The case for RAID

A chicken in every pot and two hard disks in every Mac.

I’ve been thinking about The Intel Macs of the Future (say it with lots of reverb) for the past two posts. So far, I’ve pined for black Power Macs, a sub-notebook, and a new, highly customizable mini-tower model. Today’s suggestion cuts across all model lines, and is probably even less likely to become a reality. But maybe, just maybe, it’s an idea whose time has come…or will eventually come. Just hear me out.

I’ve set up several of my family members with Macs. We’ve always been a “Mac family,” but a few sheep have strayed from the flock from time to time. At one point, for example, my sister somehow got it into her head that buying an eMachines PC and signing up for NetZero was a good idea.

That machine was the slowest, most useless, virus-and-spyware-ridden piece of crap imaginable. Doing anything on it took forever. This was back in the days of dial-up, mind you, but that was no excuse. The only thing my sister could reliably do at all was launch IE (ignoring the dozen or so spyware/virus/NetZero banners that reduced the usable content area of her screen to an even smaller postage stamp on her already-small 14-inch bubble of a CRT) and read her email using Hotmail. (Of course she chose Hotmail as her free email provider.)

The situation was grim. Her PC was doing substantially less for her than its discount vs. a “real” computer—Mac or PC—could justify. The free ISP was just the poop-flavored icing on the crapcake. My sister needed to be saved.

She was reluctant, believe it or not. This is the same person who used a Mac 128k (upgraded to a Plus) and an ImageWriter I during her four years of college (class of 1993), plus several years afterwards. (In case you’re wondering how she networked the thing, she ran AOL 1.x through a Global Village external modem.) The eMachines PC was her very next computer. While she was not exactly satisfied with the experience, she didn’t think it was that bad. (I guess upgrading from a an 8MHz CPU and a 9-inch monochrome screen will do that to you.)

Eventually, I managed to get her into a 17-inch "sunflower" LCD iMac, which (predictably) she uses to this day. With it, she does things she’d never have imagined doing with the dreaded eMachine. Yes, she still uses HotMail, but she also organizes digital photos, prints photo albums, creates web pages, and burns CDs and DVDs. She even thinks the little computer is cute. Overall, she’s more than satisfied.

Furthermore, I’m satisfied that she’s getting all she could hope to get out of her computing experience. She’s no computer geek, but she does nearly everything that’s advertised as part of the “Mac experience.” And she does it all without any substantial help from me. (When she asked if her computer could “make DVDs,” the extent of my help was telling her the name of the application (“iDVD”) and the fact that it was stored in her “Applications” folder.)

Yes, I’m actually going somewhere with this. The title of this post kind of gives it away, actually, but let me spell it out. My sister seems like she’s all set as far as computing goes. She requires minimal tech support and does a lot of useful things with her Mac. She’s got thousands of digital photos of her kids, music, home movies, the works. Perhaps you’re starting to see the problem…

My sister’s iMac, like many Macs today, is a victim of its own success. Her Mac has made creating and organizing digital content so easy that it now contains gigabytes of the stuff. I often find myself thinking ominously about the consequences of a catastrophic hard drive failure in her now almost three-year-old iMac. All those photos, all those movies, just…gone. Poof!

At this point, the good geeks out there are thinking two things. Number one, my sister needs a good backup plan. Number two, RAID is not a backup plan! Both of these statements are correct. The question facing all designated family computer geeks is this: do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?

Yes, my sister, like all computer users, needs a good backup plan. Unfortunately, a good backup plan takes time, money, and effort to design and implement. I can remove the lesser part of that burden, coming up with a good plan, selecting the backup media, software, and frequency, but my sister will be the one who has to pay for the extra software, hardware, and media, and then—most critically—remember to faithfully execute the backup plan.

As much as it pains geeks to hear this, those things are not very likely to happen. Burning data to optical media is easy, but also horribly slow. Tedium is the enemy of any home computer backup plan. If it’s boring and time-consuming, eventually, it just doesn’t get done.

The CD/DVD backup plan is also woefully inadequate in the face of total hard disk failure. Even with the help of a capable (and expensive) backup application, restoring “everything” from a pile of optical disks to either a new computer or a new drive in an old computer is not something that a novice user is prepared to do. The possibility (although pessimists would say “certainty”) of unreadable or missing discs only adds to the misery.

But hey, external hard disks are cheap these days, right? Maybe to you and me, but “cheap” is a relative term. Try telling my sister that she has to spend ~$200 and stick an ugly box next to her cute iMac, all so she can prepare for something that may never happen.

