Windows 8 Storage Spaces (Part 1)

1/31/2013 3:23:49 PM

Fast, flexible and secure data storage is easy to set up with windows 8's storage spaces feature. Darien graham-smith shows you how it's done

Storage Spaces is a new feature in Windows 8 (and its server counterpart, Windows Server 2012) that could change the way you save and access files, The technology, developed by Microsoft’s server team, lets you combine the storage capacity of multiple disks into storage “pools”, then carve them up however you like to create any number of bespoke virtual disks. To be precise, it’s these virtual disks that Microsoft refers to as storage spaces.

What Storage Spaces Aren’t

If you’ve ever used the (now discontinued) Windows Home Server operating system, this talk of storage pools will be familiar to you. Home Server included a unique feature called Drive Extender that allowed you to save your personal files and backups to a virtual volume that was, in reality, spread across several physical disks. Hooking up any sort of internal or external drive and adding it to the pool could dynamically expand the storage capacity of your home server appliance.

Storage Spaces for Windows 8

Broadly speaking, this is how Storage Spaces works, too, but the two technologies aren’t the same. Storage Spaces is considerably more powerful than Drive Extender and, crucially, Drive Extender volumes aren’t compatible with Windows 8. If you have an existing Drive Extender pool and you want to migrate it into the new OS, you’ll have to copy the files off individually within Home Server.

Another point worth making is that storage spaces aren’t RAID volumes, although they work on similar principles. The idea of pooling multiple physical disks into one virtual volume is the foundation of RAID, and as we’ll discuss below, storage spaces can use RAID-style mirroring and parity techniques to keep your data safe. However, the system is designed to be more flexible and easier to administer, and thinking of a storage space in terms of conventional RAID levels will lead you astray. Announcing the arrival of the technology on the Building Windows 8 blog, Windows head Steven Sinof sky confirmed in no uncertain terms: “The RAID nomenclature is not used.”

Understanding Pools

If you want to take advantage of Storage Spaces, you must first create at least one pool of physical disks, on which your virtual drive will reside. We show you how to do this (and how to set up your first storage space) in the walkthrough on p101.

You can't add only specified partitions to a pool, either: it's the whole disk or nothing.

The number of disks you use in your pool is up to you. Officially a pool can support an unlimited number of drives, so the upper limit is governed only by your hardware: Microsoft says the technology has been successfully tested with “hundreds of drives”.

Equally, it’s possible to create a pool containing only a single disk. This might seem pointless, but it allows you to create a storage space that can be easily expanded by adding a second drive to the pool at a later date. However, there’s a big benefit to using multiple drives, since this lets you take advantage of the various storage space resiliency options, which well discuss below. Using more than one disk may also improve performance, since it allows Windows 8 to read and write data from multiple drives at the same time. Don’t expect superfast file transfers, though.

Be aware that when you add a disk to a pool, it’s completely wiped and becomes inaccessible to Windows. You can't access it through the Explorer, nor save regular files onto it directly; and if     you ever remove it from the pool, it will need to be reformatted before you can reuse it. You can't add only specified partitions to a pool, either: it's the whole disk or nothing.

You do, however, have a good deal of freedom when it comes to the sort of disk you use. A pool can contain both internal and external disks, using any combination of SATA, SAS and USB connections although including a USB 2 will reduce overall performance (see Using USB 2 with storage spaces, below).

Understanding Storage Spaces

Once you have at least one pool set up, you can create a storage space within it. You might assume that the simplest arrangement is to have one storage space on your system that takes up the full capacity of the pool, and this is indeed the default option.

Create Storage Space in Windows 8

Create Storage Space in Windows 8

’But you don’t have to be limited by your available hardware. Storage spaces use “thin provisioning”, which means your virtual volume can be larger than the space currently available, with the extra space called for only when you have that much actual data to store. When your available disks run low on space, you’ll receive a warning from Windows, giving you a chance to resolve this situation by adding another disk to the pool.

Regardless of how much physical storage is on hand, the maximum size for a storage space is 63TB. You might choose to specify a smaller capacity than this if you want to make sure your volume stays below a certain size. You can always increase the provisioned size of an existing storage space after the fact if need be, but oddly you can't reduce it, so when you create a storage space it's worth giving a moment's thought to whether you might want to limit its size down the line.

The benefit of thin provisioning isn't limited to single virtual volumes. With no need for a one-to-one relationship between virtual capacity and physical disk sectors, you can create as many storage spaces as you like, all backed by the same pool of drives, with nominal maximum capacities that add up to dozens or hundreds of times the physical capacity available.

It all adds up to a highly versatile system in which any number of physical disks can be presented as any number of virtual volumes, of any virtual size. The only limitation is that a single storage space must be contained within a single pool. Other than that, you can create whatever configuration you like.

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