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Why Consider RAID for PVR Recordings and Solid State Drive for Mythbuntu Operating System?

Summary

This article is the first in a mini series and outlines the reasons why you might consider storing your PVR recordings on a RAID. Additionally the reasons why we also opted to store the Mythbuntu operating system (OS) on a Solid State Drive (SSD) are discussed.

The original series of articles that outline the path of creating a custom-built PVR can be found at the following links:

Contents

Why Consider RAID for MythTV PVR Recordings?

NOTE:   TL;DR
The TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read) version is that due to the heavier write usage demands of a PVR versus a desktop which can result in earlier failure of hard drives, we opted for a mirrored RAID dedicated to store PVR recordings, and a separate drive (an SSD) for the operating system and boot code.

First I should begin by describing what a RAID is before delving into why you might consider RAID for your storing your TV shows. RAID stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks and is a method of using multiple disk drives in such a way that the loss of one drive does not result in loss of data. One of the simplest forms of RAID is where one drive mirrors the contents of another drive. This is known as RAID level 1 and is the RAID setup we consider in this article.

So why consider RAID for PVR recordings?

Personally I thought I would never consider RAID for a PVR. After all, the hard disk drives in my desktop computers have proven very reliable over many years. In fact one of my computers that I use for testing GParted was purchased back in 1998 is still using the original hard drive. That is a track record of 16 years, and none of my newer computers have lost a hard drive. Of course I might just be lucky with my desktop computers. ;-)

Further in my reasoning, PVRs store TV shows and how important is a TV show anyway if one were to lose a hard drive? After all it's only TV.

Unfortunately I was soon to learn that there are more factors involved and there was folly in this line of reasoning.

As I mentioned in earlier articles, starting in May 2011 I was involved with building three PVRs: one for my spouse and I, one for my parents, and one for a friend. Performing these three installs made me very familiar with the setup process, and I thought that once set up that these systems would continue to run for many years... Wrong!

I got my first indication when our own PVR hard drive failed after 91 days of operation. Since the drive was covered under a 1 year warranty, the drive was replaced by the manufacturer. With a new drive in hand I re-installed Mythbuntu (11.04 at the time) and re-setup the PVR.

A second indication of the frailty of hard drives came in April of 2013 when my parents' PVR hard drive failed after 679 days of operation. Since they live far from me, I would have to schedule a trip to replace the drive and rebuild their PVR. This got me to thinking that even if the loss of TV shows was not critical, there must be a better solution so that I would not have to perform many re-installs and re-setups of PVRs.

So why are these PVR hard drives failing when my desktop computers continue to run for many years?

My first thought was that I had simply received a bad batch of drives, and this could indeed be the case. However I had purchased and installed the same drive in my desktop computer and it is still running fine today (February 2014). This led me to investigate different usage patterns.

With my desktop computers I often power them up for a few hours and then shut them down later when I am finished working. This is similar in operation to how I configured the PVR to automatically wakeup to record shows and then shutdown later when idle. Hence this usage is similar.

So what else is different between desktop computer and PVR operation?

With my desktop computer I read many files, but do not write much data. The exception to this would be when I download a CD image of an operating system which is in the order of 700 MB. In contrast, our PVR records on average about 2 to 3 hours of TV shows each night. With HDTV shows occupying 9 GB per hour, this is 18 to 27 GB written each day! Further with four tuners that can run in parallel there could be up to four processes recording shows, four processes commercial flagging, and one more process viewing an existing recording. This is a lot of hard drive activitly and is a big difference from my desktop computer usage, and I think is the reason the hard drives fail quicker in the PVR. At least that is the theory that sounds reasonable to me.

So how can I minimize the impact of these hard drive failures?

My initial thought was that perhaps there are more durable drives for this type of usage. From research into hard drives designed to handle multiple video streams, I discovered that such drives do exist, but are much more expensive (twice as much). Moreover, when I tried to purchase such a drive from my local computer shop I discovered that these drives are either not available to consumers, or are a special order item. This would not work for me because when a drive fails I want the option to replace it right away, and not have to wait for an order to arrive. In addition there was no guarantee that these specialized drives would last longer, and further, some manufacturers seem to have ceased production of these hard drives (for example see Seagate SV35 Series Surveillance Hard Disk Drives).

Fortunately there is another way to achieve improved reliability while still using consumer grade drives -- RAID. Since my motherboard did not support BIOS RAID, I would need to investigate Linux Software RAID.

With the decision made to store the PVR recordings on RAID, the next question was what to do with the Mythbuntu operating system (OS).

Why Consider Solid State Drive for Mythbuntu Operating System?

