Me vs. Vista: RAID, Partitions, and Reinstall of Vista

32 or 64-Bits?

In my last post, I mentioned how I didn’t like the current way my rig was setup.  In this post I will go into more detail of my current plans for my system and why I am doing them.

First off, I currently have 32-bit Vista installed, and I want to upgrade to 64-bit.  Thankfully since I have Vista Ultimate, I don’t have to go buy another version as it came with the 64-bit version as well.  And unlike it’s predecessor, 64-bit XP Pro, Vista has vastly improved the amount of hardware it can support as well as being able to easily emulate any 32-bit application (which most programs are).
Why do I care about this?  There are a few different reasons for this.  First off, is I will now have the room for major expansion of RAM.  Any 32-bit install will only allow me to use 4GB of RAM.  In comparison the 64-bit version of Ultimate will allow me to use 128GB of RAM (and more once PCs can actually support it).  RAM is easily one of the easiest and cheapest ways to boost performance to any system, so allowing that kind of breathing room is going to keep me quite safe.  As programs and games get more complicated, the more RAM will get sucked up.
Also, 64-bit is far more secure.  Many of the common attacks that are based on weaknesses of 32-bit systems are addressed.  Quite frankly, it is simply the most secure version of Windows you can install.  It isn’t a cure-all, one more security feature sure doesn’t hurt.
Finally, 64-bit OS is going to be our eventual future.  No one knows for sure, but the common belief is that the next Windows OS, Windows 7, will be only available in 64-bit.  When that happens, applications will go the same way, being 64-bit only.  This will allow me to hold onto my Vista build just a bit longer before I need to take a leap into another Windows OS.
There is one noted downside.  You can’t install non-digitally signed drivers on 64-bit.  More often than not this isn’t a problem for most anything you buy in a store, and more and more companies are doing a far better job of insuring their drivers are digitally signed.  However, if you have older hardware, it may flat out not work with 64-bit Vista for this reason and there isn’t anything that you can do about it.
However, all of my hardware will work with this upgrade, so I am going to proceed with it.  But make sure you check your hardware beforehand if you attempt this.
Fault Tolerance – RAID
I have talked a bit about performance, now it is time to move to fault tolerance.  Fault tolerance is basically ensuring that if you have a hard drive fail, your system will still be able to run with zero loss in data.  Note that this isn’t the same as having your computer backed up.  As I said before, if my system hard drive crashed, I wouldn’t be able to run Windows.  I would have to restore the backups before Windows would ever run again and that is a long process that I would rather avoid if I can.
The easiest way to do this is through a RAID-1 configuration.  RAID stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks.  The -1 at the end refers to what type of RAID I am implementing.  The most common types are RAID-0, RAID-1, and RAID-5.
RAID-0, also called striping, allows you to take 2 or more disks and “stripe” your data across the disks — essentially allowing each disk to store half the data and therefore do half the work.  While this can increase performance, this isn’t fault tolerant at all.  If one disk fails, you will lose all data in the RAID-0.  Now, even though I am concerned with performance, the boost that I would get with RAID-0 isn’t really going to be too large for me.  Plus, I want to have a fault tolerant solution, so this won’t work.
RAID-1, also called mirroring, allows you to take 2 or more disks and “mirror” all data across the disks in the array.  So if I have two disks, all information that gets placed on the first disk will be replicated on the second.  The downside to this is that performance does go down slightly because you are having both disks doing the same work all the time.  Another downside is that you are only essentially using half of the available data on your disks.  The upside is huge though.  If one disk fails, you are fine!  You can boot the system off the other disk and still maintain all of your data.  This allows you to see what the problem with the other disk is, and if it needs to be replaced, you simply replace that bad disk and the mirror will replicate the data again.
RAID-5, also called striping with parity, is the happy medium between the two.  This setup requires at least 3 disks of the same size (you can use different disk sizes, but the “extra” space is wasted).  Like RAID-0, data is stripped across all disks, but there is also something called parity bits in the disks that will allow for data to be replicated if a disk should fail like RAID-1.  Performance-wise, this solution is right in the middle.
For my install, I am choosing to go with a RAID-1 solution.  Even though I will loose 500 GB, I feel it is worth it for being able to have a fault tolerant system.  Plus it saves me from having to buy another 500 GB disk to set up RAID-5!  While extra performance in hard disks would be nice, overall it isn’t going to give me much of a noticeable boost.
Disk Partitions
So now, I will basically have 500 GB (465 GB to be exact — this is because of the way MB are calculated, the manufactures will always round this value up!) in which to split up or partition the drive.
There are two schools of thought to this.  The first thinks partitioning is really just a waste.  The reasoning behind this is that it is just a waste of time and more to manage and, as far as restoration goes, it is simpler to image the whole drive on a backup and restore it to make sure you get everything.
The second, and the one I subscribe to, prefers partitioning the hard drive.  This keeps things better organized and separate.  For instance, general best practice is to split the drive up into the OS, Applications/Programs, Data Storage (Music, Pictures, etc).  Now with this setup there is a lot I can do over just one big partition.  Each partition will have it’s own needs.  For instance, the OS will fragment its files the most often, which degrades performance.  This drive will need to be fragmented often, and the process will be far quicker if I am just defragging a small part of a large hard drive.  The Data Storage partition though, doesn’t need defragging that often, but having say 100+ GB of music, picture, and movie files is going to make defrag operations take forever and it is unneeded.  You can also perform various different backup and security plans for each drive too (which I will go into after I reinstall Vista).
In short, having that flexibility is nice.  It may not be readily noticeable at first, but once I get to the backup/security section of this journey, I hope it will become a bit clearer.
One important thing to note though is that you should give plenty of room for the OS.  This is the most common pitfall in partitioning in my opinion.  My Windows folder is currently over 12 GB, but making a 20 GB partition could potentially cripple me when large service packs and Windows updates come in.  I’ve been told a good rule of thumb is about 30 GB for servers, but just to be safe, I’m going to give it a little bit more just to make sure I don’t run out for a long time.
Overall Install and HDD Plan

So with all of this in mind, here is the battle plan:
  • RAID-1 configuration
  • 1 partition for 64-bit Windows Vista Ultimate totalling 50 GB
  • 1 partition for programs/game installs totalling 100 GB
  • 1 partition for data with the remaining space (just over 300 GB)
In order to get this to work, I will have to do the following:
  • Back up all current data that I want to carry over on an external hard drive
  • Reboot the system
  • Go into system BIOS (you will see a key to press at the first screen when your system turns on)
  • Activate the RAID setting on my motherboard (this will vary depending on what you have)
  • Save all changes to BIOS and exit, allowing the system to continue to boot (ensure your OS CD is in the drive)
  • Vista Install will start, set up RAID-1 array (another good thing about Vista, it includes nearly all RAID drivers, no need for a floppy!)
  • Delete any current partitions and format to NFTS
  • Partition 50 GB for the Vista install
  • Install Vista
  • Partition the rest of the drive
  • Install all needed drivers
I’ll have a carnage report when this is done.