Tag Archives: Storage Wall

Moving the goal posts

The Relational Model, proposed by Codd in 1969, heralded the start of the relational era and shortly after both row store and column store database systems began to emerge throughout the 1970s along with associated index structures such as the B-tree index. 

In those days, the CPU and memory were effectively joined at the hip with storage latency viewed as the central hurdle to performance. Memory was small but fast and regarded as truly randomly accessible with negligible latency for any CPU access and the likes of B-tree indexes et al were designed to overcome the then dominant storage wall (high storage latency). The goal in the 1970s was to achieve good spatial locality within storage (to amortize the cost of a storage transfer) and good temporal locality within memory (to avoid storage transfers).

The chart below typifies the hardware performance characteristics prevalent both then and now. 


It is evident that CPU speed and memory transfer rates have improved dramatically while memory latency has improved much less so. It is a very similar story for storage performance.

From the current perspective of the CPU, memory is now large but slow. Because memory latency is so high with respect to CPU speed, memory is no longer randomly accessible and cannot be treated as an efficient cache; so now there is a memory wall too (high memory latency) and we see CPUs designed with their own cache. The goal today is to achieve good spatial locality in both storage and memory and to achieve good temporal locality within CPU cache. Therefore the goal posts have moved to the extent that the structures of the 1970s are unable to score goals any more.

Meanwhile, much has been written about enhancing B-tree like structures (such as CO and LSM variants) to improve write performance. But even for read access, the spatial locality of these types of structures is insufficient to effectively exploit the higher transfer rates now possible from storage and memory or to overcome the memory wall that now overshadows CPU performance.