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Microsoft SQL Server & Solid State Accelerators.

Generally, people in the software industry like to look to software for solutions. Many experienced DBAs, this author included, feel a sense of defeat if the application cannot be made to perform suitably within the constraints of the existing hardware configuration.

This attitude is silly, of course. You can tune your application within limits, but you can't overcome hardware limitations with software tuning. Sometimes the software does point to hardware limitations but many times an experienced DBA just has to know when to stop tinkering with the software and look at hardware factors.

The process of tuning is a process of identifying and eliminating bottlenecks. By definition, you will always have bottlenecks that limit your application's bandwidth. Tuning is the process of successfully shifting bottlenecks to places that have a wide enough bandpass to handle your data throughput needs. Sometimes you need a solution to a database performance problem that can't be resolved through software.

The traditional reaction to a perceived hardware problem is to buy additional hardware-- most commonly memory and/or CPUs. I have been in a variety of shops that purchased additional CPUs (4 to 8 processors), or more memory (4GB to 8GB), and not seen a significant improvement in performance. Often, adding CPUs is a knee-jerk reaction to a perception of insufficient user throughput. More often than not, adding memory is perceived as the panacea for I/O problems, with the idea that more memory permits more caching which improves performance.

There are a number of reasons why this might be the case, but all boil down to this: If you buy memory or CPUs to solve an I/O problem, you are likely to be wasting your money. (See Mike Pluta's white paper, "The Tragedy of throwing Memory at an I/O Problem," available at To summarize this insightful paper, adding memory may alleviate symptoms, on the surface, but it's really masking rather than solving the underlying problem. To make matters worse, whenever the server or operating system decides that it needs that memory for other things, your bottleneck gets shifted, suddenly and unpredictably. In fact, it may be shifting back and forth many times in a short interval, making tracking down the bottleneck difficult.

The trick is to solve the specific bottleneck, so those individual problems get resolved and are scalable, so that as your processing needs increase, you can use the same (or comparable solution) to resolve future bottlenecking issues. That is to say, once you identify a problem, you want to solve that problem, not hide it.

In summary, there are two basic reasons to choose a hardware solution to a performance problem.

1. You have specifically identified a hardware bottleneck, in which case you should be choosing a hardware resource that addresses that problem (processor, memory, or Solid State Technology).

2. You have identified an application problem, and have determined that you are short on time or resources to correct it (alternately, that hardware will solve the problem less expensively in the short run).

This remainder of this article focuses on using Solid State technology to resolve I/O performance bottlenecks.

Identifying Your Hardware Bottleneck

The easiest way to understand your hardware problem is to use the MS-provided tools, specifically Performance Monitor. Using Performance Monitor, we can identify issues in each of a set of performance objects. The specific contents of the performance objects will differ based on the version of NT/Windows you are running.

Regardless of your operating system version, you will want to monitor your physical disks (or disk suites). Note that monitoring the disks will create some system overhead. Historically, this has been an increase of 3-5% of CPU, but with later versions of NT/Windows 2000 this monitoring seems to have a lesser impact. You'll have to turn it on a command prompt, type diskperf -y. Then, reboot. Be sure to turn it back off when you're done with your hardware performance monitoring (and, reboot!).

Each disk on your system will have a separate disk object. This gives you the ability to understand, for each object, the frequency at which it is being accessed.

For each physical disk object, you can look at % disk time, which will tell you how busy the disks are. Note that you may be hardware bound before you hit 100% busy (See Fig).

In the figure we're seeing a few spikes, but in general the sampling points are showing very low output. If you are seeing a line across the top, rather than across the bottom, you have an I/O device that is not keeping up with the system requests. In general, if you are above 70-75% utilization regularly, you do not have sufficient capacity to handle peak data surges.

Additionally, check out your Avg. Disk Queue Length. This should always be less than 1.0 and usually is zero. As this average queue length number increases, disk contention increases. Contention means that the system is waiting while another I/O is accessing the disk. Occasional waits are normal, but if this is a steady thing, you have an I/O bottleneck.

Note: You can take an indirect conclusion from the fact that performance seems slow, but CPU utilization is, this might be locks or contention, but I/O is a likely culprit. This is a clear indication to check your disk queue lengths.

