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Software RAID vs. Hardware RAID: Advantages and Drawbacks

December 27, 2022

If you’re not willing to trust a single hard drive (HDD) with your data — or if you need faster performance than you could reasonably attain with a single HDD — RAID makes a lot of sense. 

RAID stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks (or, alternatively, Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks). Depending on the RAID level you use, you can enjoy improved performance and a much lower chance of data loss. 

After choosing a RAID level, you’ll need to make another important decision: whether to use a software or hardware RAID. 

Software RAID and Hardware RAID: What’s the Difference?

Most RAID levels write data across multiple disks simultaneously. A typical home computer isn’t designed for this operation — you’ll need to either invest in hardware (a RAID controller card) or software designed for the purpose. 

Hardware RAID cards manage your storage independently from your computer’s operating system (OS). That means that the OS doesn’t need to think about the RAID; it operates normally, while the controller card handles most of the hard work. 

A software RAID uses some of the computer’s processing power to manage the RAID storage. Some operating systems support certain RAID levels natively. Mac OS Big Sur, for example, has a RAID Assistant feature that supports RAID 0 and RAID 1. However, to get the performance benefits of a true RAID — and to use configurations like RAID 5 and RAID 1 — you’ll usually need to install dedicated software such as SoftRAID (we’re linking to this product’s website here, but does not endorse specific software or hardware). 

Advantages of a Hardware RAID Controller

RAID controller cards are relatively expensive, but for high-performance applications, they’re worth the investment. Some key advantages:

  • Hardware RAIDs are fully independent from the computer’s operating system, so they’re significantly faster than software RAIDs.
  • Since you don’t need to install software, you get more storage from your RAID.
  • Hardware RAIDs are widely supported, so you can use them with any operating system (provided that your computer’s architecture supports the RAID controller).
  • When a hard drive fails, you can easily swap out the damaged drive without losing data.
  • RAID controller cards support a wider variety of RAID levels, including advanced configurations that are more appropriate for servers and high-capacity backup systems.

Advantages of a Software RAID

Software RAIDs aren’t as fast as hardware RAIDs, but they offer advantages in certain situations:

  • Most RAID software is inexpensive, and free options are available for certain operating systems.
  • If a RAID controller fails, you’ll need to replace it with an appropriate model to restore access to your data. Software RAIDs don’t have this disadvantage.
  • RAID software supports simple configurations such as RAID 0 and RAID 1, and some computer users may not need more complex setups. 

The main reason to use a software RAID: You’re interested in a multi-HDD storage setup, but you’re not too worried about redundancy or performance. For example, if you’re setting up a secondary or tertiary backup system that you’ll run once per day, a software RAID may be a more budget-friendly choice than a hardware RAID.

Should You Choose a Software or Hardware RAID?

Generally, hardware RAIDs are a better option for most applications. Software RAIDs can offer better redundancy than a single HDD, but they’re not especially fast — and if a hard drive fails, you’ll have to work with your RAID software to replace the disk (instead of simply swapping out the failed drive, as you’d typically do with a hardware controller). 

It’s important to remember that most RAID levels offer redundancy, but redundancy is not a replacement for a strong backup strategy. We recommend keeping at least three copies of important data on separate devices. Even if you have a RAID with multiple layers of redundancy, you only have one copy of your files — that’s not sufficient to protect against data loss.

Common causes of data loss on RAID systems include:

  • Failed rebuilds, which can occur on both software and hardware RAIDs.
  • Multiple hard drive failures.
  • RAID controller failures. 
  • Accidental data deletion.
  • Ransomware and other malware.
  • Replacing the wrong hard drive following a failure.
  • Operating system or software upgrades that prevent the RAID from operating as intended.

If you’ve lost data from a RAID system, can help. With free media evaluations and a comprehensive no data, no charge guarantee, we provide the best options for restoring lost files. 

Each of our laboratories is fully equipped with cleanrooms and dedicated equipment for hard drive data recovery, and through regular investments in research and development, we’ve maintained high recovery success rates for both software and hardware RAID systems.

To learn more, set up a free evaluation online or call us at 1-800-237-4200.