Understanding Disk: Caching and Tiering



When I was a child, about four or five years old, my dad told me a joke. It wasn’t a very funny joke, but it stuck in my mind because of what happened next. The joke went like this:

Dad: “What’s big at the bottom, small at the top and has ears?”

Me: “I don’t know?”

Dad: “A mountain!”

Me: “Er…<puzzled>…  What about the ears?”

Dad: (Triumphantly) “Haven’t you heard of mountaineers?!”

So as I say, not very funny. But, by a twist of fate, the following week at primary school my teacher happened to say, “Now then children, does anybody know any jokes they’d like to share?”. My hand shot up so fast that I was immediately given the chance to bring the house down with my new comedy routine. “What’s big at the bottom, small at the top and has ears?” I said, with barely repressed glee. “I don’t know”, murmured the teacher and other children expectantly. “A mountain!”, I replied.

Silence. Awkwardness. Tumbleweed. Someone may have said “Duuh!” under their breath. Then the teacher looked faintly annoyed and said, “That’s not really how a joke works…” before waiving away my attempts to explain and moving on to hear someone else’s (successful and funny) joke. Why had it been such a disaster? The joke had worked perfectly on the previous occasion, so why didn’t it work this time?

There are two reasons I tell this story: firstly because, as you can probably tell, I am scarred for life by what happened. And secondly, because it highlights what happens when you assume you can predict the unpredictable.*

Gambling With Performance

So far in this mini-series on Understanding Disk we’ve covered the design of hard drives, their mechanical limitations and some of the compromises that have to be made in order to achieve acceptable performance. The topic of this post is more about bandaids; the sticking plasters that users of disk arrays have to employ to try and cover up their performance problems. Or as my boss likes to call it, lipstick on a pig.

roulette-wheelIf you currently use an enterprise disk array the chances are it has some sort of DRAM cache within the array. Blocks stored in this cache can be read at a much lower latency than those residing only on disk, because the operation avoids paying the price of seek time and rotational latency. If the cache is battery-backed, it can also be used to accelerate writes too. But DRAM caches in storage area networks are notoriously expensive in relation to their size, which is often significantly smaller than the size of the active data set. For this reason, many array vendors allow you to use SSDs as an additional layer of slower (but higher capacity) cache.

Another common approach to masking the performance of disk arrays is tiering. This is where different layers of performance are identified (e.g. SATA disk, fibre-channel disk, SSD, etc) and data moved about according to its performance needs. Tiering can be performed manually, which requires a lot of management overhead, or automatically by software – perhaps the most well-known example being EMC’s Fully Automated Storage Tiering (or “FAST”) product. Unlike caching, which creates a copy of the data somewhere temporary, tiering involves permanently relocating the persistent location of the data. This relocation has a performance penalty, particularly if data is being moved frequently. Moreover, some automatic tiering solutions can take 24 hours to respond to changes in access patterns – now that’s what I call bad latency.

The Best Predictor of Future Behaviour is Past Behaviour

The problem with automatic tiering is that, just like caching, it relies on past behaviour to predict the future. That principle works well in psychology, but isn’t always as successful in computing. It might be acceptable if your workload is consistent and predictable, but what happens when you run your end of month reporting? What happens when you want to run a large ad-hoc query? What happens when you tell a joke about mountains and expect everyone to ask “but what about the ears”? You end up looking pretty stupid, I can tell you.

las-vegasI have no problem with caching or tiering in principle. After all, every computer system uses cache in multiple places: your CPUs probably have two or three levels of cache, your server is probably stuffed with DRAM and your Oracle database most likely has a large block buffer cache. What’s more, in my day job I have a lot of fun helping customers overcome the performance of nasty old spinning disk arrays using Violin’s Maestro memory services product.

But ultimately, caching and tiering are bandaids. They reduce the probability of horrible disk latency but they cannot eliminate it. And like a gambler on a winning streak, if you become more accustomed to faster access times and put more of your data at risk, the impact when you strike out is felt much more deeply. The more you bet, the more you have to lose.

