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Most operating systems maintain a disk cache to speed accesses to disk and other storage. The disk cache is simply a region of RAM which stores the most recently accessed blocks from disk. Caching disk has two major benefits:

  • Frequently-accessed, rarely-changed parts of disk (such as libraries and even executables) are likely to remain in cache, meaning that they need not be read from disk every time they are needed. Since reading from disk is much slower than accessing RAM, this has the effect of speeding up program loading and the like.
  • Blocks that need to be written to disk can be buffered in the cache, and sorted by the kernel into an order that speeds up the actual writing to disk.

A drawback of caching disk writes is that a function which requests a disk write will return before the data have actually been committed to the physical disk. This means that even after you think you've saved something, if the system crashes or the power fails, you may end up with lost data or disk corruption. The latter, at least, can be avoided with a journaling filesystem.

Many disk cache implementations can be configured to "delay" the write requests (thus making your system faster, but a little bit more susceptible to file-system corruption) or cache only the read requests, writing your data to the disk as soon as the request arrives. The second method provides more protection against power outages, but at the expense of disk performance.

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