Now that the PVR recordings were to be stored on RAID, I had to decide what to do with the Mythbuntu OS. My immediate thought was to place the OS on RAID. In theory this should work if I placed the OS on a BIOS RAID (also known as FAKE RAID) because the BIOS could directly recognize and boot from the RAID.

However, I was considering Linux Software RAID and the challenge I faced is that the computer BIOS does not recognize Linux Software RAID, and is limited to booting from individual disks. To work around this limitation would require creating a separate /boot partition that was not in the RAID and using that to boot the OS contained inside the Linux Software RAID. The drawback to such a setup is that I would have to manually mirror /boot (plus the Master Boot Record boot code) on both drives, and potentially have to manually change the boot drive in the BIOS when one of the hard disk drives failed. This was not something I desired to undertake. After all, I wanted the PVR to continue running without intervention until I had free time to replace a failed hard drive. Hence the PVR had to keep running while I was away on vacation, or until I could schedule a trip to my parents remote location to replace a failed hard drive.

With RAID out of the picture for the OS, what else could I do to do to increase the reliability of the PVR?

Because the PVR recordings appear to significantly shorten the hard drive life span, I realized I needed to separate these recordings from the OS. In thinking about purchasing a new disk device for the OS I realized that I only needed about 50 GB for the OS and linux-swap. This lessened the price differential between a 1 TB Hard Disk Drive (HDD), and a smaller 60 GB Solid State Drive (SSD). Further, a SSD also offers additional advantages for the OS. Specifically a SSD contains no moving parts and should last much longer than a physical spinning hard drive. Also as a side benefit a SSD should boot faster too. I really liked these benefits and so decided the OS would be placed on SSD.

Since by this time Mythbuntu 12.04 had been released and I was running Mythbuntu 11.04, I saw this as the perfect opportunity to also upgrade to the newer version of Mythtbuntu.

High Level Migration Steps

While writing this article I initially planned to include all of the steps, but discovered these would make for an unwieldingly long article. So as a compromise I decided to break out the steps into two new tutorials, and just include the following high level steps in this article.

  1. Purchase additional hard disk drive (HDD) and new solid state drive (SSD)

    Category Component Cost
    Additional Hard Disk Drive Seagate Barracuda 1TB 7200RPM SATA 6 GB/S 70
    New Solid State Drive Intel 60GB 520 series SATA 6 GB/S 110

  2. Install new HDD and SSD in computer

    In my computer I plugged the drives into the SATA ports in the following order:
    • /dev/sda - new SSD for Mythbuntu 12.04 OS.
    • /dev/sdb - original HDD containing Mythbuntu (11.04) and recordings.
    • /dev/sdc - new HDD for mirrored RAID storage of recordings.
    • /dev/sr0 - original DVD R/W optical drive.
  3. Migrate Existing MythTV 0.24 on HDD to MythTV 0.25 on SSD
    1. Backup existing MythTV 0.24 database using mythconverg_backup.pl script.
    2. Alter BIOS to place SSD higher in boot order than other HDDs.
    3. Install newer Mythbuntu 12.04 on SSD.
      - skip MythTV configuration steps
      - ensure /etc/fstab set to mount /data from HDD (sdb)
      - ensure ownership mythtv.mythtv for files and folders in /data
    4. Import MythTV 0.24 database backup into new MythTV 0.25 using mythconverg_restore.pl script.
  4. Install and setup Linux Software RAID and migrate PVR Recordings
    1. Install and configure packages for Linux Software RAID.
    2. Partition and setup new hard drive (sdc) as one half of RAID level 1 mirror (/dev/md0).
    3. Copy /data from original hard drive (sdb) to new RAID (md0).
    4. Update /etc/fstab to mount /data from new RAID.
    5. Re-partition original hard drive (sdb) to same partition layout as new HDD (sdc) used in RAID.
    6. Add original hard drive (sdb) to RAID.
      - this completes the other half of the RAID level 1 mirror.

The above are very high level steps of the process I undertook. In the near future I plan to cover these steps in more detail in additional tutorials.

Final Decision

In conclusion, we made the decision to store PVR recordings on a mirrored RAID due to the heavier write usage demands of a PVR versus a desktop which can result in earlier failure of hard drives. Further due to additional challenges of placing the operating system on a Linux Software RAID, I opted for a separate drive (an SSD) for the Mythbuntu operating system and boot code.

UPDATE Feb. 10, 2014: While writing this article, the warranty replacement drive I received in August 2011 started to fail after 995 days of operation. I sure am glad that I decided to place the PVR recordings on RAID. :-)

Future Articles

In future articles, I plan to cover the following steps of our path:

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