Computers today are shipped with massive amounts of memory. Even a low-end computer has 4 gigs of RAM, and it’s not uncommon to get 6 or 8 GB. But 4GB is more than enough for your typical Windows 7/8 installation. So if you have more than 4GB of memory and don’t use memory intense software, why not put that superfluous memory to some good use?
A RAM disk allows you to allocate memory and mount as a disk, acting just like a hard drive. The RAM disk is assigned a drive letter and you can use it like any other disk. The main advantage of this is that memory way faster your typical hard drive, outperforming even SSD’s. Here are the main advantages and disadvantages of using a RAM disk:
- A RAM drive is about the fastest type of drive you can get. The access time is virtually none and read and writes are blazing fast (Crystal Disk Mark reports over 5000MB/s on my computer!).
- Traditional storage media such as magnetic hard drives and flash based memory has a limited amount of write cycles. Although usually not a problem, using a disk heavily wears the drive. In comparison, RAM can not be worn out, even if you constantly write to it for hours!
- When power is lost, so is the data. And unlike most other storage media, it is not possible to recover any data, not even with sophisticated forensics. Usually this is seen as a disadvantage, but it can also serve as an extra security layer for sensitive data that needs to be kept secure.
- The main disadvantage is that RAM is not persistent, and everything on the disk is lost on power loss or reset. It is however possible to save the content to your normal hard drive when shutting down the computer, and restore it again at startup. This is quite slow though, and does not protect against accidental power failure.
- Computer memory is usually scarce and should be used as normal memory in the first place. Using a RAM disk lowers the amount of memory available to applications, increasing the risk of running out of memory and causing heavy pagefile usage. (You can however place your pagefile on the RAM disk to make the memory available to them again. It does introduces some other problems, but I think it’s kind of clever :-) )
- RAM is much more expensive than a normal disks and most people will only be able to afford to put aside a relatively small amount of memory, thus limiting what you can do with the drive. For the time being, only enterprise setups can afford large RAM based disks (together with UPS to prevent any loss of data due to power failure).
So what do you use a RAM drive for? I find it to be very useful for unpacking compressed zip/rar files. It is very fast and you almost never need to clean up afterward since the drive cleans itself. You can also assign the Windows TEMP folder to the RAM drive. Many programs use the temp folder regularly, so this can make them faster. (Beware though, as the size of the RAM disk is limited it could cause trouble if a program decides to use the temp folder heavily.) Again, an advantage is that the temp folder is automatically cleaned on reset. There are many other ways to use a RAM drive and I find it to be a convenient resource to have on my computer in many situations.
To use a RAM disk you need a driver software. See this paper (pdf) for various software vendors. I use Dataram Ramdisk, which is free for personal use. The program is very straightforward to use. You install it and setup your disk. After this is works silently in the background and automatically mounts the RAM disk at startup. I’ve used a year without problems. My computer has 8 gigs of memory, and I chose to devote 2 of those to my RAM drive. For me this has been a good compromise. I sometimes use more that 1GB but almost never reach 2GB. And 6GB for the rest of Windows is more than enough for my usage.
Update: Check out gHacks for an excellent overview of different free RAM disk program.