Linux options for faster disk access

All these new computers have me interested in improving throughput. I’ve suddenly got gigabit ethernet, a huge amount of RAM, fast CPUs with many cores.. What’s missing is fast I/O. The hard drive’s 30 megabyte/second throughput is often a limiting factor for me. What are my options?

  • Put my data on an SSD. Appealing, but I don’t trust consumer SSDs not to fail. Also I hate having multiple disks with different capacity; I can never decide what to put on the SSD, what to put on platters. IE: right now I’m doing a lot of work with 300 gigs of music files and would like that to be fast, but it’d be stupid and expensive to leave those on an SSD forever (at 2012 prices).
  • Use an SSD as a writeback cache for hard drive. Very appealing option, and there’s three options. My Z68 motherboard includes support for Intel Smart Response Technology but sadly there’s no Linux support. There are two Linux projects that do something similar: Flashcache and Bcache. But both seem pretty bleeding edge and require lots of manual setup. The Bcache release notes a few months ago included a comment about “slow silent data corruption” that put me right off.
  • Hardware RAID. This Z68 motherboard has Intel RAID right on the motherboard, perfect! Only it turns out this kind of RAID is what’s known as fakeRAID; the operating system does most of the work. Linux can support fake RAID but if you’re going that route most people suggest just using Linux software RAID. (The advantage of motherboard RAID is the BIOS can help boot your OS).
  • Software RAID. It’s been awhile since I checked in on the state of Linux RAID and sadly, it’s in disarray. Docs on the net are all randomly out of date, talking about 2.6 kernels or 3 year old versions of Ubuntu. I think the systems are pretty stable, being based on md, just poorly documentd. These 9.10 docs are the best I’ve found. The Ubuntu installer will create a RAID array for you or you can go low level with mdadm. Apparently GRUB 2 understands Linux software RAID so you can boot right off the RAID disk.

Of course there are many flavors of RAID. I’m mostly interested in speed, not reliability, so RAID 0 seems like the obvious choice except everyone says that’s nuts because you double your chance of a disk failure destroying everything. Fun!