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When “persistent” storage isn’t

2013/04/28

A couple of weeks ago we published our RapiLog paper. It describes how to leverage formal verification to perform logically synchronous disk writes at the performance of asynchronous I/O (see the previous blog on the implications of this work).

A frequent comment from reviewers of the paper was: “why don’t you just use an SSD and get better performance without any extra work?”

My answer generally was “SSDs are more expensive [in terms of $/GiB], and that’s not going to change any time soon.” In fact, the RapiLog paper shows that we match SSD performance using normal disks.

What I didn’t actually know at the time is that, unlike disks, SSDs tend to be really crappy as “persistent” storage media. A paper by Zheng et al. that appeared at the Usenix FAST conference in February studies the behaviour of a wide range of different SSDs when electrical power is cut – exactly the scenario we cover with RapiLog. They find that of the 15 different SSD models tested, 13 exhibit data loss or corruption when power is lost! In other words: SSDs are a highly unreliable storage medium when there is a chance of power loss. They also tested normal disks, and found out that cheap disks aren’t completely reliable either.

They did their best to stress their storage devices, by using concurrent random writes. In RapiLog, we ensure that writes are almost completely sequential, which helps to de-stress the media. And, of course, we give the device enough time to write its data before the power goes.

I quote from the summary of Zheng et al.: “We recommend system builders either not use SSDs for im- portant information that needs to be durable or that they test their actual SSD models carefully under actual power failures beforehand. Failure to do so risks massive data loss.”

For me, the take-away is that putting the database log on an SSD undermines durability just as running the database on a normal disk in unsafe mode (asynchronous logging or write cache enabled). In contrast, using RapiLog with a normal disk gives you the performance of an SSD with the durability of a normal disk. Why would you want to use anything else?

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