The Downside: Consistency

Initially it's very easy to get excited about Intel's SRT. If you only run a handful of applications, you'll likely get performance similar to that of a standalone SSD without all of the cost and size limitations. Unfortunately, at least when paired with Intel's SSD 311, it doesn't take much to kick some of that data out of the cache.

To put eviction to the test, I ran through three games—Portal 2, Starcraft 2 and World of Warcraft—then I installed the entire Adobe CS5.5 Master Collection, ran five of its applications and tried running Starcraft 2 again. All of Starcraft 2's data had been evicted from the SSD cache resulting in HDD-like performance:

Starcraft 2 Level Loading—Seagate Barracuda 3TB (Maximize Cache)
  Load Time Load Time After App Install/Launch
Game Launch 9.7 seconds 17.4 seconds
Level Load 15.0 seconds 23.3 seconds

I thought that may have been a bit excessive so I tried another test. This time I used the machine a bit more, browsed the web, did some file copies and scanned for viruses but I didn't install any new applications. Instead I launched five Adobe applications and then ran through all of our game loading tests. The result was a mixed bag with some games clearly being evicted from the cache and others not being touched at all:

Game Load Comparison
Intel SSD 311 20GB Cache Portal 2 (Game Launch) Portal 2 (Level Load) Starcraft 2 (Game Launch) Starcraft 2 (Level Load) World of Warcraft (Game Launch) World of Warcraft (Level Load)
Load Time 9.9 seconds 15.1 seconds 9.7 seconds 15.0 seconds 4.5 seconds 5.8 seconds
Load Time After Use 12.1 seconds 15.1 seconds 10.1 seconds 15.3 seconds 3.6 seconds 14.0 seconds

Even boot time was affected. For the most part performance didn't fall back down to HDD levels, but it wasn't as snappy as before when I was only running games.

Boot Time—Seagate Barracuda 3TB (Maximize Cache)
  Time
Boot Time 32.6 seconds
Boot Time After Use 37.3 seconds
Boot Time Without Cache 55.5 seconds

Although Intel felt that 20GB was the ideal size to balance price/performance and while SRT is supposed to filter out some IO operations from being cached, it's clear that if you frequently use ~10 applications that you will evict useful data from your cache on a 20GB SSD 311. For lighter usage models with only a few frequently used applications, a 20GB cache should be just fine.

There's also the bigger problem of the initial run of anything taking a long time since the data isn't cached. The best way to illustrate this is a quick comparison of how long it takes to install Adobe's CS5.5 Master Collection:

Install Adobe CS5.5 Master Collection
  Time
Seagate Barracuda 3TB (No cache) 13.3 minutes
Seagate Barracuda 3TB (Maximize Cache) 13.3 minutes
OCZ Vertex 3 240GB (6Gbps) 5.5 minutes

A pure SSD setup is going to give you predictable performance across the board regardless of what you do, whereas Intel's SRT is more useful in improving performance in more limited, repetitive usage models. Admittedly most users probably fall into the latter category.

In my use I've only noticed two reliability issues with Intel's SRT. The first issue was with an early BIOS/driver combination where I rebooted my system (SSD cache was set to maximized) and my bootloader had disappeared. The other issue was a corrupt portion of my Portal 2 install, which only appeared after I disabled by SSD cache. I haven't been able to replicate either issue and I can't say for sure that they are even caused by SRT, but I felt compelled to report them nevertheless. As with any new technology, I'd approach SRT with caution—and lots of backups.

 

Application & Game Launch Performance: Virtually Indistinguishable from an SSD AnandTech Storage Bench 2011 - Heavy Workload
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  • MrCromulent - Wednesday, May 11, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the review! Good to see that Intel's SSD caching actually works quite well.

    I'm looking forward to the next generation of SB notebooks with a ~20GB mSATA SSD drive combined with a 1TB 2,5" hard drive.
    Reply
  • dac7nco - Wednesday, May 11, 2011 - link

    Indeed. I'd be interested in seeing how a Crucial M4 64GB mated to a pair of short-stroked single-platter Samsung drives in RAID-0 would perform in a dedicated gaming system. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, May 11, 2011 - link

    Really? Man, I thought short-stroking drives was all but dead these days. That's the whole point of SSDs: if you're so concerned about storage performance that you're willing to short-stroke an HDD, just move to a full SSD and be done with it. Plus, storage is only a minor bottleneck in a "dedicated gaming system"; your GPU is the biggest concern, at least if you have any reasonable CPU and enough RAM.

    My biggest concern with SRT is the reliability stuff Anand mentions. I would *love* to be able to put in a 128GB SSD with a large 2TB HDD and completely forget about doing any sort of optimization. That seems like something that would need to be done at the hardware level, though, and you always run the risk of data loss if the SSD cache somehow fails (though that should be relatively unlikely). Heck, all HDDs already have a 16-64MB cache on them, and I'd like the SSD to be a slower but much larger supplement to that.

