If you’re old enough to remember floppy drives, you’ve heard the symptoms of a disk I/O bottleneck. For example, while Oregon Trail loaded the next scene, you’d hear the drive grinding away, reading data from the disk. The CPU would sit idle during this time, twiddling its fingers waiting for data. If that floppy drive was faster, you’d be running the Columbia River rapids by now.
It’s more difficult to detect an I/O bottleneck if the disk isn’t on your desktop. I’ll look at four important disk I/O questions for web apps:
- Do you have an I/O bottleneck?
- What impacts I/O performance?
- What’s the best path to fixing an I/O bottleneck?
- How do you monitor disk I/O?
A banana slug vs. an F-18 Hornet
Disk I/O encompasses the input/output operations on a physical disk. If you’re reading data from a file on a disk, the processor needs to wait for the file to be read (the same goes for writing).
The killer when working with a disk? Access time. This is the time required for a computer to process a data request from the processor and then retrieve the required data from the storage device. Since hard disks are mechanical, you need to wait for the disk to rotate to the required disk sector.
Disk latency is around 13ms, but it depends on the quality and rotational speed of the hard drive. RAM latency is around 83 nanoseconds. How big is the difference? If RAM was an F-18 Hornet with a max speed of 1,190 mph (more than 1.5x the speed of sound), disk access speed is a banana slug with a top speed of 0.007 mph.
This is why caching data in memory is so important for performance – the difference in latency between RAM and a hard drive is enormous*.