Supercharge your PC's storage with a RAID setup: Everything you need to know

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Setting up hardware RAID

raid card Marco Chiappetta

Add-in RAID cards can be used to add RAID capabilities to a system or to leverage a true hardware RAID configuration.

Configuring an array with a hardware RAID controller is fairly straightforward. If you’re using an add-in board, the first step is to actually install the card. Power down your system, insert that card into an available PCI-E slot, power up the system, and install whatever drivers are necessary for your OS. Installing a RAID controller card is really no different than any other add-in board.

If you’re planning to use your motherboard’s on-board RAID controller, the first step is to enter your system BIOS/UEFI, navigate to the integrated peripherals or SATA menu, and enable RAID, since most of today’s motherboard default to legacy IDE or AHCI modes.

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After entering the RAID option ROM, choose the option to create and array and follow the on-screen instructions.

Once RAID support is enabled (or your add-in card is installed), the next step is to physically connect your storage drives. Mount the drives into any available bays in your system, connect their power and data cables, and that’s basically it. When you boot your system with RAID enabled, you’ll see a prompt to enter the RAID controller’s option ROM, usually by pressing CTRL + I or CTRL + S.

After entering the RAID controller’s option ROM, you’ll be presented with a menu with the RAID management tools. It’s here where you can create an array, name it, select the drives and RAID mode, and configure options like the stripe size or total capacity. The exact steps will vary from controller to controller, but the process is usually quick and easy.

When you’ve completed configuring the array, save your changes, and it should be ready to use.

Setting up software RAID

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The first step in setting up software RAID is selecting a drive. Right-click on an available drive and select New Striped, New Mirrored, or New RAID-5 volume (if available) from the menu.

Using Windows’ built-in support for software RAID is simple. Assuming you’ve already got your drives connected, launch the Disk Management utility by right-clicking in the low-left corner of your screen (Windows 8/8.1) and select Disk Management from the menu. In Windows 7, click your Start button, right-click on Computer, choose Manage from the menu, and in the window that opens, click on Disk Management in the left column.

If your drives are brand new, you’ll be presented with the option to initial the drives. Do so and you’ll be brought to the main Disk Management menu, where all of the drives are listed.

To configure a software RAID, right-click on one of the drives you’d like to include in the array and select the option to create a new Striped (RAID 0), Mirrored (RAID 1), or Spanned (JBOD) volume. RAID 5 may also be an option if you’ve got at least 3 eligible drives installed. After selecting the volume type, a wizard will launch to walk you through the rest of the steps.

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When you’ve completed all of the steps in the wizard, Window’s Disk Management utility will color code the drives in the array and list then as dynamic disks.

In the second part of the wizard, you’ll be asked to select the rest of the drives to include in the array. The drive you originally selected will already be added. To add more, simply highlight them in the left pane and click the Add -> button.

Once you’ve added all of the drives and continued through the wizard, you’ll be asked to select a drive letter and format the array. After it’s formatted, the array is ready to use.

Side note: Windows 8 also has a feature dubbed Storage Spaces that allows you to pool multiple drives into a single large volume, complete with some optional resiliency features. It's kind of like RAID light and is dead simple to set up.

OS installation considerations

If you’re planning to create a new RAID array to install a fresh OS, follow the steps outlined in the hardware RAID section and then begin your OS installation as normal. Windows may recognize the array without any intervention because Microsoft includes drivers for many RAID controllers, but if the Windows installer doesn’t find your storage, you'll have to install your RAID controller drivers manually.

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To install Windows (or many other operating systems) to a RAID array, you may have to manually load drivers for the RAID controller.

During the initial part of the OS setup phase, there will be a button to load drivers. Place the drivers for your RAID controller on a flash drive, optical disk, or external HD, connect it to your machine, and browse to the drivers during the installation. Once the drivers are installed, you should be able to select the array as your Windows installation destination and continue on as you would with a single drive.

The final word

If you've got the cash (or the spare drives), setting up RAID is quick and easy. And if you decide to configure RAID on your PC, you’ll either enjoy the peace of mind that comes with redundancy or reap the benefits of additional performance.

To give you an idea of what a two-drive RAID 0 array can do with a pair of Intel 730 SSDs, consider this: A single Intel 730 series SSD offers approximately 536MB/s and 483MB/s read and write bandwidth with large sequential transfers. Pair up two drives in RAID 0, however, and those read and write numbers jump to an insane 1061MB/s and 924MB/s, respectively.

Now that’s face-meltingly fast storage. Be sure to back up your data regularly in case one of the drives fails though!

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