One of the coolest new features in Windows 8 has got to be Storage Spaces. However, to novices and casual users, this new technology might be a bit confusing at first. However, once explained at a high level, I can assure you that it’s not that difficult to understand at all. The good news is that Microsoft has made sure that this new technology just works without you having to read a 50 page technical whitepaper, unless of course you’re a geek like me and you like that sort of thing. But alas, if you’ve read any of my previous articles before, you know that I usually do not like to just jump into the procedures. As with other things, a fairly good understanding of the actual technology itself goes a long way. So here, I’m going explain a little of just what Storage Spaces is and how it can help you. I’m then going to go into how you can easily build your own Storage Space solution to help mirror your data. Again, don’t feel intimated if what I’ve just said sounds scary! By the end of the article, I’m sure you’ll still have a completely functional computer and that nothing will have blown up in your face.
What is Storage Spaces?
Storage Spaces is Microsoft’s new storage technology built into the Windows 8 client and Server platform. At it’s core, Storage Spaces allows you to pool together a bunch of physical hard disks and then carve a piece of that storage out to serve to the operating system. That ‘piece’ of carved storage space, while it may seem to the operating system as just a physical hard disk in of itself, in the background though it is being protected and monitored through the Storage Spaces technology. Another way to think of Storage Spaces is to think of it as storage virtualization. So what’s the benefits? Why should you even care about this technology and what’s wrong with just sticking to the old model of just plugging in a hard disk and be done with it? With Storage Spaces, you actually have a very inexpensive way of providing data backup due to the redundancy features built-in. Looking at it from a different angle, for users who are still not confident in storing their most confidential data and files to the cloud, Storage Spaces is a very viable solution because your data never leaves your hard drives. To better understand Storage Spaces, here is a more high level breakdown:
- You have a bunch of physical disks connected to the computer with Windows 8 installed.
- You create a storage pool consisting of those empty disks.
- You carve out storage space(s) out of that storage pool while configuring redundancy features, if any.
- The result is of that storage space is a virtual hard disk file.
- You present the VHD to your computer and use it as a normal hard disk. Storage Spaces works in the background.
If some of this sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. To many, Storage Spaces sounds a lot like RAID technology. In many ways, it actually does resemble RAID. However, Storage Spaces is a lot more flexible. You can actually use hard disks connected to your system via USB, which is what many home users use today. If not, Storage Spaces works equally well with SATA hard disks connected internally as well. Once you create a storage pool, all those hard disks work as one unit.For a more thorough explanation on Storage Spaces, please read this Building Windows 8 blog post going over this specific topic.
One of the main purposes of Storage Spaces is to help protect your data by using commodity (a.k.a cheap) hard disks. By incorporating redundancy features, you can create virtual hard disks out of a storage pool and know that your data is being protected in the background all without you having to really do anything. Storage Spaces actually provide you with three different methods of dealing with a storage space that you create:
Simple: This mode does not provide any redundancy features. What Storage Spaces will do is stripe your data across multiple drives. The advantage of doing this is that you have more physical disks working in the background to read and write your data which should equate to faster I/O operations. Again, there is no redundancy feature in Simple mode. It is purely a performance gain.
Mirroring: This is the mode that most users will take advantage of on their home computers. With this mode, Storage Spaces will keep two or three copies of your data. For example, if you create a two way mirror, any data that you write will be duplicated on another drive. Therefore, if the first drive fails, you can continue right on working by using the mirrored drive.
Striping with Parity: This mode is similar to Simple mode but Storage Spaces will also write parity information across the drives. While this parity data does take extra space, you are able to rebuild an entire physical disk should it fail by using the parity information. With Simple mode, a single hard disk failure will cause the entire storage space to fail.
- Windows 8 client operating system
- Two physical hard disks to create a two way mirror or three hard disks for three way mirroring/parity mode
- Drives must be blank and unformatted
- Drives must be at least 10GB in size
- Drives can be attached via SATA, SCSI, iSCSI, SAS or USB
The beauty with Storage Spaces is that once you create your storage pool, you can easily add more physical hard disks to the pool at anytime to increase the storage.Storage Spaces cannot be used to protect your main operating system drive. It can be used for data storage only.
