Posts Tagged ‘Windows 7’

SSDs: are you experienced?

Kingston SSDNow V-Series 128GB[tweetmeme source=”KeithBluestone” only_single=false]First reaction after installing an Kingston SSDNow V-Series 128GB SSD boot drive in my custom-built Core i7-860 PC running Windows 7:  awesome.

While several times the cost per GB of conventional drives, an entry-level SSD will run many times faster, and I think  it’s the perfect companion for today’s high-end processors.  The days of using conventional boot drives are surely limited.

I noticed that there are a lot of sites pirating this article verbatim.  Here is a link to the original on SoftwareKeith.com… — Keith

Fast. Smooth. Quiet.

The SSD at US$250 (on NewEgg.com) was rather pricey for a single PC component — it cost as much as the Core i7-860 CPU itself.   But I knew almost immediately that it was the right decision: with the SSD installed, everything flies !  The system feels so “smooth,” like the hard drive and the processor are in sync.  Windows 7 Ultimate installed in about 10 minutes flat;  it boots in about 20 seconds.   Apps leap onto the screen again within a second or two.

My favorite readers will remember that after my very fast RAID-10 array died (see my last post), I had to run the Core i7 box off a single 7200 RPM drive for a while, which showed clearly that the hard drive was a performance bottleneck.

Formatted, the SSD has about 120GB of space.  After installing Windows 7 Ultimate and a handful of core applications (FireFox, Picasa, Windows Live Writer, etc.), I still had over 90 GB free.   After some heavier installs – including Office Professional 2010, Microsoft Visual Studio 2010, and Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 – there’s still well over 80 GB free.  That’s more than enough for most people to play with for quite some time.

Why SSD’s smoke conventional drives

imageIn a word (or two): access time.  The access time is how long it takes the storage device to read data.

For conventional drives, this involves waiting until the data on the spinning hard drive platter (right) rotates under the read head, positioning the read head arm to the correct track (radially), and reading the data from the platter.  Conventional desktop hard drives, even the best in the world, have access times of  4 to 8 milliseconds, which turns out to be an eternity for today’s processors.

The following analogy brings home the massive disparity between the speed of a modern processors and hard drives:

The first thing that jumps out is how absurdly fast our processors are…  reading from L1 cache is like grabbing a piece of paper from your desk (3 seconds), L2 cache is picking up a book from a nearby shelf (14 seconds), and main system memory is taking a 4-minute walk down the hall to buy a Twix bar.  Waiting for a hard drive seek is like leaving the building to roam the earth for one year and three months.
— “What Your Computer Does While You Wait,” Gustavo Duarte

As it turns out, most of the work done by an operating system involves reading a ton of little files, more or less “randomly” accessing the hard drive.   Thus, impressively fast sequential read or write speeds are not nearly as important as random access read speed.   Anand Lal Shimpi explains why, even though the cost per GB is so much higher, SSDs are worth it:

Measuring random access is very important because that’s what generally happens when you go to run an application while doing other things on your computer. It’s random access that feels the slowest on your machine.  Most hard drives will take closer to 8 or 9 ms in this test.  The fastest SSDs can find the data you’re looking for in around 0.1 ms. That’s an order of magnitude faster than the fastest hard drive on the market today.  [KB: it’s actually almost two orders of magnitude faster…]
— “The SSD Anthology: Why You Should Want an SSD,” AnandTech, March 2009

This explains my own experience:  even though my formerly alive RAID-10 array benchmarked faster than the Kingston SSD overall, with a PassMark Disk Mark score of 1100 to the SSD’s 950, the system feels so much quicker with the SSD – without the headaches of RAID-10.

This is why I’m now an SSD convert.

See with your own eyes

Watch the actual launch speed of a handful of common applications on my Core i7-860 below.  This screencast was done immediately after reboot, so no applications are pre-loaded or cached in memory.  Most apps load in about a second or so;  Outlook 2010 takes the longest, but since my mail archives are on a network share, the five or so seconds it takes to load includes accessing a remote filesystem.

