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Hardware Today: Choosing a RAID Controller

By Ben Freeman (Send Email)
Posted Apr 5, 2004


The last time we looked at server room components, we examined NAS and SANs. This week, Hardware Today returns to the storage corner of the data center to focus on RAID controllers.

Shopping for a RAID controller? We map out this complex maze, outlining some of the differences in SATA vs. SCSI and iSCSI vs. Fibre channel.

The RAID controller is best described up as a device in which servers and storage intersect. The controller can be internal to the server, in which case it is a card or chip, or external, in which case it is an independent enclosure, such as a NAS. In either case, the RAID controller manages the physical storage units in a RAID system and delivers them to the server in logical units (e.g., six physical disks may be used to ensure that one drive stays correctly backed up but the server sees only one drive).

A RAID controller is almost never purchased separately from the RAID itself, but it is a vital piece of the puzzle and therefore not as much a commodity purchase as the array.

A RAID (redundant array of independent disks) system is simply a collection of disk drives that employ two or more drives in combination for fault tolerance and performance. RAID drives vary in robustness from Level 0 (data striping without redundancy) to Level 5 (data striping at the byte level with stripe error correction information).

Lots of Options

Like the controllers that manage them, RAID devices are internal or external to the server, and it is here the waters grow murky. Enterprises have five routes they can explore when choosing a controller and a device. The first choice to be made though is whether to go with an internal or external solution.

In "external controller based storage ... the RAID controller and the disk technology are all outside of a host based server, and normally housed in high availability enclosures," Gartner research vice president Roger Cox told ServerWatch. The second type is "host based storage," which breaks down further into two categories, also internal and external. In simplest terms, host based storage can be internal or external; non-host based storage exists autonomously and does require a host server.

The following table breaks out the basic storage options.

Storage Options
Host Based External Controller Based
Internal External All External
SATA SCSI JBOD Enclosures iSCSI Fibre Channel


According to Gartner data, host based storage, also known as direct-attached storage, accounted for 34 percent of the overall market for external storage, with the remaining 66 percent going to "fabric-attached" (network) storage. Cox expects this share to grow from 66 percent to 77 percent by 2007.

>> Internal vs. External, and More

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