours per TB.
  • Workload activity – Rebuild times increase if array has high read/write traffic.
  • Controller and interface speed – Faster CPUs and interfaces (SAS vs. SATA) rebuild quicker.

As a general guideline, rebuild times typically range from:

  • RAID 1: 30 minutes – 2 hours
  • RAID 5: 2 – 6 hours
  • RAID 6: 4 – 10 hours

The longer an array runs in a degraded state, the greater the risk of a second disk failure. Rebuilds should be monitored closely.

What are some common causes of RAID failure?

RAID failures often result from the following preventable issues:

  • Multiple disk failures: Exceeding the number of disks the RAID level can withstand leads to immediate failure.
  • Controller malfunction: Buggy firmware, overheating, or hardware faults can crash the controller.
  • Improper handling: Physically jarring or powering off the array during rebuilds increases failure risks.
  • Overlooked warnings: Ignoring early signs of disk problems leads to eventual catastrophic failure.
  • Lack of monitoring: Unnoticed degraded performance or ecc errors precipitate eventual failure.
  • Poor ventilation: Allowing disks to overheat causes premature failure.

Following best practices in RAID configuration, monitoring, and maintenance helps prevent many avoidable RAID failures.

Can you recover data from a failed RAID array?

Data recovery from failed RAID arrays is possible in some scenarios:

  • RAID controller failure – Replace failed controller and disks often auto-rebuild from parity.
  • Partial disk failure – Repairing bad sectors may allow rebuild.
  • Deleted volumes – Accidentally deleted arrays can be restored from parity.
  • Professional data recovery – Labs can reconstruct data from platter images.

However, recovering from simultaneous catastrophic failure of multiple disks is usually not possible without backups. RAID alone is not sufficient.


While RAID has limitations, proper implementation provides enormous advantages of performance, capacity, and fault tolerance compared to standalone disks. Following best practices for RAID monitoring, maintenance, and backup ensures maximum uptime and availability.

Understanding the various RAID levels and their strengths allows matching the appropriate RAID configuration to your specific application needs. RAID continues to be a foundational technology for building reliable high-performance storage systems.