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In Windows 7, using the Device Manager, bringing up the properties of a disk, and going to the Policies tab, there are 2 switch items. The write cache, which this question it not about.

and

[X] Turn off Windows write-cache buffer flushing on the device <--- this one only!

Microsoft puts a disclaimer on the tab for that item. "To prevent data loss, do not select this checkbox unless the device has a separate power supply that allows the device to flush its buffer in case of a power loss."

In simple terms , what does this change for file writing, file saving, file copying?

1. Changing write actions for paranoid programs: (fact or fiction)
Does it change the way write flushes work for a program that Forces a cache flush to occur? Some programs are very intent on finishing the write, without speculating, are these programs able to continue thier protective writing, or does this change for those programs also?

2. Types of programs effected:
What are the types of actions/programs that would or would not be efffected by the change? Type, some programs stream, some do quick write outs, some are continuous, some are protective (or any other type you could define in simple terms).

3. Did You see anything, or a benchmark even:
If the setting is on, what are the observable changes in writing? Any loose examples of an observed change in behavior. or observed no change in behavior?

4. What is the holdup or delay :
We know most of these actions are very fast on most computers, The data will eventualy be written. Relative to the the speed of the drive, is the ammount of time significant?

For the purposes of my question, the risk that exists is not one of the questions, if you would like to cover it , it would not get in the way.

What does "Write cache buffer flushing" mean is almost a dupe of this, but the link is for a different OS. Although the A has some info , even the term used in the link is not the same. It also does not answer the most significant things that a user would want to know, that I have tried to outline here.

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1 Answer 1

up vote 6 down vote accepted
  1. Your assertion in the first question is fiction. Windows API calls such as FlushFileBuffers() will still ensure that the data gets all the way out to the physical media, even with write buffer flushing disabled. So, programs that are "safe" and know what they're doing are going to be just fine. Calls such as FileStream.Flush() in .NET, etc. eventually call this API.

  2. Programs that do a lot of disk I/O without calling FlushFileBuffers() directly, or any helper API that eventually calls it, would see the most noticeable performance increase. For instance, if you were running non-essential I/O where it's okay if data gets lost, such as BOINC (if it gets lost you just re-download the file or attempt to re-compute the calculations), you could avoid calling FlushFileBuffers(), and just call an API like WriteFile() -- the data will get buffered to be written, but it won't actually be written for potentially a long time, such as when the file descriptor is closed, or when the program exits. Unfortunately it is also possible that if the system crashes (such as a BSOD), all the data is lost, so it is really important that if you are dealing with any kind of valuable / non-replaceable data that you do do call FlushFileBuffers(), whether buffer flushing is enabled or not! Otherwise a simple driver bug (for instance in your graphics driver) could cause you to lose a lot of data.

  3. Can't find any benchmarks, but you'll notice it more with programs that fit the description in the second item above.

  4. Syncing data to disk isn't actually that fast, especially if it is done frequently in a tight loop. By default, if I recall correctly from reading Windows Internals books, NTFS by default syncs all dirty filesystem buffers to disk every 5 seconds. This is apparently a decent tradeoff between stability and performance. The problem with frequently syncing data is that it makes the hard drive do a lot of seeks and writes.

Consider the following pseudocode:

1: seek to a certain block (1)
2: write a couple megabytes of data into blocks starting at (1)
3: wait 2 seconds
4: seek to another block (2)
5: write some more megabytes of data into blocks starting at (2)
6: seek back to block (1)
7: write some more megabytes of data into blocks starting at (1)
8: wait 10 minutes
9: seek to block (1)
10: write some megabytes of data into blocks starting at (1)
11: wait 5 seconds
12: seek to block (2)
13: write some megabytes of data into blocks starting at (2)
14: explicit call to FlushFileBuffers()

With automatic 5 second buffer flushing on:

  • The writes occurring on lines 2, 5 and 7 occur in RAM and the disk doesn't move, until 5 seconds have elapsed since the first write, and then the latest data (from line 7) gets written into block (1) and the only data written into block (2) gets written.
  • The writes occurring on lines 10 and 13, which overwrite data in blocks (1) and (2), have to get written out to disk again
  • So the total number of times that block (1) got written to RAM is 3, and to disk, 2. The total number of times that block (2) got written to RAM is 2, and to disk, 2.

With automatic 5 second buffer flushing off (the effect of the checkbox in your question):

  • The writes occurring on lines 2, 5, 7, 10 and 13 occur in RAM and the disk doesn't move, until line 14 is executed, and then the latest data (from lines 10 and 13) gets written into blocks (1) and (2). The old data from lines 2, 5, and 7 never hits the hard disk!

Considering that a busy system can experience between hundreds to tens of thousands of writes to files per second, this is great for performance, especially on traditional spinning hard drives (it's less impressive on SSDs). RAM is 20 times faster than hard drives as a general measure, although that gap is less with SSDs.

The reason they say you should use a battery backup is that you don't want to have 35 minutes worth of written data buffered in RAM that isn't written to disk just because your programmer was lazy and didn't call FlushFileBuffers(), and then have a power failure. Of course, a battery backup doesn't protect you against driver bugs that cause a BSOD....

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