Shifting the Odds in Your Favour

I have a customer in the finance industry who doesn’t care (within reason) what latency their database sees from storage. All they care about is that their end users see the same consistent and sustained performance. It doesn’t have to be lightning fast, but it must not, ever, feel slower than “normal”. As soon as access times increase, their users’ perception of the system’s performance suffers… and the users abandon them to use rival products.

poker-gameThey considered high-end storage arrays but performance was woefully unpredictable, no matter how much cache and SSD they used. They considered Oracle Exadata but ruled it out because Exadata Flash Cache is still a cache – at some point a cache miss will mean fetching data from horrible, spinning disk. Now they use all flash arrays, because the word “all” means their data is always on flash: no gambling with performance.

Caching and tiering will always have some sort of place in the storage world. But never forget that you cannot always win – at some point (normally the worst possible time) you will need to access data from the slowest media used by your platform. Which is why I like all flash arrays: you have a 100% chance of your data being on flash. If I’m forced to gamble with performance, those are the odds I prefer…

* I know. It’s a tenuous excuse for telling this story, but on the bright side I feel a lot better for sharing it with you.

Understanding Disk: Over-Provisioning

Image courtesy of Google Inc.

Image courtesy of Google Inc.

Storage for DBAs: In a recent news article in the UK, supermarket giant Tesco said it threw away almost 30,000 tonnes of food in the first half of 2013. That’s about 33,000 tons for those of you who can’t cope with the metric system. The story caused a lot of debate about the way in which we ignore the issue of wasted food – with Tesco being both criticised for the wastage and praised for publishing the figures. But waste isn’t a problem confined to just the food industry. The chances are it’s happening on your data centre too.

Stranded Capacity

As a simple example, let’s take a theoretical database which requires just under 6TB of storage capacity. To avoid complicating things we are going to ignore concepts such as striping, mirroring, caching and RAID for a moment and just pretend you want to stick a load of disks in a server. How many super-fast 15k RPM disk drives do you need if each one is 600GB? You need about ten, more or less, right? But here’s the thing: the database creates a lot of random I/O so it has a peak requirement for around 20,000 physical IOPS (I/O operations per second). Those 600GB drives can only service 200 IOPS each. So now you need 100 disks to be able to cope with the workload. 100 multiplied by 600GB is of course 60TB, so you will end up deploying sixty terabytes of capacity in order to service a database of six terabytes in size. Welcome to over-provisioning.

padlockNow here’s the real kicker. That remaining 54TB of capacity? You can’t use it. At least, you can’t use it if you want to be able to guarantee the 20,000 IOPS requirement we started out with. Any additional workload you attempt to deploy using the spare capacity will be issuing I/Os against it, resulting in more IOPS. If you were feeling lucky, you could take a gamble on trying to avoid any new workloads being present during peak requirement of the original database, but gambling is not something most people like to do in production environments. In other words, your spare capacity is stranded. Of your total disk capacity deployed, you can only ever use 10% of it.

Of course, disk arrays in the real world tend to use concepts such as wide-striping (spreading chunks of data across as many disks as possible to take advantage of all available performance) and caching (staging frequently accessed blocks in faster DRAM) but the underlying principle remains.

Short Stroking

hard-drive-short-strokingIf that previous example makes you cringe at the level of waste, prepare yourself for even worse. In my previous article I talked about the mechanical latency associated with disk, which consists of seek time (the disk head moving across the platter) and rotational latency (the rotation of the platter to the correct sector). If latency is critical (which it always, always is) then one method of reducing the latency experienced on a disk system is to limit the movement of the head, thus reducing the seek time. This is known as short stroking. If we only use the outer sectors of the platter (such as those coloured green in the diagram here), the head is guaranteed to always be closer to the next sector we require – and note that the outer sectors are preferable because they have a higher transfer rate than the inner sectors (to understand why, see the section on zones in this post). Of course this has a direct consequence in that a large portion of the disk is now unused, sometimes up to 90%. In the case of a 600GB disk short stroking may now result in only 60GB of capacity, which means ten times as many disks are necessary to provide the same capacity as a disk which is not short stroked.

Two Types of Capacity

When people talk about disk capacity then tend to be thinking of the storage capacity, i.e. the number of bytes of data that can be stored. However, while every storage device must have a storage capacity, it will also have a performance capacity – a limit to the amount of performance it can deliver, measured in I/Os per second and/or some derivative of bytes per second. And the thing about capacities is that bad things tend to happen when you try to exceed them.