How to Configure a Two-Way Mirror with Storage Spaces
In this simple demo, I have a Windows 8 machine. I will go over how to create a two way mirror with Storage Spaces. Once completed, the result would be a virtual hard disk presented to Windows 8, which will view it as a ‘physical hard disk’. Data I create in this storage space will be mirrored or duplicated.Microsoft suggestion is that you should not treat Storage Spaces as a replacement for traditional data backup and that it cannot be treated as a data recovery solution as well. This can be a little confusing because isn’t that the whole point for some users? If a drive fails in a two way mirror, doesn’t retrieving files from the mirrored drive count as data recovery? If my data is duplicated on another drive, why can’t that count as a backup? If I perform a traditional backup, aren’t I doing the same thing by making a copy of the original data on drive A and placing it on drive B? The main argument where the backup issue is concerned is due to the fact that the disks that comprise of your Storage Pool are all usually located within your system. A stolen computer or a computer that has been destroyed by a natural disaster in most cases will also destroy all data across all drives in the Storage Pool.
With Storage Spaces, everything you need is already built-in to Windows 8. There is no additional features to install or add. There is no additional download required from the Internet. The requirements are those I’ve listed above. Mainly, you will need two completely unformatted drives connected to your system. That means no existing data or volumes should exist within them. Once you’ve gotten this prerequisite down, you can begin to create a storage pool.
Creating a Storage Pool and Space
Here I have two disks connected to my machine, each with about 12GB of storage. There are different ways of configuring Storage Spaces but for most consumers, they would want to use the Storage Spaces control panel applet as it provides a nice graphical user interface so that’s what I’ll do here. When you open the Storage Spaces applet, click on the link to create a storage pool. Here, Storage Spaces will present any available disks that is available that meets the requirements of creating a storage pool:
I want both disks to be in the storage pool so both drives are checked. Next, we carve out our storage space and configure the settings for it. We give the storage space (drive) a name, a drive letter, resiliency type, and size. What is interesting about storage spaces is that you can actually specify more disk space that what you actually have available. This is called thin provisioning. For example, I could specify to create a storage space here of 100GB even though I obviously don’t have that much actual space to begin with in the storage pool. As my data grows, Storage Spaces will notify me that I’m running out of disk space and I can then easily add more storage to the pool to continue right where I left off.
Once completed, Storage Spaces will proceed to create the storage space for us. Remember, the result of this will be a VHD file. But shhh…Windows 8 doesn’t have to know that.
Back at the Storage Spaces applet, we can now see that our storage space have been completed. We also see some pretty basic information about our storage pool.
That’s it! Hard to believe it right? With just a couple of clicks, I have successfully created a two way mirror drive all without having to mess with complex RAID settings, drivers, disk configuration, etc. This is the beauty with Storage Spaces. Anyone and I mean anyone can do it. When I head over to Disk Management, I can see that the storage space have been formatted with the NTFS file system (drive letter E:). As you can see, the computer thinks that I actually have a 100GB physical disk installed when in fact that’s far from the truth!
In File Explorer, you can see that the drive is ready for use just like any other drive.
Testing Storage Spaces
Now that I’ve got my simple two way mirrored drive configured and ready to go, I’ll want to now test the configuration. Besides, what good is a resiliency system if we’re not going to test it out to see if it actually works?! For this very simple test, I’ve already created some pictures and Word documents in the mirrored drive. I did this when everything was working correctly. To simulate a hard drive error, I’m just going to completely disconnect one of the disks. If you remember from earlier, my storage pool consists of just two 12GB disks. Well, one of them will be disconnected here to simulate a failed hard drive. In the picture below is a screenshot of my Windows 8 virtual machine settings. You can see that ‘Hard Disk 1’ has been removed. Both Hard Disk 1 and Hard Disk 2 were the disks used for my storage pool. With it removed, I will proceed to reboot back in to Windows 8 and see what will happen.
Well, as you can see below, my files are indeed intact even after the removal/failure of one of the hard drive!
Of course, I also get a warning within the Action Center and within the Storage Spaces control panel applet that something is wrong.
