Saturday, September 20, 2008

Optimizing XP for Dual HD/SSD [Part I]

I didn't expect my previous article regarding optimizing Windows XP for SSD use would spark so much interest - and I thank all those who commented and requested (and provided) further information.

But today I'm going to focus on slighlty different setup: using multiple Hard Drives/SSDs.

Optimizing Windows XP for Multiple Hard Drives

Part I - Why More is Better

Using multiple HDs has always been a very effective method to speed up your computer performance - and can improve your efficiency dramatically.

Ever since HDs become relatively affordable, I believe I've never had a computer with just a single hard drive. Contrary to what most people choose, I prefer to have two smaller HDs than just a single large one. In fact, my first "serious" computer had three HDs, and my current one has... six (ok ok, I know it's not very energy efficient, but I'm serious when I say I like my computer to handle as quickly as possible.)

Having multiple HDs allows you to manage things much more effectively - especially now. You may have the latest and fastest multicore CPU in existence... but unless it's performing some serious number crunching operations chances are it will spend most of its time waiting for the hard disk to feed it information.

Sure, there are caches, pre-fetching, and all sorts of techniques used to speed up those operations, but if you need to read 20MB from your disk... there's no other way to do it but to *read* those 20MB from your disk.
And with everything that's going on... multiple tabs open on your browser, an email application checking your email, an antivirus program scanning your disk, playing MP3 music in the background... there are a lot of places your hard disk has to go every millisecond.

These are quite common tasks, and this is where traditional rotating hard drives fail miserably. Just try it yourself: start a full disk antivirus scan and try using your computer... it will become unbearably slow.
(Even though Vista introduced a "priority" concept to read/write operations, so that you could theoretically say that the antivirus scanning is low priority and handle other requests first.)

Using multiple drives is the easiest way to speed things up.

Imagine if you had one HD for your operating system and applications, one to store your documents, another one to store your music, another to store your videos, and yet another one to use as temporary disk space.

I'm not talking about different partitions on a single hard drive, I'm talking about having real physical hard drives for each of these tasks.

The idea is to be able to separate intensive disk operations so that they can be performed simultaneously on different hard drives. That way, you won't have a single hard disk struggling to get all the data to multiple applications.

A prime example is working with video editing. If you ever had to remux a video clip (for example, adding background music to your holiday/party/anniversary videos) you know what a pain it is and how long your hard drive keeps spinning and thrashing its reading/writing heads back and forth.

That's because - with a single hard drive - the disk must read the original video stream and the new audio stream and write the combined result. It's trying to do all these things at once (not to mention other background stuff that might be going on.)

Having two hard drives would greatly enhance this operation, as you could read the video and audio from one HD and write the resulting stream to the second one. Sure, for best results you could/should have three HDs, one for reading the audio, other for reading the video, and the third one to write the results to.
(This was indeed what my first work computer was designed to do, and it did that extremely well.)

But back to regular operations.

At the very least any computer can greatly benefit from two separate hard drives - to separate operating system and applications from a separate temporary storage and documents location.

As memory prices drop, temporary storage space is becoming less of a requirement. I have disabled Windows page file (with 2GB ram) and haven't had any problem since - unless I really push it. With 4GB ram you can safely say you'll never miss it - except for very specific aplications requiring lots of virtual memory.

Anyway, even if you disable the page file, there are still lots of temporary files that are written to disk: your browser cache, history, cookies, your "unzipped" files, etc. For some of them (browser cache) I would recommend setting up a ram disk - as these usually consist in thousands of small unimportant files you won't miss if you reboot or if your computer crashes.
(It's also a nice way to use the extra memory not usually recognized by XP - meaning you can actually use all your 4GB of memory instead of just 3-3.5GB)

[to be continued...]

In the next Part I will show you how to implement all this, and how to tweak Windows XP to make the most out of the newest SSDs.


  1. By the way, it's "thrashing" not "trashing"

  2. Ooops... fixed that one.

    I was really convinced "trashing" was the right term. Thanks for the correction! :)

  3. Here's an option for you!

    With all those wonderful SAN/NAS operating systems such as Openfiler (free) & Open-E(commercial but worh every penny) that can be run on any x86 hardware, how about setting up a spare PC with lots of disks and an ISCSI target.

    That target can then be mapped in to your desktop PC (using the MS ISCI initiator) to form, say, your D:\ drive, where you store all the above mentioned files.

    If you fully load that SAN/NAS PC with RAM and used the File IO ISCSI mode, then you can perform read/write operations as fast as your network interface card will allow as the NAS/SAN operating system uses all its available RAM as a giant disk cache, thus transfering the read/write burden to the SAN/NAS PC. Just remember to run the SAN/NAS PC on an Uninteruptable Power Supply!

    BTW, this is exactly what I do on both my home and in some areas of my company network.

    Best regards


  4. @TFZ

    Thanks for the suggestion, I'll look into that.
    I have been doing some tests lately, and was considering the use of FreeNAS and create a 4 or 5TB Raid 5 "safe" storage place.
    But i've been "busy" lately playing around with my new setup... and it has kind of "delayed" the NAS. :)


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