Windows 7 Ultimate + Core i7-860 @ 3.3 GHz + Kingston V-Series SSD

Conclusion

The lowly old spinning-platter hard drive is the primary bottleneck in the modern computer.   Though pricey, an SSD is a perfect match for a today’s fast processors.

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For those still reading…

Benchmarks are below – you can skip this section if you’re not interested in my technological prognostications.

I’ll make a bold prediction: as a boot drive, the SSD was so effective at speeding up my computer, I believe that within two years, they will become mainstream as boot drive choices.  With the ever-increasing capabilities of our processors, and the ever-increasing demands we put on our computers, it’s a perfect choice.

The default configuration would be be an SSD- or memory-based boot drive, on which the operating system and applications are installed, supplemented where necessary by a second, higher-capcacity legacy technology drive (you know, the ones that go ‘round and ‘round).

Intelligent OS storage architectures?

If we’re lucky, Microsoft will get inspired and allow seamless stitching of fast SSD and slow legacy storage in their next version of Windows.  This not-yet-invented technology would enable two drives – a fast, smaller SSD and a slower, larger conventional drive –  to be seen as a single logical storage partition. The OS would have the intelligence, for instance, to automatically install applications on the fast part and keep things like large images – when necessary – on the slower drive.  Why not?

imageWhile you’re at it, Microsoft: use that legacy hard drive for a completely automated, idiot-proof backup system. This would have one switch at the highest level: “back up my system” – or not.   Want to improve your “street cred” against upstarts Apple and Google?  Let no Windows user henceforth ever lose their data. It’s the right thing to do.

Let’s face it: the SSD could basically be considered just a fast hard drive cache. Caching technology and cache-hit optimization strategies are fairly well-understood, as are the dynamics of logical block translation in operating systems:  why should it be difficult to have the OS manage and optimize a hybrid storage array?

It turns out there already are “hybrid hard drives” or “HHD’s”.  See the Tech Report’s “Seagate Momentus XT: a hybrid for the masses?” and  Wikipedia’s entry on hybrid drives.  These drives blend flash memory and a conventional hard drive in one package.  Unfortunately, this is not as flexible as an OS-based implementation would be.

Benchmarks

I promised benchmarks…  many of course are out there on the web, but below are some from my computer.

PassMark’s Disk Mark measured the random seek performance of the SSD at 60% higher than the RAID-10 array (in MB/s):

2010.08_PerformanceTest_Disk_Mark_-_i7-860_and_Kingston_SSD

HD Tune clocks its read performance at 250 MB/s, stellar:

2010.08_Kingston_SSD_HD_Tune_Read

HD Tune’s file benchmarks show file reads and writes many times faster than the average drive (in MB/s):

image

Windows Experience Index scores it 6.8 out of…  7.9? Could anything be less clear than Microsoft’s own explanation?

image

More Reading

As it’s mid-2010, I suppose I’m a little late to the party, but…  who’s going to be ahead of Anand?  Regardless, it’s good to be here:

“For the past several months I’ve been calling SSDs the single most noticeable upgrade you can do to your computer. … Whenever anyone mentions a more affordable SSD you always get several detractors saying that you could easily buy 2 VelociRaptors for the same price. Allow me to show you one table that should change your opinion.”
Anand Lal Shimpi, “The SSD Anthology,” March 2009

A few months later, Anand followed up this magnum opus with yet another:

“What have I gotten myself into? The SSD Anthology I wrote back in March was read over 2 million times. Microsoft linked it, Wikipedia linked it, my esteemed colleagues in the press linked it, Linus freakin Torvalds linked it. ”
Anand Lal Shimpi, “The SSD Relapse: Understanding and Choosing the Best SSD,”  August 2009

Other links:

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Intel Matrix RAID-10: down for the count

Summary

Intel’s Matrix RAID-10 is cost effective and extremely fast — even with regular old 7200 RPM drives — but it is not a trustworthy solution for a desktop PC. 

