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ReEvaluating RAID5 and RAID6 for slower larger drives

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As we get to larger and larger flash and spinning disk drives, a common question I get is whether to use RAID5 versus RAID6. Here is my take on the matter.
A quick review of basic probability statistics
Failure rates are based on probabilities. Take for example a traditional sixsided die, with numbers one through six represented as dots on each face. What are the chances that we can roll the die several times in a row, that we will have no sixes ever rolled? You might think that if there is a 1/6 (16.6 percent) chance to roll a six, then you would guarantee hit a six after six rolls. That is not the case.
# of Rolls
Probability of no sixes (percent)
1
83.33
2
69.44
3
57.87
4
48.23
5
40.19
6
33.49
12
11.22
18
3.76
24
1.26
So, even after 24 rolls, there is more than 1 percent chance of not rolling a six at all. The formula is (11/6) to the 24th power.
Let's say that rolling one to five is success, and rolling a six is a failure. Being successful requires that no sixes appear in a sequence of events. This is the concept I will use for the rest of this post. If you don't care for the math, jump down to the "Summary of Results" section below.
Error Correcting Codes (ECC) and Unreadable Read Errors (URE)
When I speak to my travel agent, I have to provide my sixcharacter [Record Locator] code. Pronouncing individual letters can be error prone, so we use a "spelling alphabet".
The International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, sometimes known as the [NATO phonetic alphabet], has 26 code words assigned to the 26 letters of the English alphabet in alphabetical order as follows: Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, Xray, Yankee, Zulu.
Record Locator
Received
Result
FGMOVW
Foxtrot Golf Mike Oscar Victor Whiskey
Perfect!
Foxtrot Gold Mine Oscar Vector Whisker
Correctable
Boxcart Golf Miko Boxcart Victor Whiskey
Uncorrectable
Having five or so characters to represent a single character may seem excessive, but you can see that this can be helpful when communications link has static, or background noise is loud, as is often the case at the airport!
If spelling words are misheard, either (a) they are close enough like "Gold" for "Golf", or "Whisker" for "Whiskey", that the correct word is known, or (b) not close enough, such that "Boxcart" could refer to either "Foxtrot" or "Oscar" that we can at least detect that the failure occurred.
For data transfers, or data that is written, and later read back, the functional equivalent is an Error Correcting Code [ECC], used in transmission and storage of data. Some basic ECC can correct a single bit error, and detect double bit errors as failures. More sophisticated ECC can correct multiple bit errors up to a certain number of bits, and detect most anything worse.
When reading a block, sector or page of data from a storage device, if the ECC detects an error, but is unable to correct the bits involved, we call this an "Unrecoverable Read Error", or URE for short.
Bit Error Rate (BER)
Different storage devices have different block, sector or page sizes. Some use 512 bytes, 4096 bytes or 8192 bytes, for example. To normalize likelihood of errors, the industry has simplified this to a single bit error rate or BER, represented often as a power of 10.
Media
Bit Error Rate per read (BER)
Optical (BlueRay/DVD)
1E13
Consumer HDD (PC/Laptops)
1E14
Enterprise 15k/10k/7200 rpm
1E16
SolidState and Flash
1E17
LTO7
1E19
IBM TS1150 tape
1E20
In other words, the chance that a bit is unreadable on optical media is 1 in 10 trillion (1E13), on enterprise 15k drives is 1 in 10 quadrillion, and on LTO7 tape is 1 in 10 quintillion.
There are eight bits per byte, so reading 1 GB of data is like rolling the die eight billion times. The chance of successfully reading 1GB on DVD, then would be (1  1/1E13) to the 8 billionth power, or 99.92 percent, or conversely a 0.08 percent chance of failure.
In this paper, Google had studied drive failure using an "Annual Failure Rate" or AFR. Here are two graphs from this paper:
This first graph shows AFR by age. Some drives fail in their first 36 months, often called "infant mortality". Then they are fairly reliable for a few years, down to 1.7 percent, then as they get older, they start to fail more often, up to 8.3 percent.
This second graph factors in how busy the drives are. Dividing the drive set into quartiles, "Low" represents the least busy drives (the bottom quartile), "Medium" represents the median two quartiles, and "High" represents the busiest drives, the top quartile. Not surprisingly, the busiest drives tend to fail more often than mediumbusy drives.
Given an AFR, what are the chances a drive will fail in the next hour? There are 8,766 hours per year, so the success of a drive over the course of a year is like rolling the die 8,766 times. This allows us to calculate a "Drive Error Rate" or DER:
Media AFR
Drive Error Rate per hour (DER)
10
83,200
8
105,130
6
141,680
4
214,750
3
287,800
2
434,000
1
872,000
For example, an AFR=3 drive has a 1 in 287,800 chance of failing in a particular hour. The probability this drive will fail in the next 24 hours would be like rolling the die 24 times. The formula is (11/287,800) to the 24th power, resulting in a failure rate of roughly 0.008 percent.