You can look at other indicators, but these should be sufficient to identify the problem.

Solving The Specific Problem

Once you have determined that you have an I/O bottleneck that needs to be solved, you need to decide on the best approach. It would be easy to replace the entire disk subsystem with a Solid State Accelerator, but this may not be needed. Typically, just a portion of the data on the disk would need to be placed on Solid State in order to provide significant performance benefit. The key is identifying the right subsystem and files to place on the Solid State Accelerator that will give your stressed system the I/O relief it needs.

Equally as important, is determining the amount of Solid State that you need to provide the desired result, i.e. Solid State translates directly to replacing conventional rotating disk. You want to choose the most active files to place on the Solid State Accelerator, of course, to take the strain off of the disks where the I/O bottlenecks are the worst. Good examples of files to put on Solid State include:

* Tempdb, a very frequent bottleneck for complex online applications as well as decision support applications that use aggregate functions (and hence, tempdb). Tip: You may have 5GB of tempdb, but except during the busiest times use only this case, you can configure the first device fragments of tempdb to exist on the Solid State, and overflow onto other areas. We recommend that you do not use the "autogrow" feature here, as it will have a negative performance impact just when your system is the busiest;

* Transaction logs of very busy (write-intensive) databases (same tip here; you do not need to do this for your entire transaction log area, but to put it in the front can be very effective);

* Databases that are hit very heavily, which might be catalog information, lookup tables, or other information that is hit constantly, but perhaps is too small to be worth spreading out, are also excellent candidates. Note that while cache may work well with this, all it might take is a large table scan to flush all of the useful, accumulated pages from memory.

High Availability Solid State Accelerators have built-in UPS systems that make them non-volatile. In the unlikely event of a power fluctuation, the built-in UPS powers the system and the built-in hard disk drive is used to effectively back up the contents of the solid state memory. When stable power is re-established, user data from the disk drive is reloaded to the solid state memory.

Cool Options For Maximizing Your Hardware Dollar

What happens when your needs change on a predictable basis? For instance, you may have high-volume OLTP processes running from 8 to 5, and huge batch processing in the evening. Your bottleneck shifts twice a day.

The concept of Storage Virtualization in a Storage Area Network (SAN) gives you the ability to resolve transitional bottlenecks almost on an on-demand basis.

For example, let's assume you have 5GB of Solid State in a SAN. During the day, you might place tempdb on the Solid State to eliminate your I/O bottleneck. At night, you might re-allocate the Solid State to address your month-end batch processing, which has gotten to the point where it is stretching the batch update window beyond its limits.

Managing the SAN, you mirror tempdb off of the Solid State Accelerator onto disk for this processing, and mirror the financial database onto it for the batch processing. When this completes, mirror in the other direction and everything is set for the next business day.

You'll note that this is all done in such a way as to be completely transparent to the servers and end-users. Suddenly, the Solid State becomes a reusable resource, with one Accelerator able to support multiple environments and the capacity able to be allocated as needed to boost performance in multiple application environments. Further benefit can be attained by using a larger unit and dedicating some of it to fixed data and have the other space available for hotspot usage.


Let's take a look at a client of mine who had problems reaching 100GB/week throughput using 6.5 SQL Server. Their batch processing made very heavy use of tempdb. Because of assorted high-volume processing needs, the SAN option would not work for them.

This client struggled for weeks to tune the system, when the solution couldn't have been simpler. Based on measured throughput, a small 2GB Solid State Accelerator for tempdb, and a 10GB MegaCache in front of their 400GB production database could have solved 100% of their throughput problems instantly.

Solid State is a fast, clean, easy solution to problems that sometimes require time-consuming, expensively maintained resource juggling.

Sometimes, the quick, easy solution really is cheaper in the long run, when you weigh in development time and ongoing maintenance costs.

There is a very specific set of problems that Solid State addresses, but it solves them completely. Make sure that you understand the performance problem you are trying to solve. Once you understand this, you may notice that Solid State moves from "interesting idea" to "essential, cost-effective tool for solving specific performance problems" very quickly. Craig Harries is the vice president of marketing at Soaring Eagle Consulting, Ltd., (El Segundo, CA).
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Title Annotation:Technology Information
Author:Harries, Craig
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
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