Data Access Times Translated to Distances (with Pictures)

This well-known article, Numbers Everyone Should Know, was intriguing, but it was hard to mentally get a handle on the scale of the numbers.

Here are a few:

Numbers Everyone Should Know - sample

So I converted some of them into round trips, since data accesses are round trips in themselves. I started with an L1 cache access, at 0.5ns, or a 2 ft round trip. So 1ns = 4 feet (1.219 meters). Read on for the rationale.

L1 Cache Access

Imagine you're sitting at your desk, and need some information in a book or on a sheet of paper. The most convenient access of that data would be to have it handy right there on your desk, about a foot away. You reach over (1 foot or 0.3 meters) and grab it, and pull your arm back to where you can read, another 1 foot. That's a 2 ft (0.61 m) round trip. Thats equivalent to an L1 cache access. Was in L1, eh? Lucky you! You didn't even have to get out of your chair.

book on desk

L2 Cache Access

So you have to get out of your chair and walk across the room (large room) to a bookshelf, 14 feet away, and return to your chair, so you'll have it handy next time.

books across room

L3 Cache Access

You may have to be in a library for this one, or perhaps this book is upstairs in a room at the other end of the house. Walk 50 feet, get the book, and walk it all the way back to down to your desk. No peeking at it on your way back.

book in a library

Main Memory Reference

You're going to have to go outside this time. At 100ns, you're going to have to walk down the block to pick up the book at your friend's house. 200 feet there and back.

city block

4K Random Read from SSD

This number was pulled from a talk by Chandler Carruth (Googler) at CppCon 2014: "Efficiency with Algorithms, Performance with Data Structures". I wanted a number that would demonstrate the difference between SSD and spinning disk.

Keep in mind you can't drive. That would be cheating. Put on your good walking shoes and grab a water bottle and some protein bars. You're walking 57 miles to get that book, and 57 miles back home. You must really need that book.

That's the distance from the New York Stock Exchange (lower Manhattan) all the way to Danbury, CT. You may get there in time to watch the colors change.

New York Stock Exchange to Danbury, CT

Zoomed out for scale:

zoomed out

Disk Seek

Oh boy. For this journey, you're gonna wish the folks in the datacenter had upgraded to SSD. You thought the upgrade from 5400 RPM to 15000 RPM was going to really help. Not this time. You have to walk 3,788 miles, then walk 3,788 miles all the way back to your desk.

That's the distance from Anchorage, Alaska to Orlando, Florida.

distance from Anchorage, Alaska to Orlando, Florida

Send a Packet from CA to Netherlands to CA

This was just an extra one for fun, to highlight the difference between disk and a long-distance network access. A packet exchange like this would only be 2/3 of the SYN/ACK handshake for TCP, or an entire round trip for UDP.

Put on your moon boots. You're walking (theoretically) almost halfway to the moon. And then walking back.

walking halfway to the moon

The Data

It's in Google Sheets, naturally.

Google Sheets - Data Access Times Translated to Distances

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