I've done a fair amount of research and read everything in my motherboard manual, but I still have a lot of very specific questions that I would hope any of you have an answer to.
The story so far
Over the past two years, I'm learning that hard disks are ticking time bombs. I bought three 1 TB drives in late 2008 and two of them failed relatively close to each other last year and the last one failed recently. I use a tremendous amount of space from games and uncompressed HD video from DVR software and my 3 TB system already reached its limit, forcing me to supplement it with a 3 TB external USB drive, which has just over 1 TB of space on it remaining.
I'm in the process of building an all new system with all new components and Windows 7. By Tuesday, I will have 6 4 TB drives and will probably spend the entire day just formatting each drive. I have an ASUS Rampage IV Extreme motherboard, which supports RAID 5, but only 4 of its 8 SATA III ports support 6 Gbps. With RAID 5, I will have 20 TB of space to kick around, and with Western Digital's wonderful, wonderful 5 year warranty, I will be able to keep the array running without minimal additional cost to me until 2018. This is my be all, end all, all in one backup and storage solution that I intend to keep alive indefinitely until the day comes when I replace the entire array with one that has more space and 4 TB drives are obsolete.
RAID 5 requires a minimum 3 drives. Will I be able to start an array with 3 drives and then add more drives later? I ask because I still need to copy data from my old drives.
If I only have the minimum 3 drives, if one drive fails, will it still function with 2 drives or should I always keep an array with at least one more drive than the minimum?
Assuming I use all 4 6 Gbps SATA III ports, will there be significant performance issues with the two drives using the 3 Gbps ports?
Should I consider using a dedicated RAID controller? What are the benefits over using my motherboard controller and are they significant?
If I use a RAID controller or SAS expander, will it utilize the ports on my motherboard or will I have to plug everything into the cards?
All components fail eventually. What happens when my motherboard or RAID controller needs to be replaced? Is it a simple process of restoring the array or will there be a problem when I use a different brand/model/firmware of motherboard/controller?
Any risks or issues if I use the array as my boot disk?
What are the odds of more than one drive failing at the same time?
Does a RAID array reduce the typical lifespan of an individual hard drive or is there no difference?
Are there any quirks, typically unknown characteristics or problems of RAID 5 that I should know about? What can I do to avoid common problems?
What happens when a disk fails? Is there a rebuilding process, a series of reboots? What happens when I add a new disk or a replacement disk? Do I need to replace a failed drive before the array will run again? Will I be able to boot into Windows at all before array rebuilding is complete?
How can I tell which drive failed? Will something bad happen if I take the wrong one out? I'm scared.
Can I unplug the entire array, plug in a different hard drive to boot to for a while and then plug the array back in when I'm done without any issues? If not, how do I set the array aside temporarily the right way?
Will update this post with helpful answers and more questions when I have them. Thanks, everyone.