RAID5 considerations
Let's take a typical RAID5 rank with 600GB drives at 15K rpm, in a 7+P RAID5 configuration.
During normal processing, if a URE occurs on a individual drive, RAID comes to the rescue. The system can rebuild the data from parity, and correct the broken block of data.
When a drive fails, however, we don't have this rescue, so a URE that occurs during the rebuild process is catastrophic. How likely is this? Data is read from the other seven drives, and written to a spare empty drive. At 8 bits per byte, reading 4200 GB of data is rolling the die 33.6 trillion times. The formula is then (11/E16) to the 33.6 trillionth power, or approximately 0.372 percent chance of URE during the rebuild process.
The time to perform the rebuild depends heavily on the speed of the drive, and how busy the RAID rank is doing other work. Under heavy load, the rebuild might only run at 25 MB/sec, and under no workload perhaps 90 MB/sec. If we take a 60 MB/sec moderate rebuild rate, then it would take 10,000 seconds or nearly 3 hours. The chance that any of the seven drives fail during these three hours, at AFR=10 rolling the DER die (7 x 3) 21 times, results in a 0.025 percent chance of failure.
It is nearly 15 times more likely to get a URE failure than a second drive failure. A rebuild failure would happen with either of these, with a probability of 0.397 percent.
The situation gets worse with higher capacity Nearline drives. Let's do a RAID5 rank with 6TB Nearline drives at 7200 rpm, in a 7+P configuration. The likelihood of URE reading 42 TB of data, is rolling the die 336 trillion times, or approximately 3.66 percent chance of URE failure. Yikes!
The time to rebuild is also going to take longer. A moderate rebuild rate might only be 30 MB/sec, so that rebuilding a 6TB drive would take 55 hours. The chance that one of the other seven drives fail, assuming again AFR=10, during these 55 hours results in a 0.462 percent.
This time, a URE failure is nearly eight times more likely than a double drive failure. The chance of a rebuild failure is 4.12 percent. Good thing you backed up to tape or object storage!
The math can be done easily using modern spreadsheet software. The URE failure rate is based on the quantity of data read from the remaining drives, so a 4+P with 600GB drives is the same as 8+P with 300GB drives. Both read 2.4 TB of data to recalculate from parity. The Double Drive failure rate is based on the number of drives being read times the number of hours during the rebuild. Slower, higher capacity drives take longer to rebuild. However, in both the 15K and 7200rpm examples, the chance of a URE failure was 8 to 15 times more likely than double drive failure.
RAID6 considerations
Many of the problems associated with RAID5 above can be mitigated with RAID6.
After a single drive fails, any URE during rebuild can be corrected from parity. However, if a second drive fails during the rebuild process, then a URE on the remaining drives would be a problem.
Let's start with the 600GB 15k drives in a 6+P+Q RAID6 configuration. The chance of a second drive failing is 0.0252 percent, as we calculated above. The likelihood of a URE is then based on the remaining six drives, 3600 GB of data. Doing the math, that is 0.0319 percent chance. So, the change of a URE during RAID6 failure is the probability of both occurring, roughly 0.0000806 percent. Far more reliable than RAID5!
Likewise, we can calculate the probability of a triple drive failure. After the second drive fails, the likelihood of a third drive at AFR=10, results in 0.00000546 percent.
Combining these, the chance of failure of rebuild is 0.000861 percent.
Switching to 6 TB Nearline drives, in a 6+P+Q RAID6 configuration, we can do the math in the same manner. The likelihood of URE and two drives failing is 0.0145 percent, and for triple drive failure is 0.00183 percent. Chance of rebuild failure is 0.0163 percent.
Summary of Results
Putting all the results in a table, we have the following:
Drive type
RAID5 rebuild failure (percent)
RAID6 rebuild failure (percent)
600GB 15K rpm
0.397
0.0000861
6 TB 7200rpm
4.12
0.0163
Hopefully, I have shown you how to calculate these yourself, so that you can plug in your own drive sizes, rebuild rates, and other parameters to convince yourself of this.
In all cases, RAID6 drastically reduced the probability of rebuild failure. With modern cachebased systems, the writepenalty associated with additional parity generally does not impact application performance. As clients transition from faster 15K drives to slower, higher capacity 10K and 7200 rpm drives, I highly recommend using RAID6 instead of RAID5 in all cases.