RAM modules are cheaper than ever before, so why aren’t we running our entire operating system off super speedy RAM banks?

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader pkr298 wants to know why we’re not running RAM-based, instead of disk-based, machines. He writes:

RAM is cheap, and much faster than SSDs. It’s just volatile. So why don’t computers have a LOT of RAM, and on power up, load everything to the RAM from the hard drive/SSD and just run everything from there, assuming there’s no real need to persist anything outside of memory? Wouldn’t computers be much faster?

Of course, current operating system may not support this at all, but is there any reason RAM isn’t used this way?

On the surface his inquiry makes sense, but clearly we’re not awash in RAM-based computer builds; what’s the back story?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor Hennes offers some insight into why we still use disk-based systems:

There are a few reasons RAM is not used that way:

  1. Common desktop (DDR3) RAM is cheap, but not quite that cheap. Especially if you want to buy relatively large DIMMs.
  2. RAM loses its contents when powered off. Thus you would need to reload the content at boot time. Say you use a SSD sized RAMDISK of 100GB, that means about two minutes delay while 100GB are copied from the disk.
  3. RAM uses more power (say 2–3 Watt per DIMM, about the same as an idle SSD).
  4. To use so much RAM, your motherboard will need a lot of DIMM sockets and the traces to them. Usually this is limited to six or less. (More board space means more costs, thus higher prices.)
  5. Lastly, you will also need RAM to run your programs in, so you will need the normal RAM size to work in (e.g. 18GiB, and enough to store the data you expect to use).

Having said that: Yes, RAM disks do exist. Even as PCI board with DIMM sockets and as appliances for very high IOps. (Mostly used in corporate databases before SSD’s became an option). These things are not cheap though.
Here are two examples of low end RAM disk cards which made it into production:

Note that there are way more ways of doing this than just by creating a RAM disk in the common work memory.

You can:

  1. Use a dedicated physical drive for it with volatile (dynamic) memory. Either as an appliance, or with a SAS, SATA or PCI[e] interface.
  2. You can do the same with battery backed storage (no need to copy initial data into it since it will keep its contents as long as the backup power stays valid).
  3. You can use static RAMs rather then DRAMS (simpler, more expensive).
  4. You can use flash or other permanent storage to keep all the data (Warning: flash usually has a limited number of write cycles). If you use flash as only storage then you just moved to SSDs. If you store everything in dynamic RAM and save to flash backup on power down then you went back to appliances.

I am sure there is way more to describe, from Amiga RAD: reset surviving RAM disks to IOPS, wear leveling and G-d knows what, However I will cut this short and only list one more item:

DDR3 (current DRAM) prices versus SSD prices:

  • DDR3: € 10 per GiB, or € 10,000 per TiB
  • SSDs: Significantly less. (About 1/4th to 1/10th.)

If you want to read more about RAM disks, check out RAM Disks Explained: What They Are and Why You Probably Shouldn’t Use One.

Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.


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Jason Fitzpatrick is the Senior Smart Home Editor at How-To Geek. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at How-To Geek, Review Geek, LifeSavvy, and Lifehacker. Jason served as Lifehacker's Weekend Editor before he joined How-To Geek.
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