Rethinking RAID Cards on Isolated ESXi Hosts

When building any standalone server (a server without a SAN or NAS for storage), one of the considerations is how to handle storage. This typically includes a conversation about RAID, and making sure the local storage has some protection.

With ESXi, this is a bit trickier than most operating systems, since ESXi doesn’t do software RAID like you can get with Linux or Windows, nor does it support the motherboard BIOS RAID you get with most motherboards these days (which isn’t hardware RAID, just another version of software RAID).

So if you want to RAID out your standalone ESXi box, you’re going to need to purchase a supported hardware RAID card. These cards aren’t the $40 ones on Newegg, either. They tend to be a few hundred bucks (to a few thousands, depending).

Most people who are serious about building a serious ESXi server dig around and try to find a RAID card that will work, either buying new, scrounging for parts, or hitting up eBay.

My suggestion to you if you’re looking to put a RAID card in your standalone ESXi host, consider this:

Are you sure you need a RAID card?

The two primary reasons people do RAID is for data integrity (lose a drive, etc.) and for performance.

As far as data integrity goes, I find people tend make the same mistake I used to: They put too much faith in RAID arrays as a method to keep data safe. One of the most important lesson I’ve ever learned in storage is that RAID is not a backup. It’s worth saying again:

RAID Is Not A Backup

I’ve yet to have RAID save my soy bacon, and in fact in my case it’s caused more problems than its solved. However, I’ve been saved many times by a good backup. My favorite form of backup that doesn’t involve a robot? A portable USB drive. They’re high capacity, they don’t require a DC power brick, and easily stored.

Another reason to do RAID is performance. Traditional HDDs are, well, slow. They’re hampered by the fact they are physical devices. By combining multiple drives in a RAID configuration, you can get a higher number of IOPS (and throughput, but for virtual machines that’s typically not as important).

More drives, more IOPS.

A good hardware RAID card will also have a battery-backed up RAM cache, which while stupid fast, only works if you actually hit the cache.

But there’s the thing: If you need performance, you’re going to need a lot of hard drives. Like, a lot. Remember that SNL commercial from years ago? How many bowls of your regular bran cereal does it take to equal one bowl of Colon Blow Cereal? I’ve got an SSD that claims 80,000 IOPS. Assuming I get half that, I’d need about 500 hard drives in a RAID 0 array to get the same number of IOPS. And that’s without any redundancy. That’s a lot of PERC cards and a lot of drives.

So want performance? Why not ditch the PERC and spend that money on an SSD. Of course, SSDs aren’t as cheap as traditional HDD on a per gigabyte basis, so you’ll just want to put virtual disks on the SSD that can really benefit from. Keep your bulk storage (such as file server volumes) on cheap SATA drives, and back them up regularly (which you should do with or without a RAID array).

Another idea might be to spend the RAID card money on a NAS device. You can get a 4 or 5 bay NAS device for the price of a new RAID card these days, and they can be used for multiple ESXi hosts as well as other uses. Plus, they handle their own RAID.

Ideally of course, you want you server with RAID storage, ECC memory, IPMI or other out of band management, SSD data stores, a SAN, a backup system with a robot, etc. But if you’re building a budge box, I’m thinking the RAID card can be skipped.

2 Responses to Rethinking RAID Cards on Isolated ESXi Hosts

  1. Chris says:

    Good points! Another option would be to put the hypervisor on a USB flash drive and save the disks for only VMs. I use a small, 16 GB USB flash drive on an internal USB port to house the ESXi 5 install on my home servers, and then have a number of 1TB SATA drives for VMs. I did end up springing for a PERC6 card from Dell for the disks, but this was before SSD was a viable option (both financially and from a storage consumption standpoint).

    As for backup, I just keep another 16 GB USB flash drive handy with ESXi 5 loaded in case the primary one fails. It cost <$10 on Newegg, so who cares. 🙂

  2. Mehere says:

    and why exactly do you need a 16GB USB? ESXi 4.1 fit on 1(!)GB stick for me, 5.0 maybe (just maybe!) needs a 2GB stick.

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