Yes, you can protect data with Windows 8 Storage Spaces

Storage Spaces

My wife is an avid photographer. Although she has never taken it up full-time, she is semi-professional and has shot many weddings and parties. Since I’m an IT guy, I’ve been tasked with keeping her photos safe. She would kill me if our important files were not protected in the event of a hard drive failure. At the time she started taking photos, Microsoft had just released Windows Home Server, which is a great way to back up all of your home or office computers to one central location, and it provides shared data storage as well. But to me one of the best features was the Drive Extender.

Versions of Windows storage

Drive Extender allowed you to add extra hard drives to a pool of disks and use the pool as one big storage facility. Plus, you had the added feature of being able to select which shares you want to duplicate so that if a drive in your pool failed, then you would still have a copy of what was important to you. When adding disks to the pool you could choose Serial ATA (SATA), USB, FireWire, or IDE drives and they could all be different capacities. Imagine never running out of disk space. When you needed more space you just added another disk.

Then Microsoft released Windows Home Server 2011 and Drive Extender was removed. Needless to say, there was a lot of negative feedback heading Microsoft’s way after that, and many loyal fans of Drive Extender refused to upgrade to the latest OS just because of this wonderful missing part.

With the release of Windows 8 and Server 2012, Microsoft has added a new feature called Storage Spaces. Storage Spaces works and acts an awful lot like Drive Extender, but with many enhancements to help protect your data. Surely many of you think I’m crazy and should be pushing hardware RAID configurations like Mirroring or Striping with Parity, but I am not.

You should also know that not everyone needs to use Windows 8 Storage Spaces. Trust me, when I’m installing a new server for a customer I make sure I have the hardware level protection of RAID to help protect the data. But not every home or small business can afford a RAID Array or a SAN/NAS device.

Storage Spaces allows you to create a pool of disks that can be easily expanded as your needs grow. The disks that make up the pool can be SATA, USB, or SAS (Serial Attached SCSI) and can be different capacities. This allows you to take the extra drives you may have left over from upgrades, and create a large storage area using the combined capacity of all of your old disks. Once disks are added to the pool they are no longer directly usable by the rest of Windows. They’ve been virtualized, or, dedicated to the pool in their entirely. We then create one or more Storage Spaces, each of which will show up to the operating system as a logical disk.

When you think of RAID, you have fault tolerant levels of RAID and one level of RAID that is not fault tolerant. You have similar abilities with Storage Spaces. By using resiliency in Storage Spaces you will be duplicating your data across more than one drive which will cut your overall space available for storage. However, in almost all circumstances this is a sacrifice worth making to protect your photos, music and videos.

Simple Storage Spaces

A simple Storage Space is like RAID 0 where you can combine two or more drives into a logical drive. The data is distributed across the disks to increase performance but at the cost of fault tolerance or as the Three Musketeers would say “All for one, and one for all.” This means if one drive fails then all drives fail.

Two-way or three-way mirroring

RAID 1 allows you to store the same data on multiple disks, creating a mirrored image or copy of the data on two or more disks. With Storage Spaces you have two choices for mirroring your data: two or three-way mirroring. Two-way mirroring will store two copies of the data using two or more disks. If one of the disks storing your data fails you have another copy of the same data on a different drive in your pool. Three-way will store three copies of your data using five or more disks. This method will help if you have multiple drives that fail.

Parity

RAID 5 allows you to stripe your data across three or more drives and stripes a parity area across the same drive to help with a single disk failure. With Storage Spaces you can configure a parity mode to do a similar task. But using parity has higher performance overhead and Microsoft recommends that you use parity with large files that are rarely changed.

Thick or Thin?

This almost sounds like a pizza crust debate. With Storage Spaces we’re looking at provisioning or whether to divide all the space at once or as needed.

Thick provisioning

When you create a storage pool, thick provisioning will use all available space in the storage pool at the time of creation whether it is used or not. If you choose Thick Provisioning you are limited to the size of the physical disks in the pool, although you can add more disks later and expand the pool.

For example, if you create a 100 GB storage pool and use thick provisioning, you will allocate all 100 GB at the time of creation even though you may only be using 1 GB or 2 GB in the beginning.

Thin provisioning

When you create a storage pool, thin provisioning will allocate just what is needed at the time of creation and then grow as needed. You could actually consider the size you enter at the time of creation as a theoretic maximum limit which can be larger than what you have for physical capacity. For example, if you create 1 TB storage pool and use thin provisioning you will allocate 1 GB or 2 GB in the beginning and then the space will grow as needed until it hits the 1 TB limit you set. The advantage to using thin provisioning is that you don’t actually need to have 1 TB of physical disk space since you only use what you need. However, you will need to monitor disk space to make sure you do not run out of physical space or the disk will become unavailable until more space is added.

Does Storage Spaces replace backups?

As you can see Storage Spaces in Windows 8 can offer benefits over standard storage methods if you have multiple physical disks, especially if you want to maintain a running copy of your data in the event of a disk failure. However, Storage Spaces do not replace a good back up strategy. Think about what can happen when a power supply goes out, or a motherboard takes out the storage controller which corrupts the physical disks. A good Windows backup to either an external hard disk or the cloud is still something you need to strongly consider depending on how important your data is to you.

My choice was to use a two-way mirror backed up to a mirrored external drive. Remember, we’re talking about keeping the wife happy in the event of a hardware failure, but I also went two steps further just in case. I back up twice a month to a portable external drive that goes in a fire-proof box (if there is such a thing), and really import files are also stored in a cloud drive. You may call this overkill, but remember that imported photos of your kids growing up cannot be replaced if a drive failure happens.

So what do you think of Storage Pools and Storage Spaces? What backup methods do you use to protect your import data? Let us know.

Learn how to install and configure your own Windows environment by watching Server 2012 Training taught by Microsoft MVP Ed Liberman. Sign up for a free 3-day trial today to get access to TrainSignal’s entire Microsoft library and over 100 other courses.

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