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Journaling with ReiserFS

Chris Mason

Issue #82, February 2001

Mason gives a tour through the Reiser File System: its features and construction.

There are a few new file systems coming out for Linux these days, bringing some badly needed features for both servers and desktops. I’ll briefly describe some of the key ReiserFS features and discuss some details of the journal layer.

ReiserFS stores all file system objects in a single B*tree. The tree supports:

  • Dynamic inode allocation
  • Compact, indexed directories
  • Resizable items
  • 60-bit offsets

There are four basic types of items in the tree. Stat data, directory items, indirect items and direct items. Items are found by searching for a key, where the key contains an ID, the offset in the object you are looking for and the item type.

The ReiserFS directories grow and shrink as their contents change. A hash of the file name is used to keep an entry’s offset in the directory constant. The tree indexing of this hash allows for very large directories without much performance loss and still provides clean support for NFS and the standard directory operations.

For files, indirect items point to data blocks, and direct items contain packed file data. This packed file data is stored directly in the tree and can share space in the tree nodes with items from other objects. So, for large files, ReiserFS stores block pointers similar to the ones ext2 uses, but for small files we pack the data together to prevent wasted space.

All of these items are resizable by rebalancing the tree. We can append to the packed file data, or if we need another field in the stat data, it can grow to accommodate the new information. The disk format deserves much more detail than I’m giving it here, and you can learn more from the papers on the ReiserFS home page (see Resources).

Large File Support

ReiserFS actually has two main disk formats. The new format introduced in our 2.4 code allows 60-bit file offsets, and the format used in our 2.2 code uses 32-bit offsets. When you mount an older file system under the new kernel, the old format is preserved and large files are not allowed.

There is a mount option for converting to the new format, but the code for mounting the new format under 2.2 kernels is still in beta. Instead of putting out-of-date information in this article, I suggest going to the ReiserFS web site for details on enabling large file support.

How Does the Journal Work?

My goal here isn’t to describe APIs or log data structures; I’m hoping to list the major issues involved in file system logging and how ReiserFS deals with them.

Before we talk about how logging works, let’s discuss the problem we are trying to solve. In order to have a consistent file system after a crash, updates need to be atomic. They need to happen completely or not at all. For example, to append blocks onto a file, you need to update the file’s block pointers, allocate blocks from the free list and update the superblock. If the system crashes in the middle of these changes, the file might have a pointer to a block still on the free list, or the superblock might not have updated stats in it, or the block you allocated could be lost (not in the file and not on the free list).

The ReiserFS journal uses a simple metadata-only, write-ahead logging scheme. The idea is that before any changes are written to disk, they are first committed to a log. After a crash, committed transactions are replayed, which is nothing more than copying blocks from the log into the main disk area.

Writing changes to the log isn’t what makes logging complicated. The hard part is keeping the log from slowing your file system down to a crawl. The most obvious optimization is to write to the log in big sequential chunks and lower the number of commit blocks written. Most operations update a small number of blocks, so the journal combines multiple operations into a large atomic unit.

Modified buffers cannot be flushed until they have been copied to the log, and they cannot be freed until they have been flushed. Larger transactions pin more kernel memory but also make many other optimizations possible. Since ReiserFS stores everything in a balanced tree, the tree frequently needs balancing. Tree blocks are allocated, modified and then freed in another balance later on. With larger transactions, we increase the chance the block will be freed before it is written to the log or the main disk.

It is common for blocks to be logged over and over again. If the superblock is included in transactions one, two and three, it needs to be written to the log once for each transaction. But, it doesn’t need to be written the main disk area until after transaction three has finished. The total number of writes needed is lower, and most of the writes are to the sequential log. In some cases, this actually makes logging faster than the original file system was.

Whenever possible, log I/O is done by a worker thread, kreiserfsd. This allows log commits to happen in the background, without slowing down user processes. However, the log is a fixed size, so user processes might have to wait for log space to become available before they can start a new transaction. A great deal of care must be taken to make sure processes waiting on the log don’t have resources needed by a process already inside a transaction.

Most of the file system does not need to be aware there is a journal layer keeping things safe, but there are a few new rules that need to be followed. First, it isn’t safe to modify a dirty buffer. On SMP systems, another CPU might be writing the buffer while you are changing it, which means the modifications would get to disk before the transaction is committed.

Most operations will alter a limited number of buffers, but file writes and truncates are effectively unbounded. Instead of adding the complexity of unbounded transaction size in the journal layer, I chose to code consistency points into these operations. If the current transaction needs to end, they log enough information to make the file system consistent, and then start a new transaction. When data logging is used, fsync needs to do the same checks.

Another new rule required by the journal layer has to do with reusing blocks when metdata-only logging is used. Picture these two transactions:

1. allocate block 200, insert into the tree<\n>
change and log block 200
free block 200
close and commit transaction 1
2. allocate block 200 as a data block
change block 200, fsync to disk
close and commit transaction 2
[system crash]

After the crash, the transactions are replayed in order. While replaying transaction one, the logged version of block 200 is copied into the main disk, and after replaying transaction two, block 200 is a data block in a file. But, the contents written to block 200 by the fsync are no longer there. ReiserFS avoids this by never allocating a data block until there is no chance a log replay will overwrite the contents with old information. When the file system is full, this means we have to flush transactions to disk and find reusable blocks. Similar checks need to happen if a data block is logged and then written directly later on.

