Busting 4 Modern Hardware Myths - Are Memory, HDDs, and SSDs Really Random Access?
Thursday, June 13, 2013 at 8:29AM
Todd Hoff in Performance, Strategy

"It’s all a numbers game – the dirty little secret of scalable systems"

Martin Thompson is a High Performance Computing Specialist with a real mission to teach programmers how to understand the innards of modern computing systems. He has many talks and classes (listed below) on caches, buffers, memory controllers, processor architectures, cache lines, etc.

His thought is programmers do not put a proper value on understanding how the underpinnings of our systems work. We gravitate to the shiny and trendy. His approach is not to teach people specific programming strategies, but to teach programmers to fish so they can feed themselves. Without a real understanding strategies are easy to apply wrongly.  It's strange how programmers will put a lot of effort into understanding complicated frameworks like Hibernate, but little effort into understanding the underlying hardware on which their programs run.

A major tenant of Martin's approach is to "lead by experimental observation rather than what folks just blindly say," so it's no surprise he chose a MythBuster's theme in his talk Mythbusting Modern Hardware to Gain "Mechanical Sympathy." Mechanical Sympathy is term coined by Jackie Stewart, the race car driver, to say you get the best out of a racing car when you have a good understanding of how a car works. A driver must work in harmony with the machine to get the most of out of it. Martin extends this notion to say we need to know how the hardware works to get the most out of our computers. And he thinks normal developers can understand the hardware they are using. If you can understand Hibernate, you can understand just about anything.

The structure of the talk is to take a few commonly held myths and go all MythBusters on them by seeing if they are really true. Along the way there's incredible detail on how different systems work, far too much detail to gloss here, but it's an absolute fascinating talk. Martin really knows what he is talking about and he is a good teacher as well.

The most surprising part of the talk is the counter intuitive idea that many of the devices we think of as random access, like RAM, HDDs, and SSDs, effectively become serial devices in certain circumstances. A disk, for example, is really just a big tape that's fast. It's not true random access. 

Myth 1: CPUs are Not Getting Faster

Myth 2: Memory Provides Random Access

Myth 3: HDDs Provide Random Access 

Myth 4: SSDs Provide Random Access

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