Using RAM instead of disk for build servers (was: Re: Build servers offline due to failed SSD)

Ryan Schmidt ryandesign at
Sun Mar 14 22:38:40 UTC 2021

On Mar 14, 2021, at 06:11, Balthasar Indermuehle wrote:

> I used to run mac servers in what now can only be described as the days of yore... when a 32GB RAM bank cost a lot more than a (spinning) disk - and those were expensive then too. SSDs were not here yet. I haven't checked pricing lately, but I'd think you could put 256GB of RAM into a server for probably about the same as a 1TB SSD, and that would offer plenty of build space when used as a RAM drive. And that space will not degrade over time (unlike the SSD). In terms of longevity, for a machine with such a singularly targeted use case, I'd seriously consider taking the expense now, and have a server that lives for another decade.

Some pricing details:

OWC sells 96 GB Xserve RAM for $270 and 48 GB for $160. 96 + 96 + 48 would be 240 GB for $700.

Meanwhile, the 500 GB SSDs I've been putting in cost about $65 each. I've already put in three and still need one more to get rid of the hard drives in the fourth server, though I may get a 1 TB SSD for $120 to have some extra room.

Note that the way our build system (using our mpbb build script) works is that all (or most) ports that exist are kept installed but deactivated. When a build request comes in, we first activate all of that port's dependencies, then we build and install and activate that port, then we deactivate all ports. "Activate" means extract the tbz2 file to disk and note it in the registry. "Deactivate" means delete the extracted files from disk and note it in the registry. So even if we move all port building to a RAM disk, which will undeniably be faster and reduce wear on the disk, it will not eliminate it completely, not by a long shot. Some ports have hundreds of dependencies. Activating and deactivating ports is a considerable portion of what our build machines spend their day doing.

If we wanted to move that from SSD to RAM disk as well, that would mean putting MacPorts itself onto the RAM disk. We wouldn't have room on the RAM disk to keep all ports installed, so it would mean not keeping any ports installed, and instead installing them on demand and then uninstalling them (and maybe we would need to budget even more RAM for the RAM disk to accommodate both space needed for MacPorts and for the dependencies and for the build). That means downloading and verifying each port's tbz2 file from the packages web server for every port build. Even though we do have a local packages server, so that traffic would not have to go over the Internet, the server uses a hard disk based RAID which is not the fastest in the world, so this would cause additional delays, not to mention additional wear and tear on the RAID's disks.

As far as longevity, the previous set of 3 500 GB SSDs I bought for these servers in 2016 lasted 4-5 years. They were rated for 150 TBW (terabytes written) and actually endured around 450 TBW by the time they failed, or 3 times as long as they were expected to last. The new SSDs are rated for 300 TBW, and if they also last 3 times longer than that, then they might last 8-10 years, by which time we might have completely abandoned Intel-based Macs and be totally switched over to Apple Silicon hardware and will have no use for the Xserves anymore.

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