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Analyzing I/O Performance for SQL Server

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Erin Stellato is a Principal Consultant with SQLskills and a Microsoft Data Platform MVP.

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One of the most common performance bottlenecks that I see as a consultant is inadequate storage subsystem performance. There are a number of reasons for poor storage performance, but measuring it and understanding what needs to be measured and monitored is always a useful exercise.

There are actually three main metrics that are most important when it comes to measuring I/O subsystem performance:

Latency

The first metric is latency, which is simply the time that it takes an I/O to complete. This is often called response time or service time. The measurement starts when the operating system sends a request to the drive (or the disk controller) and ends when the drive finishes processing the request. Reads are complete when the operating system receives the data, while writes are complete when the drive informs the operating system that it has received the data.

For writes, the data may still be in a DRAM cache on the drive or disk controller, depending on your caching policy and hardware. Write-back caching is much faster than write-through caching, but it requires a battery backup for the disk controller. For SQL Server usage, you want to make sure you are using write-back caching rather than write-through caching if at all possible. You also want to make sure your hardware disk cache is actually enabled, since some vendor disk management tools disable it by default.

Input/Output Operations per Second (IOPS)

The second metric is Input/Output Operations per Second (IOPS). This metric is directly related to latency. For example, a constant latency of 1ms means that a drive can process 1,000 IOs per second with a queue depth of 1. As more IOs are added to the queue, latency will increase. One of the key advantages of flash storage is that it can read/write to multiple NAND channels in parallel, along with the fact that there are no electro-mechanical moving parts to slow disk access down. IOPS actually equals queue depth divided by the latency, and IOPS by itself does not consider the transfer size for an individual disk transfer. You can translate IOPS to MB/sec and MB/sec to latency as long as you know the queue depth and transfer size.

Sequential Throughput

Sequential throughput is the rate that you can transfer data, typically measured in megabytes per second (MB/sec) or gigabytes per second (GB/sec). Your sequential throughput metric in MB/sec equals the IOPS times the transfer size. For example, 556 MB/sec equals 135,759 IOPS times a 4096 bytes transfer size, while 135,759 IOPS times a 8192 bytes transfer size would be 1112 MB/sec of sequential throughput. Despite its everyday importance to SQL Server, sequential disk throughput often gets short-changed in enterprise storage, both by storage vendors and by storage administrators. It is also actually fairly common to see the actual magnetic disks in a direct attached storage (DAS) enclosure or a storage area network (SAN) device be so busy that they cannot deliver their full rated sequential throughput.

Sequential throughput is critical for many common database server activities, including full database backups and restores, index creation and rebuilds, and large data warehouse-type sequential read scans (when your data does not fit into the SQL Server buffer pool). One performance goal I like to shoot for on new database server builds is to have at least 1GB/sec of sequential throughput for every single drive letter or mount point. Having this level of performance (or better) makes your life so much easier as a database professional. It makes so many of your common database chores so much faster, and it also gives you the freedom to do more frequent index tuning when you can create an index on a large table in seconds or minutes instead of hours.

SQL Server I/O Workload Metrics

When it comes to SQL Server and I/O performance, there are a number of things that you should measure and monitor over time. You should know the read vs. write ratio for your workload for all of your user database files and for tempdb. The ratios will be different for different SQL Server file types and workloads. You can use my DMV Diagnostic Queries to determine this, and you can also use the Disk Activity View in SQL Sentry Performance Advisor to easily get a more complete view of your disk activity, from a high-level, overall picture, all the way down to individual files:

SQL Sentry Performance Advisor : Disk ActivitySQL Sentry Performance Advisor : Disk Activity

You should also measure the typical I/O rates for IOPS and sequential throughput. In Windows Performance Monitor (PerfMon), reads/sec and writes/sec show IOPS, while disk read bytes/sec and disk write bytes/sec represent sequential throughput. You should use PerfMon to measure average disk sec/read and average disk sec/write, which is read and write latency at the disk level. Finally, you can use my DMV Diagnostic Queries to measure the average file-level read and write latency for all of your user database files as well as for tempdb.

Methods for Measuring I/O Performance

You can use the Disk section in Windows Resource Monitor to get a quick, real-time view of some key disk metrics for all of your SQL Server database files. Going deeper, you can use PerfMon to measure and monitor the critical performance counters that I have previously mentioned. Before you go into production with a new database server, you should do some disk benchmark testing to determine what kind of performance your I/O subsystem can actually deliver. This is actually not that difficult or time consuming (if you use the right tools), but it often gets forgotten when a new database server is provisioned and tested.

The first disk benchmark you should always run is CrystalDiskMark 4.0, which has recently been rewritten to use the relatively new Microsoft DiskSpd disk benchmark program. The CDM 4.0 user-interface lets you choose a wider range of test-file sizes and it also lets you choose the queue depth and number of threads for the test runs. This lets you get a more server-like I/O workload and it also lets you more properly stress newer NVMe flash-storage devices that can handle queue depths higher than 32.

CrystalDiskMark 4.03 Results with QD = 32 and threads = 1

Figure 2: CrystalDiskMark 4.03 Results with QD = 32 and threads = 4

Unlike previous versions of CDM, the two most relevant rows for SQL Server usage are in the middle of the results display. They are the 4K random reads and writes with a high queue depth (32 by default), and the sequential reads and writes. After you do some storage benchmark tests with CrystalDiskMark 4.0, you should do some more exhaustive testing with Microsoft DiskSpd. In a future article, I will cover how to use DiskSpd to do more complete testing for SQL Server.