Upgrading a RAID mirror to Solid State Drives

November 2017

 Now that SSDs are reliable enough to be used in place of the standard electro-mechanical hard drive in a PC I decided to take the plunge but, because of currency fluctuations causing the price of SSDs to rise sharply in the UK, my intention to wait for drives equal in size to my existing drives had to be ditched and smaller SSDs purchased instead.

It's not the first PC I've built using SSDs. The first two I made a year or two ago suffered from early hard drive failure. One Kingston 128GByte drive just "bricked" and the second Mushkin 256GByte model strangely changed its name in BIOS to something including the word "encrypted" and failed to be recognised in its host computer. Both drives were replaced by the manufacturers but left me feeling it was too early to change my own business PC to SSD. I've also cloned existing hard drives on both PCs and laptops to SSDs without too much difficulty.

My business computer has evolved over the years and had twin 1TByte boot drives operated in a mirror configuration known as Raid 1. I use a hardware based method which sets the hard drives to work in conjunction with BIOS settings and motherboard circuitry to produce two exactly identical main boot drives. In the event of a hard drive failure the PC will seamlessly carry on working with no loss of data. This has happened fairly regularly over the years and the failed drive can be removed and a new one fitted with the system automatically resuming its operation. This method is doubly expensive in terms of the price of storage space, but has extremely good reliability and minimum down time. I also have a data hard drive of 2TByte. This is also mirrored to an identical duplicate but uses a software method of automatically preserving data. This has suffered from two failures, a dead drive and a software glitch.

Over the years I've supplied many Raid 1 computers to customers that need their PC for business and touch wood these have worked fine, occasionally spitting out failed drives to be replaced with new ones.

Over the years my own PC has worked well. Hard drives have come and gone but programs and data are still OK. As with most PCs it has gradually become clogged up with superfluous junk and multiple copies of stuff and the main boot drive has been swapped from its initial 500GByte to 1TByte to reflect increased demands on storage space.

Bearing in mind I didn't wish to buy a pair of 1T SSDs because these are too expensive, the first step was to see how much occupied space could be freed up. To help with this exercise the principle of making copies on the 2T drive of stuff held on the 1T drive will need to change. Instead, the data drive will be used more or less exclusively for storing data with back ups for this held on external drives or DVDs. However, data used in my day-to-day work will remain on the SSDs but backed up on the data drives.

With this in mind I managed to reduce the space used on the 1T drive down to 185GBytes from something like 600GBytes. This enabled me to select a pair of SSDs with a capacity of around 500GByte. I could have reduced this to 240 or 256GByte but that would have been a bit short-sighted.

I selected a pair of Crucial 525GByte SSDs which were very much cheaper than similar products. I chose normal SATA drives because my PC motherboard does not have the newer M2 sockets.



Once the new drives had arrived I needed to work out how to fit them whilst still maintaining normal access to my PC and what follows below leads from failed methods to a method which actually worked perfectly.

 Replacing a Raid Mirror with Solid State Drives

 The method I used to upgrade to SSDs is based on hard drive cloning and the software that I've always used (and found reliable) is produced by Acronis. I use "Acronis True Image" and its latest incarnation in my PC is a genuine full version that I won in a competition run by our local newspaper, or to be more exact, won by a friend who kindly gave me the voucher.

Interestingly, Crucial have negotiated a deal with Acronis to supply a link to a "free" version of their cloning program but that was not my first approach.

The first step was to clone my boot drive to one new SSD. If the SSD had been exactly the same size or larger than my boot drive I could have merely unplugged one of the 1T pair, plugged in an SSD, and the Raid software would have mirrored the old drive to the SSD. I would then have unplugged the second 1T drive and plugged in the second SSD and this would in turn be mirrored from the first SSD. Really easy; however it's not an option because my SSD is only half the size of my 1T drive. In the past I've tried reducing the partition size but that doesn't work because the Raid software looks at the total drive size, not just the partitions in use.

My first attempt failed because Acronis baulked at the cloning process, coming up with an error message immediately before commencing the final stage of cloning. I tried several times to no avail...

Scouring the Internet for help gave me a new method. This was to use a free program called "Macrium Reflect". I downloaded this, plugged in a new SSD and cloned my 1T to this. The cloning program factors the partition sizes and works fine, cloning to a smaller drive. This part of the process worked perfectly but the new SSD boot drive did not have the Raid code included. Cloning in this way does not add Raid data from the source drive, so back to the drawing board.

In the past I've often cloned to a spare drive previously used in a Raid 1 computer and noticed it has the Raid code included but this didn't really matter in the computer in which it was used. Bearing this in mind I opened my copy of "Intel Rapid Storage Technology" and converted both my new SSDs to Raid 1. This process erases any existing data however so I ended up with two new blank drives but fine for cloning from the boot drive because they both now have Raid 1 code embedded.

This time I decided to fit not one, but both new SSDs and attempt to simultaneously clone the pair from the 1T Raid boot drive. At this stage my computer was configured with two 1T boot drives, two 2T data drives and two new 525GByte SSDs. Intel Rapid Storage Technology showed all six drives.. two pairs of Raid 1 drives plus two separate 2T drives, as these are used in software Raid.