If the external hard disk backup solution was really as cheap and simple as we computer geeks seem to think it is, everyone would be doing it. But take a survey of the “normals” in your family and see what their backup plans are like. See how many of them have purchased hard disks and then dedicated them entirely to backups.

Okay, maybe your family is really on top of things and everyone has a dedicated backup hard disk. Now see how many of those people actually have a working backup plan by removing all of their primary hard drives in the middle of the night. Hell, do it to your own computer too. Feeling confident?

The point is, backups are hard. People have tons more data today than they had in the past, but the personal backup situation is as grim as ever. Nuke the main HD of every personal computer in the world and 95% of those people are screwed, plain and simple.

Here’s (finally) where the Apple connection comes in. I propose that Apple make RAID 1-style drive mirroring a standard feature on all of its consumer Macs. Data integrity in the face of both hardware and software failure should be the primary goal of this system. If either one of the drives gets corrupted or fails entirely, the user should be able to reboot and pick up roughly where he or she left off. At this point, there should be a stern, omnipresent warning indicating that the user is now working “without a safety net,” so to speak (say, a dialog box and a red-tinted desktop background), plus instructions on how to restore the previous level of redundancy.

(Protection from accidental file deletion is another topic entirely, and one I may address in a future post. But for now, I’m considering only the ability to recover from hardware failures and other kinds of volume-wide calamities.)

Now I’m sure this all sounds like some sort of geek fantasy. RAID for everyone! How kewl! But that’s not what this is about. In fact, Apple’s branding for this feature shouldn’t even mention RAID. And yes, this whole scheme would mean that all consumer Macs would now have to come with two hard disks, at an added cost. But I think it’d be worth it.

Data integrity is the last hold-out of the bad-old-days of computing. A modern iMac can do things only dreamt of 10 years ago, but it’s just as susceptible as its forbearers to data armageddon via hard disk failure—perhaps even more so, given the increased volume and value (think family photos) of data. It’s almost cruel to design and advertise these machines as “the center of your digital life,” and then give them all a single point of failure, with full knowledge of the sad state of personal backup habits.

In the era of XP and OS X, operating system stability is no longer a viable means of differentiation in the PC market. Similarly, hardware reliability is pretty much a wash. Everyone’s using the same basic parts these days, and these parts sometimes fail or wear out. Not much can be done about that. But data integrity is something else entirely. Data integrity means that your data—your family photos, your home movies, your music collection—will survive a hardware failure. This is virgin territory for consumer PCs, and a perfect opportunity for Apple to make the Mac line stand out.

It’s also a tangible way to justify premium pricing. While the average consumer may not know or care how much a pretty case or a matching power cable adds to the price of a computer, effortless protection from data loss is something that anyone can understand and value. And that’s just on day one of the program. After a year or two of standard data integrity protection on all consumer Macs, the groundswell of good will from customers would be huge.

Eventually, some form of data integrity will be standard on all PCs. Apple is the perfect company to start the ball rolling. The concept of effortless data protection plays right into Apple’s dominant theme of simplicity. There’s definitely a first-mover advantage to be had here as well. The first company to develop and market this feature will be forever associated with it in the minds of millions of consumers. Heck, if Apple’s lucky, its chosen branding could permeate the entire concept, forcing competitors to tacitly acknowledge Apple’s leadership in this area or be faced with decreased consumer recognition for their implementations (coughPodcasting).

When customers are accustomed to portable electronic devices being ugly, unfriendly, and difficult to use, a product like the iPod can make a killing. The same dynamic exists in the PC market. When customers accept potential data loss as a fact of life with PCs, the situation is ripe for one vendor to bite the bullet and dedicate itself to eradicating this long-standing problem.

In the end, the technology is not important. Whether it’s drive mirroring combined with a versioning file system, massive high-bandwidth encrypted network storage, or a pair of geographically isolated quantum-entangled holographic cubes, the goals are the same: treat user data as precious and irreplaceable; design machines with the vigilance and forethought that humans lack.

Two hard drives in every consumer Mac (yes, laptops too), increased cost, but no increased data capacity…it sounds like madness. But try to think of the big picture. This is just the first step into a larger world—a world of self-healing computers, a world where data is never lost, a world where I can go to sleep at night without worrying about a tiny read/write head skimming nanometers from a magnetic disc that contains the one and only copy of gigabytes of my sister’s data. Wouldn’t that be nice.

This article originally appeared at Ars Technica. It is reproduced here with permission.