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How Caching Works

        Tech | Memory

Caching Subsystems

­Your Internet connection is the slowest link in your computer. So your browser (Internet Explorer, Netscape, Opera, etc.) uses the hard disk to store HTML pages, putting them into a special folder on your disk. The first time you ask for an HTML page, your browser renders it and a copy of it is also stored on your disk. The next time you request access to this page, your browser checks if the date­ of the file on the Internet is newer than the one cached. If the date is the same, your browser uses the one on your hard disk instead of downloading it from Internet. In this case, the smaller but faster memory system is your hard disk and the larger and slower one is the Internet.

Cache can also be built directly on peripherals. Modern hard disks come with fast memory, around 512 kilobytes, hardwired to the hard disk. The computer doesn't directly use this memory -- the hard-disk controller does. For the computer, these memory chips are the disk itself. When the computer asks for data from the hard disk, the hard-disk controller checks into this memory before moving the mechanical parts of the hard disk (which is very slow compared to memory). If it finds the data that the computer asked for in the cache, it will return the data stored in the cache without actually accessing data on the disk itself, saving a lot of time.

Here's an experiment you can try. Your computer caches your floppy drive with main memory, and you can actually see it happening. Access a large file from your floppy -- for example, open a 300-kilobyte text file in a text editor. The first time, you will see the light on your floppy turning on, and you will wait. The floppy disk is extremely slow, so it will take 20 seconds to load the file. Now, close the editor and open the same file again. The second time (don't wait 30 minutes or do a lot of disk access between the two tries) you won't see the light turning on, and you won't wait. The operating system checked into its memory cache for the floppy disk and found what it was looking for. So instead of waiting 20 seconds, the data was found in a memory subsystem much faster than when you first tried it (one access to the floppy disk takes 120 milliseconds, while one access to the main memory takes around 60 nanoseconds -- that's a lot faster). You could have run the same test on your hard disk, but it's more evident on the floppy drive because it's so slow.

To give you the big picture of it all, here's a list of a normal caching system:

  • L1 cache - Memory accesses at full microprocessor speed (10 nanoseconds, 4 kilobytes to 16 kilobytes in size)
  • L2 cache - Memory access of type SRAM (around 20 to 30 nanoseconds, 128 kilobytes to 512 kilobytes in size)
  • Main memory - Memory access of type RAM (around 60 nanoseconds, 32 megabytes to 128 megabytes in size)
  • Hard disk - Mechanical, slow (around 12 milliseconds, 1 gigabyte to 10 gigabytes in size)
  • Internet - Incredibly slow (between 1 second and 3 days, unlimited size)

As you can see, the L1 cache caches the L2 cache, which caches the main memory, which can be used to cache the disk subsystems, and so on.

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