In simplistic terms, performance and storage capacity are linked, with the ratio between them being specific to each type of storage. With disk drives, the performance capacity usually becomes the blocker before the storage capacity, particularly if the I/O is random (which means high numbers of IOPS). This means any overall solution you design must exceed the required storage capacity in order to deliver on performance. In the case of flash memory, the opposite is usually true: by supplying the required storage capacity there will be a surplus of performance capacity. Provide enough space and you shouldn’t need to worry about things like IOPS and bandwidth. (Although I’m not suggesting you should forego due diligence and just hope everything works out ok…)

Waste Watching

trashcanI opened with a reference to the story about food wastage – was it fair to compare this to wasted disk capacity in the data centre? One is a real world problem and the other a hypothetical idea taking place somewhere in cyberspace, right? Well maybe not. Think of all those additional disks that are required to provide the performance capacity you need, resulting in excess storage capacity which is either stranded or (in the case of short stroking) not even addressable. All those spindles require power to keep them spinning – power that mostly comes from power stations burning fossil fuels. The heat that they produce means additional cooling is required, adding to the power draw. And the additional data centre floor space means more real estate, all of which costs money and consumes resources. It’s all waste.

And that’s just the stuff you can measure. What about the end users that have to wait longer for their data because of the higher latency of disk? Those users may be expensive resources in their own right, but they are also probably using computers or smart devices which consume power, accessing your database over a network that consumes more power, via application servers that consume yet more power… all wasting time waiting for their results.

Wasted time, waster money, wasted resources. The end result of over-provisioning is not something you should under-estimate…

Understanding Disk: Mechanical Limitations


Storage for DBAs: The year 2000. Remember that? The IT industry had just spent years making money off the back of the millenium bug (which turned out not to exist). The world had spent even more money than usual on fireworks, parties and alcohol. England failed to win an international football tournament again (some things never change). It was all quite a long time ago.

It was also an important year in the world of disk drive manufacturing, because in February 2000 Seagate released the Cheatah X15 – the world’s first disk drive spinning at 15,000 rotations per minute (RPM). At the time this was quite a milestone, because it came only four years after the first 10k RPM drive (also a Seagate Cheetah) had been released. The 50% jump from 10k to 15k made it look like disks were on a path of continual acceleration… and yet now, as I write this article in 2013, 15k remains the fastest disk drive available. What happened?

Disks haven’t completely stagnated. They continue to get both larger and smaller: larger in terms of capacity, smaller in terms of form factor. But they just aren’t getting any faster…

You don’t need to take my word for this. This technology paper (from none other than Seagate themselves) contains the following table on page 2:

Document TP-525 - Seagate Global Product Marketing (May 2004)

Document TP-525 – Seagate Global Product Marketing (May 2004)

Published in 2004, this document shows that between 1987 and 2004 the performance of CPU increased by a factor of two million, while disk drive performance increased by a factor of just eleven. And that was over a decade ago, so CPU has improved many times more since then. Yet the 15k RPM drive remains the upper limit of engineering for rotating media – and this is unlikely to change, for reasons I will explain in a minute. But first, a more basic question: why do we care?

Seek Time and Rotational Latency

hard-drive-diagramAs we discussed previously, a hard drive contains one or more rotating aluminium disks (known as “platters“) which are coated in a ferromagnetic material used to magnetically store bits (i.e. zeros and ones). In the case of a 15k RPM drive it is the platter that rotates 15,000 times per minute, or 250 times per second. Data is read from and written to the platter by a read/write head mounted on top of an actuator arm which moves to seek out the desired track. Once the head is above this track, the platter must rotate to the start of the required sector – and only at this point does the I/O begin.