This leads us to our final question. How do we remove/add drives from our current storage pool? The answer is simple: with a couple of clicks! Every basic task can be accomplished right in the Storage Spaces applet within control panel and it’s completely intuitive. Before I can remove the failed drive, I will first have to add additional drives to the storage pool to replace it. Here I will add an additional two extra 15GB disk by clicking on the ‘Add drives’ link in the storage pool configuration. You can see the additional drives added to the storage pool below. I can now proceed remove the failed drive by clicking on the ‘Remove’ link next to the appropriate drive.
What is so awesome about all this? Storage Spaces will take care of all the background tasks for us. Everything is pretty much automatic. If I carve out another storage space out of my existing storage pool, everything will be managed for me behind the scenes. As long as I have the actual hard drive space for it, I’m good to go. Remember, the resulting storage space acts like a ‘real’ physical hard disk. You would use it like how you would with any other hard drives. Heck, you can even choose to enable Bitlocker on the storage space for extra protection!
The other beneficial reason for using Storage Spaces is perhaps due to its self-healing feature. Basically, Storage Spaces on Windows 8 should be smart enough to recover from any errors that it might encounter. If it should find something not to its liking, it will give you a notice and you can then act on it. One very good question brought up is what happens to your storage pool/spaces when you migrate to a new Windows 8 computer or rebuild your current machine. Fortunately, there isn’t really anything that you need to do. If you are migrating to a new Windows 8 machine, plugging in the drives that consists of your storage pool will automatically allow Windows 8 to acknowledge the configuration. Of course, for this to happen, at least two requirements are required. One is that your machine is loaded with the Windows 8 operating system. Earlier operating systems will not recognize the special partitions created by the Storage Spaces feature. The other requirement is that you must have the minimum disks connected for your Storage Space configuration. For example, if you’ve configured a two-way mirror, then you must have both drives connected for it to meet the minimum requirements. For other configurations that deal with additional hard disks, you can reconnect them at a later time.
When you perform a reformat of Windows 8 or invoke either the Reset or Refresh feature, your storage pool and spaces will be preserved as well without you really having to do anything. In a simple test I conducted, my two-way mirror storage space configuration was immediately recognized in my newly built Windows 8 machine as soon as I reconnected the two hard disks. Windows 8 picked up the configuration and my Storage Space was immediately available within File Explorer.The bad news for some is that in most scenarios, Windows 8 should self-heal itself and that minimal reconfiguration is necessary as stated above. However, some users might encounter more problematic errors due to their system configuration. If this does happen, then more advance troubleshooting is necessary and for this, Windows 8 now relies on the more advance Powershell integration. Think of Powershell as the traditional command line interface but on steroids. Hopefully you won’t ever have to deal with this situation if you intend to work with Storage Spaces in the future.
In the End…
You just saw how easy it was for me to create a simple two way mirror Storage Space. In no time at all, I got two physical drives pooled together into a storage pool and immediately thereafter, created a storage space to actually use. All of this is great but I’m still willing to assume that not much users will actually use this feature, let alone even knowing about it. It’s not like Windows 8 actually comes with a manual of some kind talking about some of the newest features it includes. Even if it did, most users wouldn’t even bother to read it! The good news is that for businesses of all sizes, Storage Spaces is definitely a money saver. By being able to use cheaply purchased commodity drives, they are still able to utilize some type of resiliency for data backup and storage. This is huge, especially for smaller businesses, because no longer is purchasing an expensive SAN array necessary. Storage Spaces is free of charge to use and best part of all, it can work with hard disks connected to your system in a myriad of ways.
Personally, I see Storage Spaces as one of the biggest features in Windows 8. Many would most likely argue that Storage Spaces is the same as RAID, which could be configured in previous versions of Windows as well. However, even if assuming that they are the same, you can’t argue how much simpler Storage Spaces is. Commodity drives will no doubt become cheaper and bigger as years go by. Storage Spaces makes a lot of sense right now. Just gather up a bunch of drives, throw them in a pool and then carve out the space that you need. Windows 8 will take care of the rest. Best of all, Storage Spaces is definitely attractive for users who just really don’t care about backing up their data. I’ve spent countless hours going over many different backup methods for different users. Everyone is different and so I usually try to approach the problem from their perspective. Many times in the end though, they just ending up not caring. If I can just teach them about Storage Spaces (or better yet, just do it for them and save some breath!), they just have to configure it once and not have to worry about it. It’s so much more simple!