Now that fsck isn’t needed after every crash, we need to be more careful with lost files. An unlinked file isn’t actually deleted until the last open process using it finishes. If the system crashes before the delete operation is complete, the journal will give a consistent file system, but some space will still be allocated to the file. Since the file isn’t in the directory tree, there isn’t a way to reclaim the blocks.

The easiest way to fix this in ReiserFS is to link the file into a special directory. ReiserFS directories are very fast, and there isn’t much locking involved if you aren’t worried about file name conflicts. After a crash, the directory is read, and file deletion is finished for any objects left. The special directory doesn’t actually need file names at all, just the key information for looking up the file. This fix is not yet integrated into the official ReiserFS releases, but it should be soon.

User Space Transactions

From time to time, people ask for a version of the transaction API exported to user space. The ReiserFS journal layer was designed to support finite operations that usually complete very quickly, and it would not be a good fit for a general transaction subsystem. It might be a good idea to provide atomic writes to user space, however, and give them more control over grouping operations together. That way an application could request for a 64K file to be created in a certain directory and treat it like an atomic operation. Very little planning has happened in this area thus far.

VM Integration

As memory gets low on the system, the kernel needs to start flushing dirty data to disk so the pages can be freed. But, pinned buffers from uncommitted transactions can’t be freed until the transaction commits, leaving the VM unable to do anything without help from the file system. We also want to make sure the journal does not use too high a percentage of the system memory for pinned buffers.

We will be working with the VM developers to give memory pressure to the file systems properly. The API is not set in stone yet, but people seem to be leaning toward a flush callback associated with the page, and a generic memory pressure registration system. It isn’t known yet how much of that will happen in the 2.4 kernel and what will be left for 2.5.

ReiserFS and LVM

LVM adds a bunch of cool new features to Linux, one of which is the ability to make read-only snapshots of a device. The snapshot is created very quickly, and copy-on-write is used to keep the snapshot unchanged as the original device is modified. This allows for on-line, consistent backups of most software on just about any file system.

But, the journaled file systems make this a little harder. When sync is called on ReiserFS, we just commit metadata changes to the log, knowing that a replay will make things consistent after a crash. For a read-only LVM snapshot, log replay is not an option. Instead, we can provide a few new generic calls to flush everything to the main disk and pause new file system modifications. While things are paused, LVM initializes the snapshot, so it will be consistent without a log replay. Once LVM is done, the file system is unlocked and writes proceed normally.

Since all the file system operations need to be able to wait on the log, this was easily coded in ReiserFS. LVM 0.9 and ReiserFS 3.6.18 have this functionality, but we are not sure when the generic calls are going to be added in the kernel. Regardless, patches to provide the missing pieces will be available on the ReiserFS and LVM web sites.

Another LVM feature is the ability to relocate extents from one device to another. If you discover an area of the disk is getting higher-than-average traffic, you can relocate those blocks to a faster device. In fact, you could relocate the entire log area to a faster device, reducing head contention and drive seeks. Relocating the log to a solid-state disk could really improve performance on log intensive applications.

Software RAID

In the 2.2 kernels, the software RAID code could write pinned buffers to disk, which breaks the write ordering constraints used to keep things consistent. Only drive striping and concatenation were completely safe, and mirroring was safe as long as you did not use the on-line rebuild code. In the 2.4 kernels, all software RAID levels should work properly with the journaled file systems.

ReiserFS and NFS

ReiserFS has problems supporting NFS because 64 bits of information are required to find an object in the tree, and NFS expects to find an inode with just the inode number (32-bits long). The good news is the NFS file handle has enough room to store the extra information ReiserFS needs in order to find the file again later, and other kernel developers have written APIs to give the file system control over some of the file handle. By the time this article is out, there should be public patches to add proper NFS support to ReiserFS.

Write Caching

For performance benchmarks, some of the new drives have write-back caching by default. This means the drive reports a write is completed before it is actually on the media. The block is still in the drive’s cache, where the writes can be reordered. If this happens, metadata changes might be written before the log commit blocks, leading to corruption if the machine loses power. It is very important to disable write-back caching on both IDE and SCSI drives.

Some hardware RAID controllers provide a battery-backed write-back cache that preserves the cache contents if the system loses power. These should be safe to use, but the cache battery should be checked often. A dramatic performance increase can be seen with these write caches, especially for log intensive applications like mail servers.

Mail Server Optimizations

Mail servers tend to be a worst-case for the journaled file systems because they need to make sure each file operation completes. They use fsync, or a bunch of other tricks to prevent losing messages after a crash, and this forces the file system to close transactions while they are still very small.

Mail servers need a fast way to get new files committed to disk, and data logging can help with this. During the fsync call, you log the data blocks and metadata required to add the file in the tree, producing one large sequential write. If the file being written is a transient spool file, it might never be written back to the main drive. Combined with a fast dedicated logging device, data logging can make a big performance improvement.

As of yet, the ReiserFS 2.4 code does not support data logging. There is data logging code in our releases for the 2.2 kernels, but it needs to be adapted to the 2.4 page cache.

The Competition

The end result of the new Linux file systems should be very interesting. Admins will be able to choose the best product for their applications, and programmers will be able to compare their decisions against the alternatives. Linux as a whole will benefit as the community picks and chooses the best features from each file system.

Chris Mason (mason@suse.com) was a system administrator before he started contributing to the ReiserFS Project. He now works full-time for SuSE from his home in Rochester New York.