Both of those mechanical actions take time – and therefore introduce delays into the process of performing I/O. The time taken to move the head to the correct track is known as the seek time, while the time taken to rotate the platter is called the rotational latency. Since the platter does not stop spinning during normal operation, it is not possible to perform both actions concurrently – if the platter spins to the correct sector before the head is above the right track, it must continue to spin through another revolution.

stopwatchNow obviously, both of these wait times are highly dependant on where the head and platter were prior to the I/O call. In the best case, the head does not need to move at all and the platter is already at the correct sector, requiring zero wait time. But in the worst case, the head has to travel from one edge to the other and then the platter needs to rotate 359 degrees to start the read or write. Each I/O is like a throw of the dice, which is why when we discuss latency we have to talk in averages.

Modern enterprise disk drives such as this Seagate Cheetah 15K.7 SAS drive have average seek times of around 3.5ms to 4ms – although in a later article I will talk about how this can be reduced. Rotational latency is a factor of the speed at which the platter rotates – hence the interest in making disks that spin at 15k RPM or faster. At 15,000 revolutions per minute, each revolution takes 4ms, meaning the set of all possible latencies ranges from 0ms to 4ms. Once you consider it like that, it’s pretty obvious that the average rotational latency of a 15k RPM drive is 2ms. You can use the same method to calculate that a 10k RPM drive has an average of 3ms and so on.

Why Not Spin Faster?

A surprisingly-common misconception about disk drives is that the head touches the platter, in the same way as a vinyl record player has a needle/stylus that touches the record (for any younger readers: this is how we used to live). But in a disk drive, the head “flies” above the platter at a distance of a few nanometers, using airflow to keep itself in place (similar to the concept of a fluid bearing).

batteryThere are three main problems with making disks that revolve faster than 15k, the first of which is energy: the power consumption required to create all of that additional kinetic energy, as well as the associated heat it creates. At a time when energy costs are constantly increasing, customers do not want to pay even more money for devices that require more power and more cooling to run.

tornadoA more fundamental problem is related to aerodynamics, in that by rotating the platter faster the platter’s outer edge starts to travel at very high speed causing it to interact negatively with the surrounding air (a phenomenon known scientifically as flutter). For a 3.5 inch platter, the outer edge is travelling at approximately 150 miles per hour. It isn’t possible to remove the air, because this would result in the head touching the platter – causing devastation. One potential solution is to reduce the diameter of the platter, e.g. 2.5 inches or less (thereby reducing the speed of the edge) but this results in reduced disk capacity. Some manufacturers are replacing the air with helium in an attempt to reduce flutter and buffeting, but helium is both expensive and scarce, while the manufacturing process is undoubtedly more complex.

dollarsBut the biggest – and potentially insurmountable – problem is the cost. Technical challenges can (mostly) be overcome, but customers will not pay for products that do not make economic sense. Disks are built and sold in large volumes, so any new manufacturing process requires a heavy investment – essentially a gamble taken by the manufacturer on whether customers will buy the new product or not. It’s unlikely we’ll see anything faster than 15k RPM manufactured in volume, because there simply isn’t the demand. Not when there are so many cheaper workarounds…

Spin Doctors

As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Give people enough time to work around a problem and you will get all sorts of interesting tricks, hacks and dodges. And in the case of disk performance, we’ve been suffering from the limitations of mechanical latency for decades. The next articles in this series will look at some of the more common strategies employed to avoid, or limit, the impact of mechanical latency to disk performance: over-provisioning, short-stroking, caching, tiering… But rest assured of one thing: they are all just attempts at hiding the problem. Ultimately, the only way to remove the pain of mechanical latency is to remove the mechanics. By moving to semiconductor-based storage, all of the delays introduced by moving heads and spinning platters simply disappear… in a flash.

Understanding Disk: Superpowers


Storage for DBAs: It’s a familiar worn-out story. A downtrodden and oppressed population are rescued from their plight by a mysterious superhero. Over time they come to rely on this new superbeing – taking him for granted even, complaining when he isn’t immediately available to save them and alleviate their pain. As the years progress, memories of the “old days” fade away while younger generations grow up with no concept of how bad things used to be. Our superhero is no longer special to us, in fact we feel he isn’t doing enough. As he grows old we grumble and complain while he desperately looks to the skies for someone younger, faster and with greater powers to relieve him of his burden: the burden of our expectation.

No it’s ok, I haven’t taken a creative writing course and taken this opportunity to practice my (lack of) skills on you. The aging superhero in my story is the humble disk drive.

