Latency vs. Bandwidth: What to Look for in a SSD

It took me months to get my head wrapped around it, but I think I finally get it. We often talk about the concepts of bandwidth and latency but rarely are they as tangible as they are here today.

When I speak of latency I’m talking about how long it takes to complete a request, or fetch a block of data. When I mention bandwidth, I’m talking about how much you can read/write at once. Think of latency as the speed limit and bandwidth as the number of lanes on a high way.

If you’re the only car on the highway, you’re going to notice the impact of latency more than bandwidth. A speed limit of 70 mph instead of 35 is going to impact you much more than if you added more lanes to the road.

If you’re a city planner however and your only concern is getting as many people to work and back, you’re going to notice the impact of bandwidth more than latency. It doesn’t matter how fast a single car can move, what matters is how many cars you can move during rush hour traffic.

I’d argue that if you’re a desktop user and you’re using an SSD as a boot/application drive, what will matter most is latency. After you’ve got your machine setup the way you want it, the majority of accesses are going to be sequential reads and random reads/writes of very small file sizes. Things like updating file tables, scanning individual files for viruses, writing your web browser cache. What influences these tasks is latency, not bandwidth.

If you were constantly moving large multi-gigabyte files to and from your disk then total bandwidth would be more important. SSDs are still fairly limited in size and I don’t think you’ll be backing up many Blu-ray discs to them given their high cost per GB. It’s latency that matters here.

Obviously I’ll be testing both latency and bandwidth, but I wanted to spend a moment talking about the synthetic latency tests.

Iometer is a tool that can simulate any combination of disk accesses you can think of. If you know how an application or OS hits the disk, iometer can simulate it. While random disk accesses are the reason that desktop/notebook hard drives feel so slow, the accesses are generally confined to particular areas of the disk. For example, when you’re writing a file the OS needs to update a table mapping the file you’re writing to the LBAs it allocated for the file. The table that contains all of the LBA mapping is most likely located far away from the file you’re writing, thus the process of writing files to the same area can look like random writes to two different groups of LBAs. But the accesses aren’t spread out across the entire drive.

In my original X25-M article I ran a 4KB random write test over the entire span of the drive. That’s a bit more ridiculous than even the toughest user will be on his/her desktop. For this article I’m limiting the random write test to an 8GB space of the drive; it makes the benchmark a little more realistic for a desktop/notebook workload.

The other thing I’ve done is increased the number of outstanding IOs from 1 to 3. I’ve found that in a multitasking user environment Vista will generally have a maximum of 3 or 4 outstanding IOs (read/write requests).

The combination of the two results in a 100% random file write of 4KB files with 3 outstanding IOs to an 8GB portion of the drive for 3 minutes. That should be enough time to get a general idea of how well these drives will perform when it comes to random file write latency in a worst case, but realistic usage scenario.

The Verdict The Return of the JMicron based SSD


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