Go figure

No sooner did I open my mouth and blog about it, my Intel RAID-10 array died.   In dramatic fashion, two of the four drives suddenly were marked failed, and the lengthy resuscitation attempt ended in death by bluescreen. 

RAID-10 array with two of four drives failing
Not what you want to see from your RAID array

This array, composed of four enterprise-duty Seagate 500GB SATA Barracudas at 7200 RPM, provided almost 1 TB of very fast storage — faster even than a lot of SSDs. 

But it had been quirky from the moment it started life in March 2010, with almost weekly “verification” and “rebuilding” sessions.   Hey, I’m running mirrored RAID for a reason:  I hate losing data.    With the frequent issues it had, I could never completely trust the Intel Matrix RAID array.

I had a sneaking suspicion that sleeping and resuming Windows was a trigger for the Intel RAID issues;  but I can’t prove it. 

Kiddie RAID?

The opinion of “deep IT” on the forums of Tom’s Hardware and AnandTech.com is that the free-on-your-motherboard Intel Matrix RAID (the ICH9R/ICHR10R chipset) was playware.   These guys, some of whom maintain corporate servers for a living, think that folks needing “real” RAID should buy a dedicated card from Adaptec, LSI, 3Ware or Areca, at $300 and up.

For example, see the thread “A RAID that just works – no matter what” on Tom’s Hardware.

Also, having a dedicated chip on the motherboard, Intel Matrix RAID is technically firmware RAID, but actually considered to be a software RAID solution, in essence;  only dedicated controller cards are true hardware RAID. 

The OS RAID built into Windows 7 (Pro, Ultimate) and Windows Server editions runs just about as fast as Intel’s Matrix RAID, but does not support RAID-10 arrays.

RAID FAIL

I had been unwilling to part with $300 to $600 for a dedicated RAID controller – overkill except for application or database servers.

Now, the mortally wounded Intel Matrix/RST RAID-10 array was somehow showing two simultaneous failing drives out of four.   To me, the chances of two hard drives failing at the same time are astronomical, barring a power event.  Because of my poor experience with Intel’s RAID, I’m inclined to put the blame on the Intel implementation.

Intel Matrix RAID-10 array fail

I tried all the tricks in the book:  marking bad drives as “good” and rebuilding; powering down;  checking all connections; resetting the BIOS to stock settings.  I even unplugged the system to let the components “rest”  — basically the equivalent of hardware voodoo.

At the end of the day – literally – the RAID-10 array finally booted, but Windows 7 went all Code Blue on me, booting fine but crashing right after I logged in.   Safe Mode didn’t help, nor did Repairing or Restoring or anything else:

Windows 7 bluescreen

Death by RAID

She’s Dead, Jim

I had had it:  I was done with the Intel RAID array and all the verification and rebuilding… and now, its failure.  I didn’t want to waste any more time fooling with it.

Fortunately, I have put a lot of effort into organizing my documents and data – my “digital IP,” as it were.   Almost all of it resides on my primary fileserver and not on individual computers.  So if there was any bright spot to the RAID array crash, it was that I could decide at any instant to scrap my Windows install.  Which is exactly what I did.

Tip: I always re-map Windows “special folders” to network shares on my fileserver, including My Documents, My Pictures, and My Downloads.  Not only are the network shares multiply backed up and secured, but I see the same My Documents, Pictures, and Downloads on whatever computer I log into.

So I disconnected the four RAID-10 hard drives, fished out a 500 GB spare, and installed a fresh copy of Windows 7 64-bit.  No doubt this was a pain in the rear –  but it’s nothing compared to the good old days, when a hard drive crash for me usually meant losing data.

First, using the single 500 GBdrive, I tried to restore from my Windows 7 backup on the network, which failed – even though the backup had completed successfully AND I had created the recommended recovery boot CD.