The disk drive has been around, in one form or another, for well over 50 years. It’s changed, of course (the original IBM RAMAC 305 weighed over a ton) and capacity figures have changed too. But the mechanical aspects of storing data on a spinning magnetic disk – the physics of the design – remain the same.


hard-drive-diagramA hard disk drive consists of a set of one or more platters, which are disks of non-magnetic material such as aluminium. The platters spin at a constant speed on a common axle which we call a spindle – and by extension we often refer to the entire hard drive unit as a spindle too. The platters are coated in a thin layer of ferromagnetic material, which is where data is stored in binary form in concentric circles which we call tracks. Each track is divided into equal-sized segments called sectors and it is these that hold the data, along with additional overheads such as error correction codes. Traditionally, a sector contained 512 bytes of user data – but modern disks conforming to the Advanced Format standard use 4096 bytes for a sector. Data is read and written by a read/write head located on the end of a movable actuator arm which can traverse the platter – and of course with multiple and/or double-sided platters there will be multiple heads.

That’s where disk’s superpowers came from: the winning combination of a moving head and the concentric tracks of data. These days it almost seems like a flaw, but to appreciate the magic you need to consider the technology that disk replaced.

The Bad Old Days

tapeBefore disk, we had tape – a medium still in use today for other purposes such as backups. A big spinning reel of magnetic tape can transfer data in and out pretty fast (i.e. it has a high bandwidth) when the I/O is sequential, because the blocks are stored contiguously on the tape. But any kind of random I/O requires a mechanical delay (i.e. high latency) as the tape is wound backwards or forwards to locate the starting block and place it in front of the fixed read/write head. The time taken to locate the starting block is known as the seek time – a term that has haunted storage for decades.

When disk arrived it seemed revolutionary (pardon the pun). Like tape, disk used spinning magnetic media, but unlike tape, the read/write head could now move – allowing drastically reduced seek times. Want to move from reading the last sector on the disk to the first? No problem, the actuator arm simply moves across the tracks and then the platter rotates to find the first sector. A tape, on the other hand, would need to rewind the entire reel.

So, ironically, disk represented a massive leap forward for the performance of random I/O. How the mighty have fallen… but I’m going to save any talk of performance until the next post. For now, we need to finish off describing the basic layout of disk.

On The Edge

hard-drive-structureThe picture on the right shows a traditional disk layout, where individual sectors (C) spread out across tracks (A) in the same way as a slice of cake or pie. If you consider a set of sectors (B – all those shaded in blue) you can see that they get longer the further towards the edge they get. How long does it take to read three consecutive sectors on a track, such as those highlighted green (D)? In the diagram those three sectors cover 90 degrees of the platter, so the time to read them would be one quarter of a revolution. And crucially, that would be the same no matter how far in or out they were from the edges.

In this traditional model, each sector contains the same amount of data (512 or 4096 bytes plus overheads). Since data is nothing more than bits (zeros and ones) we can say that the density of those bits is greater towards the centre of the platter and lower at the edge. In other words, we aren’t really utilising all of the available platter surface as we move further towards the edge. This directly affects the capacity of the drive, since less data is being stored than the platter can physically allow. There are solutions to this, however – and the most common solution is zoned bit recording.

In The Zone

hard-drive-zoned-bit-recordingTo ensure that all of the available surface is used on each platter, many modern disk drives used a technique where the number of sectors per “slice” increases towards the edge of the disk. To simplify this design, tracks are placed into zones, each of which has a defined number of sectors per track. The result is that outer zones squeeze more sectors on to each track than inner zones. This has the benefit of increasing the capacity of the drive, because the surface is more efficiently used and bit densities remain consistently high.

But zoned bit recording also has another interesting effect: on the outer edge, more sectors now pass under the head per revolution. To put that more simply, the outer edge has a higher transfer rate (i.e. bandwidth) than the inner edge. And since most drives tend to number their tracks starting at the outer edge and working inwards, the result is that data stored at the logical start of a drive benefits from this higher bandwidth while data stored at the end experiences the opposite effect.

This is nothing to do with latency though, this is purely a bandwidth phenomenon. Latency is a whole different discussion – and as such, the subject of a whole different post…