    Anyway, what concerns me is that we're not talking about caching at the level of, say, your CPU's L1 or L2 or even L3 cache. There's no reason the caching algorithm couldn't look at a much longer history of use so that things like your core OS files never get evicted (i.e. they are loaded every time you boot and accessed frequently, so even if you install a big application all of the OS files still have far higher hit frequency). Maybe that does happen and it's only in the constraints of initial testing that the performance degrades quickly (e.g. Anand installed the OS and apps, but he hasn't been using/rebooting the system for weeks on end).

    The "least recently used" algorithm most caching schemes use is fine, but I wonder if the SSD cache could track something else. Without knowing exactly how they're implementing the caching algorithm, it's hard to say would could be improved, and I understand the idea of a newly installed app getting cached early on ("Hey, they user is putting on a new application, so he's probably going to run that soon!"). Still, if installing 30GB of apps and data evicts pretty much everything from the 20GB cache, that doesn't seem like the most effective way of doing things--especially when some games are pushing into the 20+ GB range.
    Reply
  • bji - Wednesday, May 11, 2011 - link

    It seems like a good way to do it would be for the software to recognize periods of high disk activity and weigh caching of all LBAs during that period much higher.

    So for example, system boot, where lots and lots of files are read off of the drive, would be a situation where the software would recognize that there is a high rate of disk I/O going on and to weigh all of the files loaded during this time very highly in caching.

    The more intense the disk I/O, the higher the weight. This would essentially mean that the periods that you most want to speed up - those with heavy disk I/O - are most likely to benefit from the caching, and disk activity that is typically less intense (say, starting a small application that you use frequently but that is relatively quick to load because of the small number of disk hits) would only be cached if it didn't interfere with the caching of more performance-critical data.

    All that being said, I am not a fan of complex caching mechanisms like this to try to improve performance. The big drawback, as pointed out in this well-presented article, is that there is a lack of consistency; sometimes you will get good performance and sometimes not, depending on tons of intangible factors affecting what is and what isn't in the cache. Furthermore, you are always introducing extra overhead in the complexity of the caching schemes, and in this case because it's being driven by a piece of software on the CPU, and because data is being shuffled around and written/read multiple times more than it would have with no caching involved.

    Then again, it is highly unlikely to *hurt* performance so if you don't mind sometimes waiting more than other times for the same thing to happen (this in particular drives me crazy though; if I am used to a program loading in 5 seconds, the time it takes 10 seconds really stands out like a sore thumb), and can absorb the extra cost involved, then it's not a totally unreasonable way to try to get a little bit of performance.
    Reply
  • Zoomer - Wednesday, May 11, 2011 - link

    Or the filesystem can manage the cache. That would be a much more intelligent and foolproof way to do this. Reply
  • vol7ron - Wednesday, May 11, 2011 - link

    Can you point a RAM Disk to this caching drive? Reply
  • bji - Wednesday, May 11, 2011 - link

    What is the algorithm that the filesystem would use to decide what data to cache in preference to other cacheable data? That is the question at hand, and it doesn't matter at what level of the software stack it's done, the problem is effectively the same. Reply
  • Mr Perfect - Wednesday, May 11, 2011 - link

    <quote>I would *love* to be able to put in a 128GB SSD with a large 2TB HDD and completely forget about doing any sort of optimization.</quote>

    I heartily agree with that. Everyone is so gung ho about having a SSD for OS and applications, a HD for data and then <b>manually managing the data!</b> Isn't technology supposed to being doing this for us? Isn't that the point? Enthusiast computers should be doing things the consumer level stuff can't even dream about.

    Intel, please, for the love of all that is holy, remove the 64GB limit.
    Reply
  • Mr Perfect - Wednesday, May 11, 2011 - link

    On a completely unrelated note, why is the AT commenting software unable to do things the DailyTech site can? Quotes, bolding, italics and useful formatting features like that would really be welcome. :) Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, May 11, 2011 - link

    I'm not sure when they got removed, but standard BBS markup still works, if you know the codes. So...

    [ B ]/[ /B ] = Bolded text
    [ I ]/[ /I ] = Bolded text
    [ U ]/[ /U ] = Bolded text

    There used to be an option to do links, but that got nuked at some point. I think the "highlight" option is also gone... but let's test:

    [ H ]/[ /H ] = [h]Bolded text[/h]

    So why don't we have the same setup as DT? Well, we *are* separate sites, even though DT started as a branch off of AT. They have their own site designer/web programmer, and some of the stuff they have (i.e. voting) is sort of cool. However, we would like to think most commenting on AT is of the quality type so we don't need to worry about ratings. Most people end up just saying "show all posts" regardless, so other than seeing that "wow, a lot of people didn't like that post" there's not much point to it. And limiting posts to plain text with no WYSIWYG editor does reduce page complexity a bit I suppose.
    Reply

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