When Not Using a Database, You Are Still Using a Database

Posted by: Thom Denholm

Recently, we've focused considerable development effort on improving database performance for embedded devices, specifically for Android. This is because Android is a particularly database-centric environment.

On an Android platform, each application is equipped with its own SQLite database. Data stored here is accessible by any class in the application, but not by outside applications. The database is entirely self-contained and server-less, while still being transactional and still using the standard SQL language for executing queries. With this approach, a crash in one application (the dreaded "force close" message) will not affect the data store of any other application. While fantastic for protection, this method is quite often implemented on flash media, which was designed for large sequential reads and writes.

For years, benchmarks have touted the pure performance of a drive through large sequential reads and writes. On managed flash media, the firmware programmers have responded by optimizing for this use case - at the expense of the random I/O used by most databases, including SQLite. Another challenge is the very high ratio of flushes performed by the database (sometimes 1:1). The majority of database writes are not done on sector boundaries - especially problematic for flash media which must write an entire block.

While there are a few unified "flash file systems" for Linux such as YAFFS and JFFS2, designed specifically for flash memory, they have fallen out of favor because they do not plug neatly into the standard software stack, and therefore cannot take advantage of standard Linux features such as the system cache. While traditional file systems such as VFAT and Ext2/3/4 can work with flash, they are not designed with that purpose in mind, and therefore their performance and reliability suffers. For example, discard support has largely been tacked onto Linux file systems, and is still considered to be somewhat experimental. To quote the Linux v3.5 Ext4 documentation, discard support is "off by default until sufficient testing has been done." Another example: file systems on flash memory typically benefit from using a copy-on-write design, which ext4 does not use. The reality is that most file systems are designed for desktop (and often server) environments, where high resource usage is OK, and power-loss is infrequent.

Our solution to improving database performance on flash memory is to provide a more unified solution where the various pieces of the stack work in a cohesive fashion. Furthermore, the solution is specifically designed for embedded systems using flash memory, where power-loss is a common event. Datalight's Reliance Nitro file system is a transactional, copy-on-write file system, designed from the ground up to support flash memory discards and power-loss safe operations.

The result of our work in this area is FlashFXe, a new Datalight product built on our many years of experience managing raw NAND, but designed for eMMC. When used together with Reliance Nitro, almost all write operations become sequential and aligned on sector boundaries for the highest performance. Internal operations are more efficiently organized for the copy-on-write nature of flash media. A multi-tiered approach allows small random writes with very frequent flushes to be efficiently handled while maintaining power-loss safe operations.

This month at Embedded World, we will be demonstrating the results of our efforts to improve database performance on embedded devices using Android. Prepare to be impressed!

Learn more about FlashFXe

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