For years now, motherboard manufacturers have been struggling to find other markets to branch out to, in an attempt to diversify themselves, preparing for inevitable consolidation in the market. Every year at Computex, we'd hear more and more about how the motherboard business was getting tougher and we'd see more and more non-motherboard products from these manufacturers. For the most part, the non-motherboard products weren't anything special. Everyone went into making servers, then multimedia products, then cases, networking, security, water cooling; the list goes on and on.

This year's Computex wasn't very different, except for one thing. When Gigabyte showed us their collection of goodies for the new year, we were actually quite interested in one of them. And after we posted an article about it, we found that quite a few of you were very interested in it too. Gigabyte's i-RAM was an immediate success and it wasn't so much that the product was a success, but it was the idea that piqued everyone's interests.

Pretty much every time a faster CPU is released, we always hear from a group of users who are marveled by the rate at which CPUs get faster, but loathe the sluggish rate that storage evolves. We've been stuck with hard disks for decades now, and although the thought of eventually migrating to solid state storage has always been there, it's always been so very distant. These days, you can easily get a multi-gigabyte solid state drive if you're willing to spend the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to get one; prices actually vary from the low $1000s to the $100K range for solid state devices, obviously making them impractical for desktop users.

The performance benefits of solid state storage have always been tempting. With no moving parts, reliability is improved tremendously, and at the same time, random accesses are no longer limited by slow and difficult to position read/write heads. While sequential transfer rates have improved tremendously over the past 5 years, thanks to ever increasing platter densities among other improvements, it is the incredibly high latency that makes random accesses very expensive from a performance standpoint for conventional hard disks. A huge reduction in random access latency and increase in peak bandwidth are clear performance advantages to solid state storage, but until now, they both came at a very high price.

The other issue with solid state storage is that DRAM is volatile, meaning that as soon as power is removed from the drive, all of your data would be lost. More expensive solutions get around this by using a combination of a battery backup as well as a hard disk that keeps a backup of all data written to the solid state drive, just in case the battery or main power should fail.

Recognizing the allure of solid state storage, especially to performance-conscious enthusiast users, Gigabyte went about creating the first affordable solid state storage device, and they called it i-RAM.

By utilizing conventional DDR memory modules, Gigabyte's i-RAM is a lot cheaper to implement than more conventional solid state devices. Gigabyte sells you the card, and it's up to you to populate it with memory - a definite plus for those of us who happen to have a lot of older memory laying around, especially after next year's transition to DDR2 for AMD platforms.

The backup issue is solved by the use of a battery pack that is charged by your system on the fly, although there is no disk backup available for the i-RAM.

Through some custom logic, the i-RAM works and acts just like a regular SATA hard drive. But how much of a performance increase is there for desktop users? And is the i-RAM worth its still fairly high cost of entry? We've spent the past week trying to find out...

We All Scream for i-RAM
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  • abzzeus - Tuesday, July 26, 2005 - link

    http://www.cenatek.com/store/category.cfm?Category...">http://www.cenatek.com/store/category.cfm?Category...

    This a a 4GB PCI Drive @$3000 (yes three thousand) but this is for a native drive with direct access to the PCI bus thus can sustain 133Mbit/s.

    What I'd like to see is a version that fits in 5.25" drive slot 12+ slots for RAM using a std connector for power and SATA II or SCSI (SCA?).

    I can see several advantages for this product IF you think about it
    Webcache server (hold the cache)
    Temporary files (great for those programs that write temp files like crazy)
    Swap space on Database server (lookup PAE, SQL server and 36bit addressing - 32bit windows can address upto 8GB RAM IF the O/S and the app are writen for it (been there :( )
    Swap space on badly behaved app - there are apps that are ported from *nix to windows that tell the OS I have pagable RAM which the server then dumps to disc (4million page faults in 2 hours!) only for the app to ask for it
    Log files - DB servers write out transitional logs once per transaction, this needs a drive that is FAST

    Having more than one of these in a system (power system) means that you can seperate out the I/O onto seperate physical drives or even better controller or best seperate PCI buses (Servers, Really big servers can have three PCI buses) this means for a server (Unit means logical disc made from RAID arrays, seperated out as much as possible, by controller and PCI bus)

    Unit 1 - OS and Apps Binaries
    Unit 2 - Paging file
    Unit 3 - Logs
    Unit 4 - Temp
    Unit 5 - Data

    Maximum seperation equeals maximum I/O

    Reply
  • Klober - Tuesday, July 26, 2005 - link

    First off, another good article Anand. Now, on to my point...

    I'm wondering about World of Warcraft. After the first article where the info debuted there was a lot of talk in the comments section, and one of the subjects was WoW. It wouldn't have been possible to install WoW to the i-RAM because it's too big (~4.6GB on my machine). However, once AnandTech recieves another i-RAM to test with, either in JBOD or RAID-0, I would like to hear at least a subjective opinion on how WoW runs in large battles and such. I know my brother's machine gets stuttery when there's a big PvP battle, and through my troubleshooting I've gathered that it's a hard drive speed issue. If any of the AnandTech team has a high level character on their account and like PvP, please post something on performance in WoW.

