Prior to storage server software version 184.108.40.206.0 (associated with Exadata X3), Exadata Smart Flash Cache was a “write-through” cache, meaning that write operations are applied both to the cache and to the underlying disk devices, but are not signalled as complete until the IO to the disk has completed.
Starting with 220.127.116.11.0 of the Exadata storage software, Exadata Smart Flash Cache may act as a write-back cache. This means that a write operation is made to the cache initially and de-staged to grid disks at a later time. This can be effective in improving the performance of an Exadata system that is subject to IO write bottlenecks on the Oracle datafiles.
Writes to datafile generally happen as a background task in Oracle, and most of the time we don’t actually “wait” on these IOs. That being the case, what advantage can we expect if these writes are optimized? To understand the possible advantages of the write-back cache let’s review the nature of datafile write IO in Oracle and the symptoms that occur when write IO becomes the bottleneck.
When a block in the buffer cache is modified, it is the responsibility of the database writer (DBWR) to write these “dirty” blocks to disk. The DBWR does this continuously and uses asynchronous IO processing, so generally sessions do not have to wait for the IO to occur – the only time sessions wait directly on write IO is when a redo log sync occurs following a COMMIT.
However, should all the buffers in the buffer cache become dirty then a session may wait when it wants to bring a block into the cache – resulting in a “free buffer wait”.
Free buffer waits can occur in update-intensive workloads when the IO bandwidth of the Oracle sessions reading into the cache exceeds the IO bandwidth of the database writer. Because the database writer uses asynchronous parallelized write IO, and because all processes concerned are accessing the same files, free buffer waits usually happen when the IO subsystem can service reads faster than it can service writes.
There exists just such an imbalance between reads and write latency in Exadata X2 – the Exadata Smart Flash Cache accelerates reads by a factor of perhaps 4-10 times, while offering no comparable advantage for writes. As a result, a very busy Exadata X2 system could become bottlenecked on free buffer waits. The Exadata Smart Flash Cache write-back cache provides acceleration to datafile writes as well as reads and therefore reduces the chance of free buffer wait bottlenecks.
The figure below illustrates the effectiveness of the write-back cache for workloads that encounter free buffer waits. The workload used to generate this data was heavily write-intensive with very little read IO overhead (all the necessary read data was in cache). As a result, it experienced a very high degree of free buffer waits and some associated buffer busy waits. Enabling the write-back cache completely eliminated the free buffer waits by effectively accelerating the write IO bandwidth of the database writer. As a result, throughput increased four fold.
However, don’t be misled into thinking that the write-back cache will be a silver bullet for any workload. Workloads that are experiencing free buffer waits are likely to see this sort of performance gain. Workloads where the dominant waits are for CPU, read IO, global cache co-ordination, log writes and so on will be unlikely to see any substantial benefit from the write-back cache.
 18.104.22.168.1 is recommended as the minimum version for this feature as it contains fixes to significant issues discovered in the initial release.