Expandable Storage Pools in Windows 8

[Edited on 11/1/2012 for clarification.]

One of the ongoing challenges for photographers is storage – there’s never enough.  That goes double for us RAW shooters.  Video folks have it even worse, but no matter how you slice it, we’re one of the few small businesses that can generate more data at a single wedding/event/shoot than most medium-sized spreadsheet-and-email businesses generate all year.  Our challenges are compounded by the fact that most storage devices designed to contain this volume of data are targeted at medium to large business IT budgets.

You know you’re supposed to back up regularly, but when you’re constantly running out of hard drive space, it gets to be a bit of a headache just managing where everything is kept!  Perhaps you’ve looked at NAS or Drobo type devices (and many of those are awesome products with lots of cool features) but what’s a good alternative when you want to do it for a lower cost-of-entry, or you want an inexpensive backup to a NAS product you already own?  [Edit 4/20/2015: Since writing this, I’ve had so many bad experiences with Drobo that I would not recommend them to anyone.  In the same amount of time, I’ve never had a single problem with Windows 8’s Storage Pool system.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.]

Windows 8 to the rescue.

A new feature in Windows 8 is called “storage spaces.”  This will take plain old drives, and “pool” them together into a single, expandable drive letter.  It will even add redundancy if you configure it correctly.  It works with SATA, eSATA, SAS, and USB drives.  (Be aware that USB2 devices are performance limited, though this may not matter much if you’re simply treating it as a backup device.)  They do not have to be matched in any way, so you can add your older 1TB drives, and that new 4TB behemoth you just bought.  And the awesome part?  When the drives in the pool fill up, just add another drive to the pool, and it expands the size of that existing drive letter, without impacting your existing data!  That’s right – no more overflowing backups to yet-another-drive and having to keep it all organized.

So what do you need to get started?  One, two, or three drives, and a moment to read through this tutorial.

WARNING, DATA ON THE EXISTING DRIVES WILL BE WIPED OUT WHEN FIRST CONFIGURING THE STORAGE SPACE!
This process shouldn’t be scary, but I have to say this.  I’m not responsible if you lose data in the process of setting up or using this feature.

In my case, I have three USB3 Seagate GoFlex Desktop drives.  One is empty, and two contain current backups.  What I want to end up with is all three drives in a single pool, with RAID5 equivalent redundancy.  This makes it so the entire pool can survive a single drive failure.  There are other configuration options, here they are:

  • Simple (no resiliancy)
    • Use this option if you don’t care about data loss due to a drive failure.  Examples might be a home movie or music collection which is also backed up somewhere else, and you simply want the maximum usable space possible.
  • Two-way mirror
    • This is the option I’m choosing.  You are required to begin the pool with at least two drives to enable this configuration.  The data in the pool will survive if one drive fails.  The trade-off is that you may experience slightly lower performance, and you’ll have less usable space than the total sum of the drives.  This is because the computer is using some of the space to store multiple copies of everything to protect against the loss of one drive.
    • Edit: After reading more, I may change to the “parity” system.  For my use, backup capacity is more important than performance.  Parity offers slightly better space utilization at the cost of slightly reduced speed.  If this will be an actual working drive, two-way-mirror offers better performance at the cost of some capacity.
  • Three-way mirror
    • For the extra-paranoid.  You must begin the pool with a minimum of three drives to enable this configuration.  This option works identically to the “two-way” option above, with the exception that your computer keeps three copies of everything and can survive the loss of two drives from the pool.  Because it keeps three copies, you’ll notice significantly less usable space than the sum total of all the connected drives, which increases your long-term storage expenses.
    • The primary reason I’m not using this option is that I have other backup devices which store copies of the same data that I’ll be putting on the pool.  NEVER TREAT ANY SINGLE POOL, RAID, or NAS DEVICE AS YOUR ONLY BACKUP, NO MATTER HOW RESILIENT IT CLAIMS TO BE!
  • Parity
    • This option offers the same level of data protection as Two-way mirror, but it requires you to begin with three drives.  Under the hood, this is a much closer match to a traditional RAID5 volume.  If you’ll only use the pool as a backup device (not a working space) and you have the three empty drives to begin with, you might choose to begin with this option.

Let’s walk through the process of creating your starting storage space.

  1. Hold the keys Windows + X, and open the control panel from the menu that appears in the lower left of the screen.
  2. Click on the green text System and Security.
  3. Click on Storage Spaces
    Storage Spaces option in the Windows 8 control panel.
  4. Click “create new pool and storage space.”  You will be given a UAC promt, so enter your password or click OK.
    Create a new pool and storage space in Windows 8 control panel.
  5. Select the drives you want to begin with.  Remember, for the “two-way mirror” option to be available in the next screen, you must begin with two or more drives.  For the “three-way mirror” and “parity” options to be available in the next screen, you must select three or more drives on this screen.
    1. Select drives to assign to storage space in Windows 8
    2. CAUTION! This screen does not identify drives by drive letter.  Use the “view files” link to be absolutely sure you are selecting the correct drives.
    3. CAUTION! Clicking “create pool” to go to the next step, makes the existing data on your selected drives gone baby gone!  This is your final exit!
  6. Name, resiliency type, and size
    1. Configure storage space and resiliency options in Windows 8.
    2. Set a name for the storage space.  This is the same as setting a name when you format a traditional drive – it’s entirely up to you.
    3. Select a drive letter.  I chose P for “pool” (or “photo.”)  I’m just goofy like that.
    4. Set the size.  It can be anything you like, and you can change it later without loosing data, too.  Plan to use this one storage space for ever and ever?  Set it to something crazy like 200TB.  You’ll be able to continue adding drives in the future.  If you’re an old-hand at RAID technologies, notice that the capacity you enter on this screen becomes your usable data capacity, not the raw-data capacity.  Thank you Microsoft for making this decision so it’s easier for end-users to understand!  (In this case “raw-data capacity” has nothing to do with the RAW files your camera creates.)
    5. Click “create storage space,” and after a moment of configuring the drives you’ll be on your way!
    6. Notice that if you click “cancel” at this point, Windows automatically performs a standard format on the drives you selected in the previous screen and re-connects them to individual drive letters.  I wasn’t kidding in the previous step when I told you your data would be gone!  (Recovery software may help if you f*cked this one up.)

Done!  Windows will warn you when the drives are running low on space, and you can buy additional drives to add more capacity (up to the size you specified above.)

If you’re a power user, and you plan to use a storage space for your working-environment (not just a backup location) then you might want to read about performance considerations.  Microsoft has a great page: Storage Spaces Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ).  This will help you map out your starting configuration and manage capacity expansion for peak storage performance.

Are you planning to use Storage Spaces in Windows 8?  What’s your current backup configuration?  Tell us below!

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