    Thanks!
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, July 26, 2005 - link

    I can't see having the i-RAM as being more beneficial to any game than simply adding more RAM to the system. If you're going to have 4x1GB DIMMs installed on the i-RAM, why not just put them into the system itself instead? As for WoW, even if the installed size is 4.6 GB, I doubt the game actually goes much above 1GB of memory use - very few applications do. If you have 2GB or more of RAM, do you still get stuttering issues in WoW? If so, there's a reasonable chance that it's simply GPU power that's lacking rather than RAM - or perhaps GPU RAM would help?

    (Note: I'm not a WoW player, so I'm just shooting from the hip.)
    Reply
  • EODetroit - Wednesday, July 27, 2005 - link

    There are at least 3 seperate data files in the WoW installation that are 1 GB in size each. A bunch of smaller but still over 100 MB files as well. All told as he said its about 4.6GB, and its more than 4GB in that one folder alone. So yeah, the game would go over 1GB in memory use if it was written well enough.

    I play WoW a lot, and loading into highly populated areas sucks. You hard drive thrashes and you have no control of your character until everything is loaded. I'm assuming its busy loading the textures of the equipment that all the player charactes around you are wearing.

    This I-Ram thing might help out a lot, seeing as consumer motherboards don't support over 4GB of memory and the data files alone for WoW totals over 4GB. The problem again is that you'd need to raid two of the I-Ram devices together to get that much storage, and we don't even know if it would result in a tangible benefit.

    As others have mentioned, for all fast action games, it isn't the load times that Anand should be focusing on... its the in-game stutters when something suddenly has to get loaded from disk. Those are killer, and even if the initial game load times only decrease by 5%, if the stutters are eliminated, this might just be worth the cash, more than a new $600 video card certainly.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, July 28, 2005 - link

    My point wasn't that WoW doesn't ever exceed 1GB, but that it doesn't exceed 2GB of RAM use. Actually, we should have probably mentioned that point as well: no single application under 32-bit Windows (not counting PAE/NUMA setups) can use more than 2GB of RAM. The 32-bit memory space is partitioned into 2GB for applications and 2GB for the OS, if I have my information right. Basically, you need to try out WoW with a 2GB setup before you can say that i-RAM would or wouldn't be able to help.

    Going back to the earlier statements, though, i-RAM is still nowhere near as fast as system RAM. The delay of PC3200 is around 140ns worst case, and bandwidth is still 3.2 GBps or 6.4 GBps dual-channel. i-RAM seems to be somewhere in the microseconds range for access times, and it's limited to 150 MBps bandwidth. If you can add RAM to your PC, that would be the first step to improving performance.
    Reply
  • phonon - Wednesday, July 27, 2005 - link

    If you have Windows XP Pro, you should be able to make a volume that includes the I-RAM and a regular disk. Then you can make a hard links on the I-RAM that point to the additional 600 Megabytes or so on the regular disk that won't fit on the I-RAM. I've never done anything like this myself, but I think it should work. Any comments? Reply
  • johnsonx - Tuesday, July 26, 2005 - link

    someone's probably said all this, but i don't feel like reading all 80-odd comments:

    First, this strikes me more as a proof-of-concept effort. Sure, they'll sell you the engineering samples, for $150. Rev 2 will be the real product.

    Second, I did see several people suggest that interfacing the board to the SATA interface rather than directly to the PCI bus makes it slower. Why? Standard 32-bit 33Mhz PCI only has 133MB/s of bandwidth, and that's often shared by other devices as well. SATA has 150MB/s of bandwidth, and in most cases is connected to the system by at least a 66Mhz PCI link, or more often some other high-speed chipset link.

    Interfacing to SATA also means that Gigabyte doesn't have to write drivers for 32- and 64-bit flavors of Windows and various Linux distributions, MAC, and more obscure but definitely presents OSes like BSD, NetWare and Solaris (/me wonders about putting the boot partition and SYS volume of a NetWare server on an iRam... probably no real benefit, but you never know).

    Third, I might imagine that Rev 2 will support SATA II with 300MB/s transfer speeds, ECC, and perhaps 8 DDR slots.
    Reply
  • rbabiak - Tuesday, July 26, 2005 - link

    Would have been nice to see some info on what it performed like as the temp folder for windows. all that internet web browser cache and other stuff that windows sticks off in the temp while it does stuff.

    this is data that you don't usally mind if it just disapears everyone in a while :)
    Reply
  • UrQuan3 - Tuesday, July 26, 2005 - link

    I remember five or six years ago there were products that would plug into a PCI slot and use PC133 RAM to do this same job. They would show up as a harddrive controller and windows would use default drivers unless you needed something different. This was when programs didn't expect you to have enough RAM to keep a scratch file in RAM, so they'd write out files after every action. A PCI card with a gig of RAM for accepting these scratch files made a huge difference. There's just less need now.

    Then there's the other problem. SATA may be 150MB/s, but the PCI bus it's attached to is only 133MB/s. This certainly explains why everything runs at DDR200. If they'd made a PCI-X card there might be a bigger improvement. The bright side is that they used an FPGA. If next week they decide to implement SATA2, they can issue an update and everyone can upgrade their cards. Companies like Cisco do this several times a year in telecom products.
    Reply
  • EODetroit - Tuesday, July 26, 2005 - link

    #82:

    You can buy these still. Check out this ebay auction: http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&...">http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?Vi...egory=16...

    I'd hope and pray this thing is a lot faster than the iRam for all the extra cost. But the fact that it sits in a PCI card slot (I'm talking about the QikDrive linked above, not the iRam) makes me question that.
    Reply

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