Plea to Microsoft:  in 2010, this is unacceptable!  Please make Windows backup and restore completely idiot-proof!

Windows 7 restore from system image: FAIL

My, isn’t the blue background pretty?

Despite these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, about an hour later, I had a fresh copy of Windows 7 Ultimate installed with my “core” software apps loaded: FireFox and plugins, Picasa, Windows Live Writer, etc.

Out of balance

A balanced system has few bottlenecks due to mismatched components.   Here, with the single 7200 RPM hard drive, I realized exactly how important a fast hard drive is for top-of-the-food-chain processors like the Core i7-860: the system ran noticeably slower

In my last post, “The Experience" of the i7-860, I wrote that apps like FireFox and even Internet Explorer exploded onto the screen.  Now, the experience was more like click… wait… wait…  done.   I could hear the hard drive chattering away.  

Wondering precisely how much performance I had given up, I ran PassMark’s Performance Test on this drive, a Seagate Barracuda SATA 500GB.  What ‘s interesting about these numbers is that the RAID-10 array was composed of the same type of Seagate drive:

  • It scored an overall Disk Mark of about 500, whereas the RAID-10 array scored about 1,110, over twice as fast!  
  • It benchmarked at  76 MB/s sequential read and 55 MB/s sequential write, where the RAID-10 array benchmarked at 154 MB/s read and 144 MB/s write, about twice as fast reading and three times as fast writing! 
  • Its random seek read-write was about 4 MB/s, where the RAID-10 array was 9.5 Mb/s, again over twice as fast.

    RAID-10 Array, 4 x Seagate 7200 RPM: Disk Mark DiskMark: Intel Matrix RAID-10 with 4 x  7200RPM SATA Barracuda 500GB

    Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7200RPM SATA: Disk MarkDiskMark: Seagate 7200RPM SATA Barracuda 500GB

Forging ahead

This wouldn’t do at all:  I loved the responsiveness the fast hard drive array gave Windows.  It just didn’t seem to make sense, pairing one of the fastest desktop CPUs in the world with a single hard drive whose platter-spinning technology – and speed – had remained largely unchanged for at least ten years.  

The only thing that would get me close to those speeds was an SSD.  As a consultant, all that time spent trying to recover the RAID-10 array was costing me real money.

Kingston SSDNow V Series 128 GB SSD So despite the huge premium, I  bought the highly ratedKingston SSDNow V Series 128 GB SSD for use as a boot drive ($250 from NewEgg.com). 

Conclusion

The RAID-10 array was wonderfully fast and far less expensive per GB than an SSD.

But I had so many issues with it, even with “enterprise-duty” drives that are designed for server and RAID use, that I can’t really recommend Intel Matrix RAID (now Intel Rapid Storage) for this kind of array.

I am hoping the SSD will be the best of both worlds – speed and robustness.  With my new SSD on the way,  I’m excited.  Hopefully I will at least be thanking the Intel RAID team for ushering in a new era of performance storage in my life. 

Next Up: Experience and benchmarks running the Core i7-860 off an SSD.

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More reading

  • Kingston SSDNow V Series SNV425-S2BD/128GB 2.5" Desktop Bundle 128GB SATA II Internal Solid State Drive (SSD)   On Kingston.com – On NewEgg.com 
  • A RAID that just works – no matter what” (Tom’s Hardware forum thread)
    Overwhelming consensus is that hardware RAID is the way to go for serious users.
  • ICH10R – RAID failure” (Tom’s Hardware)
    Another from-the-trenches view of the real world
  • RAID-5 vs. RAID-10 (Art S. Kagel)
    An interesting, well-informed dissection of why RAID-5 should never be trusted with your data.
  • Intel Rapid Storage Technology Wikipedia
    Intel Rapid Storage Technology (early Intel Matrix RAID) is a firmware RAID system, rather than hardware RAID or software RAID.