Cache In The Shadows

Disk array side read caches are much less effective than you can expect due to a phenomena a friend of mine calls “Cache shadowing“.  This happens because many if not most IO oriented applications have an application level cache and in addition you can frequently find at least one more level of cache (OS block/file system cache) before the read request reaches the disk array. The application and OS level enjoy several advantages over the disk array cache:

  1. They have knowledge about the application and therefore can be have smarter (i.e be more efficient) cache algorithms, and
  2. The aggregate size of the memory used for caching by all client may be much larger than the disk array cache even if the disk array is equipped with a very large cache, and most important,
  3. The application level cache and OS cache handle the read request before the disk array has a chance to see it. This allows them to exploit the best of the spatial locality and the temporal locality that all cache algorithms rely on (see Locality of reference).

The above points may lead to a situation where the read requests that do reach the disk array after passing through the external (from the disk array point of view) cache level, are very hard to cache, or in other words the application/server caches shadow the disk array cache (a nice metaphor, isn’t it?).  In this post I want to discuss how all-flash disk arrays affect this cache shadowing phenomena, and to suggest situations were cache shadowing is less dominant.

First of all, all flash disk arrays add another factor against the read cache – the flash media is so fast (i.e. has low latency) that you don’t need read cache! Remember that read caches are invented mainly to hide the latency of the (slow) HDD media. As the read latency from flash media may be as low as 50 usec (or lower), the benefit of hiding this latency is minimized, or even eliminated.

So it is the end of the read cache as we know it? Yes and no. Yes, straight forward data caches are much less required anymore. No becuase other types of read caches, such as content aware cache are still effective.

Content aware caches are caches that cache blocks by their content and not by their (logical or physical) addresses. Such caches can be efficient when  the disk array encounters a use case where the same content is read though large number of addresses. Sound complex? Here is an example: lets say the disk array stores a VMFS LUN with 50 Win7 VMs (full clones), and all VMs are booted in parallel (i.e. a “boot storm”). Most IOs during the boot process are read IOs (see “understanding how…”) and each VM reads its own set of (OS) files from its own set of  locations (this is not the case in linked clone, but lets put that aside for a moment). You may be not very surprised to know that the content of these OS files are almost the same across all VMs. Normal address based cache is not be very efficient in such use case because the aggregate amount of data and the number of data block  locations read during this boot storm may be very large,  but content aware cache ignores the addresses and consider only the content which repeat itself across the VMs. In such case the disk array content aware cache has “unfair advantage” over the local severs’ cache (The Win7 VMs’ cache in this example) and therefore can be very effective.

Of course such  content aware caches are not very common in the current generation of disk arrays, but this is going to change in the next generation disk arrays.

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Filed under all-flash disk array, Enterprise Storage, Storage architectures

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