I ran the Acronis program. It still baulked, giving me the same error message as before even though I'd installed their latest updates. Clearly Acronis need to sort out their software as surely I'm not their only customer wishing to upgrade to smaller SSDs.

I then downloaded the special Crucial version of the Acronis program but was surprised to see a message telling me it couldn't be used because I didn't have a Crucial SSD fitted. I'm surprised because I had, not one, but two fitted. Clearly Acronis haven't sorted out their new offering. Come on Acronis sort out your bugs…

I then tried my new free version of Macrium Reflect. I was reassured straight away because it displayed my 1T drives as "Raid 1" plus my two Crucial 525GByte drives as "Raid 1" also. A good start.. and having proceeded with the requisite mouse clicks the cloning process began. It took about 90 minutes before declaring success. I turned off the PC, unplugged both 1T drives and plugged in the two SSDs using the original 1T cables and SATA ports.

Switching on the PC showed all was well and turning on the Intel program revealed the pair of SSDs were operating correctly in Raid 1 with 489GByte capacity.

Let me compliment the Macrium software staff and suggest to the Acronis people to continue development…

 Post script: I re-read the leaflet below that came with the new Crucial SSD. It sort of doesn't quite make sense. What it means is you'll need to read the instructions on say a laptop whilst messing about with the computer on which you'll be adding the SSD. Maybe it would have been better to include the instructions on a leaflet then you wouldn't need to borrow another computer to read the instructions?

It also covers the method of attaching your SSD prior to cloning. It suggests using a SATA to USB adaptor. This is not included in the box so you'll have to procure one. This would be the only sensible option if it's a laptop you're upgrading because this would have only a single SATA connector. For a normal PC, assuming it has a spare SATA connector it would be better to use that. Another method would be to use your SATA DVD or CD plugs. That means you do not have to find extra cables. Using USB may be one option but may take considerably longer to clone the old drive, especially if the spec is USB 1 or 2.

The picture below shows a laptop hard drive mount. It's really easy to remove a hard drive from most laptops but certainly not from all. In fact some laptops don't support an SSD.

During the intallation procedure instructions it suggests installing some additional software to further speed up your upgraded computer... alas it tells you it does not support Raid...


 Was the whole exercise worthwhile?

 With the pair of SSDs in place, boot-up time is now measured only in seconds rather than minutes. It's certainly not as quick to boot as a brand new computer with an SSD because my Registry is now several years old and consequently pretty large and I'm using lowly Windows 7 compared with the slicker Windows 10. Applications open much faster and in fact certain tasks are so fast that you don't realise they're done. I did notice however, now that things are pretty slick that opening a Word document takes too long, and also opening folders carrying thousands of files takes ages. I eventually found the reason for both these problems.

 Opening a Word document is very slow

 Whenever a document is opened or closed a file called "Normal.dot" is used. The location of this file varies depending on one's operating system, but in Windows 7 you'll find it in a folder called "Templates" which is here... Users, Allan, AppData, Roaming, Microsoft, Templates (where the computer user in my case is "Allan"). When I opened the Template folder I discovered Normal.dot was 3.68MB. It was called "Altium Schematic Template" in the Type field which I found a little odd. Because Normal.dot will simply be regenerated if it's lost there's no problem just deleting it. I tried deleting it but no luck.. I got an error message about Word being open and deleting the dot file wasn't allowed. In fact, Word wasn't open but I did notice in the folder two other files, one of which was called "~WRL0004.TMP". The squiggle usually means the file is open, but I didn't recognise it but, being a temporary file, I reckoned I could just delete it.. which I did. I then tried to delete the .dot file and this was now successful.

Opening a Word document at random was now virtually instantaneous as was closing it when previously opening and closing would have taken some 8 seconds, even with my new SSD. I checked the new .dot file and discovered it was now a mere 36KB which, if my arithmetic is right, is over 100 times smaller than the original. How did the problem originate? The fact that the name "Altium" is present suggests a bug in the Altium program. I downloaded this application because I needed to open some circuit diagrams that had been produced by it. Maybe Altium was to blame for the very large .dot file or maybe it wasn't, but it's odd that the .dot file carries Altium in the type field.

 Opening a large folder is very slow

 For ages I've been plagued by a long wait before a folder with a really large number of files is opened, and once open it can take ages for the files to be sorted. I construct family trees and one folder which I use regularly currently carries 2,785 files. If I click on the name field the entries are reshuffled instantaneously. This wasn't always the case. It would take several minutes when my old 1T hard drives were in place and maybe 40 seconds with my new SSDs. The same delay occurred when opening a folder carrying hundreds of holiday pictures.

The basic reason behind the delay is that each folder is defined as carrying either "General" or a specific type of file. You can check this on your own computer if you'd like it to work much faster. Locate a folder carrying lots of files.. not a shortcut, but the actual folder. Right click the folder and select Properties and you should see a tab labelled "Customize". Click this tab and you'll see "Optimize this folder for:" with the drop-down menu having entries; "General Items", "Documents", "Pictures", "Music" and "Videos". Select "Documents" then "Apply" and close it and you'll find the folder will then open a lot faster. Note that there's a box which, if ticked, applies the customization to contained folders so tick this box also.

Opening a CD or DVD can take ages as well, and you can apply the same trick by opening a sample CD and changing the file type to "Documents". From then any CD or DVD should open a lot more quickly.

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