What Are Ram Drives and How Do They Work?

With SSD storage getting cheaper every day, fast and plentiful storage is well within the reach of the modern computer user. Most new computers come with SSDs pre-installed, and ultrabooks rely almost exclusively on solid state storage. But what if you want to go … even faster?

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A RAM drive is a sort of software abstraction of a disk drive. You tell your computer to treat a couple of sticks of RAM like a hard drive, and it dutifully obliges. By repurposing RAM, you gain a huge boost in speed but not without drawbacks.

RAM drives throw away a defining feature of disk drives, which is the permanent storage of data. As volatile memory, RAM is erased every time it loses power, but it makes up for this by being fast and nimble. Hard disks and even SSDs are lumbering megafauna by comparison, but they can store vast amounts of data at low cost with no need for power.

The dichotomy of fast, temporary RAM and slow, permanent disk storage has existed for decades, but RAM drives dispose of all that. After all, if we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we make hard drives out of RAM?

The plummeting cost of RAM has also helped the rise of RAM disks. The amount of RAM we take for granted in our computers would make your grandfather blush. While we are again seeing an uptick in price, it’s still within the realm of affordable to put together a 64GB disk of blazing fast silicon. However, it’s still outrageously expensive when compared to SSDs or spinning-platter HDDs.

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Since RAM drives can only store data while they have power, any data you want to keep needs to be stored somewhere else. This means that RAM drives need to have data loaded into them at startup, copying information from a primary storage medium like an SSD. If you’ve ever copied gigabytes of information, you know this takes time.

That’s why using a RAM drive like a regular hard drive is cumbersome. The time you might save in processing is reduced by the time it takes to load data into RAM. That leads to high startup costs, but that investment is recouped in the form of ludicrous speed.

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Where sequential read speeds on a top-end SSD might max out at 500MB/s, a RAM drive can comfortably crack 5,000MB/s and head even higher.

While speed for speed’s sake is all well and good, what possible application could RAM drives be well-suited for? In what use case would the user benefit noticeably from the long-boot/fast-process/temporary-storage paradigm of a RAM drive?

As you might guess, highly technical computing tasks are well-attuned to the peculiar nature of RAM drives. 3D video rendering, which is the poster child of wanting more resources than it could ever have, benefits greatly from faster storage. The more data it can put onto a fast drive, the faster the encode can go. Scientific computing can benefit as well, but it’s a tricky niche that RAM drives fill. The ideal user benefits from exponentially faster file storage but doesn’t care an awful lot if that data gets wiped out.

This is why most commercial applications of RAM drives rely on battery backups. These allow data to be copied over to persistent storage in the event of power loss. These devices are, you guessed it, exorbitantly expensive. They’re primarily used for applications where high throughput is mission-critical, and the budget exists for fancy hardware like data centers.

RAM drives are fast as all get-out, but their applications are extremely specific. They’re not really hard drives in the traditional sense. Rather they’re exceedingly fast temporary storage mediums that can be treated like a hard drive by your OS. While RAM disks aren’t too helpful for consumers, technical users can see a big boost.

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