Steve Jenson's blog

Disk vs. RAM. Round 1.

Disk vs. RAM. Round 1.

Kevin says:
I think more and more scalable compute infrastructures are going to cheat and ditch disk (or memory buffered disk) in favor of all in-memory data structures or SSD.

Putting all of your data in memory is not cheating, it's just another trade off.

This is not a direct rebuttal to Kevin, it's just generic advice to the random engineer who might run across this. To any managers out there: I'm oversimplifying some issues. Your engineers will know which.

Let's look at what Hennessy Patterson (4th Ed) tells us about memory access times. I've ranked them fastest to slowest.

  1. Register: 250ps
  2. L1 Cache: 1ns
  3. RAM: 100ns
  4. Disk 10ms

We used to think of memory hierarchy layers being about an order of magnitude slower than the preceeding layer but that hasn't been true for some time. A disk access at 10ms is 1000 times slower than reading from RAM. If you really care about user request latency then you don't want to be hitting disk per-request if you can afford not to.

So are you comfortable adding several hundred milliseconds for a request? You might be if you're a seriously resource constrained startup and have a very large amount of data like your typical IR system such as Kevin's does. If you have a relatively small amount of data then keeping everything in RAM is a pretty amazing trade-off.

As a medium-sized startup, what if you could pay 30 grand and see that money have an immediate impact on those pesky, painful performance graphs you keep. Wouldn't you spend that?

But it's easy to think about those dollars and tell yourself: "well, disks also store bytes, why not stick our bytes in those instead and use this money to pay for an off-site to get away from our performance troubles?" I'm kidding, people don't actually say that out loud but I've seen some eyes bug out of some sockets when looking at RAM prices. It's just natural to want to use disk for on-line storage since disks store so much data and seems so much cheaper if you don't think about the latency difference.

But let's talk concretely. I've been talking about "small" and "large" amounts of data. Let's talk about a specific scenario.

You have a popular restaurant review site. Each review is less than half the size of this blog post. That's about 2k. A page has 20 reviews but because you don't have that much RAM, you need to read those 20 reviews from disk. It takes a quarter-second to just read the reviews from disk even with that fancy-pants storage array you bought.

You're very lucky, your site has 10 million reviews. Continuing in my oversimplification, that's like 20 gigabytes. A gig of ECC FB-DIMM RAM is going for about $100/gig so that is 20k plus the extra 10k for the machines to hold your new RAM. 30k to automatically drop a quarter of a second from each request seems pretty cheap to me. Not only is your site faster but it now has more capacity since it's not wasting a quarter-second per request just moving a disk head around and reading data into memory where it should have been to begin with.

One last point: It only feels like cheating because you have less to worry about and is more expensive. Unfortunately, there's a certain class of naive engineer who will think that they can build a system without the expense and with 99.9% of the gains. (naive engineers love to throw 99.9% around!) They'll try to convince you that you just need another layer of LRU caches or some more memcached installations. They'll be a hero! They'll get a Founder's Award! Their company's VCs will take notice and promise to fund anything they start! Fire that guy. Use his salary to buy more RAM.

# — 07 July, 2007