In storage circles, much discussion has arisen from the very interesting papers (here and here) investigating disk drive reliability presented recently at FAST '07. Other columnists and bloggers, such as Frank Hayes and Robin Harris, have already done an excellent job of covering them. Rather than repeat the details, I'd like to take the perspective of what the implications are for service level commitments with the storage infrastructure.

In tiered storage architectures, distinctions among service levels are commonly based on attributes like performance and availability. Given the findings of these studies, it's worthwhile to review service levels and the design of supporting storage tiers.

Of the various findings, two factors stand out in this regard. The first is the lack of a reliable failure predictability model. The Google study, examining attributes such as age, heat, access, and SMART diagnostic data in consumer drives, found many drives failed without prior indication. The Carnegie Mellon (CMU) study does suggest that age is a factor in reliability, but it becomes significant far sooner than expected - in as little as two years. So, while the probability of a drive failing increases as it ages, the only meaningful action that can be taken from a service delivery perspective is to continue with regular tech refreshes (e.g., a 3-year cycle) and perhaps to institute a process to record and analyse disk failure as in these studies, but tailored to the particular environment.

Second, if you are making commitments of availability greater than three nine's (99.9%), the CMU study confirms what hopefully you already know: you absolutely should not depend solely on RAID 5. The increased likelihood of failure among related drives found in the study along with the increasingly long rebuild times required for the current crop of high capacity drives creates a risk of data loss that should not be ignored. In fact, I would suggest that either replication or host-based volume management mirroring to another storage system be implemented to support these availability levels. If this is not feasible then within a single storage array improved availability through mirroring (e.g. RAID 10 or RAID 50 -- mirrored RAID 5 sets), or dual parity (e.g. RAID 6) should be considered.

Disk drives are miraculous devices and, current headlines to the contrary, they are incredibly reliable given what they do. But when you have hundreds or thousands of them spinning continuously, some number of failures are unavoidable. Understanding the risks, reviewing service commitments, and being prepared for the inevitable is a must.

Jim Damoulakis is chief technology officer of GlassHouse Technologies Inc., a leading provider of independent storage services. He can be reached at [email protected]