November 13, 2005

Breaking through the disk speed barrier

Most aspects of computer performance and capacity grow at Moore’s Law kinds of speeds. Doubling times may be anywhere from 9 months to 2 years, but in any case speeds and storage capacities grow exponentially quickly. Not so, however, with disk rotation speeds. The very first disk drives, over 50 years ago, rotated 1,200 times per minute. Today’s top disk rotation speed is around 15,000 RPM. Indeed, while I recall seeing a reference to one at 15,600 RPM, I can’t now go back and find it. Yes, folks; disk rotational speed in the entire history of computing has increased just by a measly factor of 13.

Why does this matter to DBMS design? Simply put, disk rotation speed is an absolute limit to the speed of random disk-based data access. Today’s fastest disks take 4 milliseconds to rotate once. Thus, multiple heads aside, getting something from a known but random location on the disk will take at least 2 milliseconds. And a naive data management algorithm will, for a single query, result in dozens or even hundreds of random accesses.

Thus, for a DBMS to run at acceptable speed, it needs to get data off disk not randomly, but rather a page at a time (i.e., in large blocks of predetermined size) or better yet sequentially (i.e., in continuous streams of indeterminate size). The indexes needed to assure these goals had best be sized to fit entirely in RAM. Clustering also plays an increasingly large role, so that data needed at the same time is likely to be on the same page, or at least in the same part of the disk.

Right there I’ve described some of the toughest ongoing challenges facing DBMS engineers. The big vendors all do a great job at meeting them (if they didn’t, they’d be out of business). Even so, some small companies find themselves able to beat the big guys, by some egregious cheating.

Data warehouse appliance vendors such as Netezza and especially Datallegro optimize their systems to stream data sequentially off of disk. In doing so, they go deeper into the operating systems, hardware, etc. than Oracle could ever allow itself to do. And the results seem pretty good. But I’ll write about that another time. Instead, I’m focusing right now on memory-centric data management; please see my other posts in that topic category.


5 Responses to “Breaking through the disk speed barrier”

  1. DBMS2 — DataBase Management System Services»Blog Archive » Breaking the disk speed barrier on November 13th, 2005 11:45 pm

    […] Memory-centric data mgt. […]

  2. DBMS2 — DataBase Management System Services»Blog Archive » Is Oracle losing its edge? on November 21st, 2005 9:29 am

    […] Memory-centric data mgt. […]

  3. DBMS2 — DataBase Management System Services»Blog Archive » Some Moore’s Law data points on December 2nd, 2005 8:25 am

    […] I’m not a hardware guy, but here are some data points around the subject of Moore’s Law, quasi-Moore laws, and their bearing on random access times to disk and RAM. This line of inquiry is central to my argument favoring memory-centric data management. […]

  4. DBMS2 — DataBase Management System Services»Blog Archive » Defining and surveying “Memory-centric data management” on January 26th, 2006 5:35 pm

    […] Progress’s ObjectStore: ObjectStore comes from the company Object Design, which merged into Excelon, which was acquired by Progress. It’s really a toolkit for building DBMS and similar systems, which is why it’s at various times been marketed as an OODBMS and an XML DBMS, without a lot of success either way. But there have been a few sterling apps built in ObjectStore even so, including a key part of the Amazon bookstore Despite this limited market success, a significant fraction of Progress’s best engineering talent has moved over to the Real-Time Division to focus on ObjectStore and other memory-centric products. The memory-centric aspect of ObjectStore is this: ObjectStore’s big virtue is that it gets objects from disk to memory and vice-versa very efficiently, then distributes and caches them around a network as needed. This was originally invented for client/server processing, but works fine in a multi-server thin client setup as well. And object processing, of course, relies on a whole lot of pointers. And pointer-chasing is pretty much the worst way to deal with the disk speed barrier, unless you do it in main memory. […]

  5. Boston Big Data Summit keynote outline | DBMS2 -- DataBase Management System Services on January 28th, 2010 7:43 am

    […] But rotational speeds up only 12.5X since Eisenhower Administration […]

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