How to Upgrade Your Workstation With High-Capacity RAID Data Storage

eWEEK HOW-TO FEATURE PART 3: You’ll probably notice the most immediate improvement in speeding up your old workstation when you replace your old hard drives with SSDs, but what to do about the RAID system?

Workstation SSD Storage Upgrades

When it comes to speeding up your older workstation, replacing the existing hard disks with solid state drives is probably the first step you should consider.

Your workstation depends on its mass storage devices for more than just storing data and programs. Those swap files I mentioned in my previous column about workstation memory can have a significant impact on the overall performance of your workstation. That factor coupled with the time it takes to load data, means that an upgrade here is the most significant thing you can do to boost performance.

The HP Z620 professional workstation in this series has room for four internal hard disks. Other workstations from HP and other makers may have more or fewer. The reason for the multiple hard disks is so that they can be configured as RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) devices.

By having this redundant array, the failure of a single disk will not cause the loss of data. In addition, the process of fixing a dead disk is simple—all you have to do is remove the one that’s dead and replace it with a new one. The RAID controller and your operating system will integrate the new drive into the RAID and rebuild it.

It’s important to know that there are several types of RAID, and the choice you make when you configure the system when it’s set up can affect reliability and performance. Here are the types of RAID, and an explanation of how they affect your workstation:

  • RAID 0: you need at least two disks, and data is striped across all of them. This configuration has excellent performance because the disk controller can go immediately to the sought after data. But there’s no redundancy, so the loss of one disk means the loss of all data. 
  • RAID 1: you need at least two disks, and they’re mirrored, so you have redundancy. If one disk bites the dust, you simply replace it without losing data, but you lose half of your total storage capacity. 
  • RAID 5: you need at least 3 disks. Data is striped across all three disks, but redundant data is also written, so that if one disk fails, you can replace it and rebuild the array without a data loss. In a three-disk array, you’ll lose the capacity of one disk to the redundancy. Reads in a RAID 5 system are very fast, but writes can be slow because of the need to write redundantly. 
  • RAID 10: you need at least 4 disks. This is a mirrored RAID 0 system in which one striped array is mirrored by another. It has the redundancy of a RAID 1, and the performance of a RAID 0 system, but you need four disks and only get the capacity of two. This is probably the most common arrangement for professional workstations. 

The HP workstation in this project has four disks in a RAID 10 configuration. Three of those disk drives are housed in sound-proofed carriers that are described by HP as tool-free. With these carriers the disk drive simply snaps into the carrier which then slides into the computer’s chassis. It’s a fast and easy way to replace a failed drive.

However the fourth drive is another matter. It’s housed in the computer’s nether regions above the DVD drive where access requires removing the cooling fans and air ducts for the memory and then sliding out the carrier that holds the hard drive. It’s not particularly difficult, just not as quick and easy as the others.

Replacing the drives with SSDs isn’t difficult either, but you will need to get some adapters so that the new drives will fit the carriers. In the case of our HP workstation, these are specialized mounting brackets that position the SSD so that it will plug into the drive carrier in the right place so that the drive carrier in turn will slide into the chassis and mate properly. The fourth drive just needs an adapter bracket so that the 2.5-inch SSD will fit into a 3.5-inch space. The existing SATA cables will work fine.

But before you start replacing drives, there are other considerations to think of first. If the computer that you’re upgrading needs the data that’s on the existing hard disks, you’ll need to back it up first. What kind of backup you choose also matters and depends on the upgrade strategy you choose.

One strategy with a RAID-equipped workstation is to simply replace the drives one at a time, let the controller integrate the new drive and then let the operating system rebuild the array. Because SSDs are so much faster than hard disks, the process won’t take too long, but you’ll need to confirm that it’s done before you start on the next drive.

The other strategy is to create an image of the existing virtual disk, save that, then replace the drives, configure them in the RAID version you want, then reload the operating system. The software that I’ve used for this is Acronis True Image, which is reasonably priced, and has the ability to save an image of your system, and then restore it to hardware that’s not exactly the same as what it was on originally.

For this project, we purchased four Crucial MX500 SSDs each with 500 GB capacity. These are highly reliable drives with built-in encryption and they’ll probably outlast the computer they’re installed in. These SSDs, and others like them, come with standard SATA interfaces. They will also handle the full 6 gigabit per second transfer rate of SATA III. They are 2.5-inch drives, which is why you need those adapters. I chose that size because the existing drives are also 500 GB, but I could have used even larger SSDs.

Once in place, the SSDs will draw significantly less power, they’re dramatically faster, and they operate in total silence. The actual process of replacement takes only a few minutes, not counting the time to do backups and to restore data to the drives, or to wait for the RAID system to rebuild itself.

Depending on the details of your workstation, the whole drive replacement process is something nearly anyone in the IT shop can do. It requires few extra skills, but it’s fast. The results are remarkable.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...