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1/26/2005
03:11 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: Speed And Security Via A RAM Drive

While it's not a panacea, judicious use of a RAM drive can make your PC faster and safer, Fred Langa says.

It was one of those small questions that opens up a huge topic:

Fred: Can you help me in my quest to learn how to load and run programs in a RAM drive using Win2000/XP?
-- Chas. Preston

It's an intriguing idea because some RAM operations are literally about a million times faster (that's six orders of magnitude) than a hard drive's. Therefore, any operations you can keep in RAM will typically complete much, much faster than those that involve reads/writes using a mechanical hard drive.

But (you knew there had to be a "but," right?) there's more to this than may meet the eye. You see, setting up and using a RAM drive for the wrong reasons can have the opposite effect--it can actually make your system slower. So before we get to the how-to, let's work through the strengths and weaknesses of RAM drives, so you can understand and avoid the bad outcomes.

What's a RAM Drive?
A "RAM drive" (also called a "RAM disk") is a section of your normal system RAM that's set aside and controlled by special software to emulate a standard hard drive: The software fools the operating system into thinking it's dealing with an ordinary physical hard drive that operates in a completely normal fashion, except that it's extremely fast.

Just as with any other drive, a RAM drive must be formatted before it can be used (although some RAM drive software does this for you automatically). Once in operation, a RAM drive can be written to or read from using all the normal file commands. As far as your PC knows, the RAM drive is just another normal storage device. But you'll see the difference in literally lightning-fast operation: A Format command, for example, may complete in a flash instead of slogging along for many minutes; copying a file may seem to be almost instantaneous.

What's A RAM Drive Best For?
Any software that's "disk intensive," with many read/write operations to a hard drive, can benefit enormously from using a RAM drive for temporary, working data storage. This can include large databases, large spreadsheets, and large word-processing documents, especially if the work you're doing involves many sorts, searches, finds/replaces, merges or similar operations. In fact, if any work you're doing requires moving or digging through large amounts of data, a RAM drive may really help speed things up.

Conversely, software that's not disk-intensive will gain little or no benefit from using a RAM drive. While you may gain some modest operational speed while things are running, your net benefit is likely to be small because of the time you'll lose setting up the RAM drive and copying the files you want to work on into the RAM drive.

Shutdowns take longer, too, because RAM drives are only good for temporary storage. Information in RAM is said to be "volatile:" When a PC shuts down, all the information in RAM--including any RAM drives--goes away. Unless you've copied the data out of the RAM drive to a real hard drive or backed it up to some other non-volatile media, you'll lose everything that was in RAM. This means that shutdowns have to take longer when you're using a RAM drive because you have to allow for extra steps to preserve the data stored there prior to killing the power or rebooting.

Thus, for non-disk-intensive operations, whatever time savings you may gain from the RAM drive will probably be negated by the time and hassle required to get things properly set up and shut down.

Because of this, a RAM drive isn't a panacea for slow disk accesses: It really helps in some very specific circumstances, mostly involving the manipulation of large files, or large numbers of files.

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