RAID sucks, and so do all other Free alternatives in the Linux world.

Having been in exactly the same situation several times in the past, I have been following Russell Coker's posts regarding data integrity with interest. FWIW, the correct answer to "BTRFS (sic) and Xen" is: subvolumes.

Now that Fedora has, once again, decided to postpone their switch to Btrfs as default file system, I decided to write up my own take on this topic.

Any and all my considerations are made under the assumption that important data is backed up while semi-important data is at least living on two different machines. Beware, this is a long post, but I do like to think it's well worth reading.


Disk failures

Let's recap the current situation for "traditional" file systems like xfs, ext{2..4}, etc. In case you need to freshen up on the technical details go here.

  • Single disks: Fine for many use cases like Laptops, Desktops, etc, they are what most of us are using for most storage needs.
  • RAID 0:If you are using that, you are most likely doing it wrong. Barring increasing caches for SSD-based volumes on machines which you simply take out of your cluster if there is any kind of problem, I don't know of not a sigle valid use case. Other than to get rid of data, that is.
  • RAID 1: The default for small servers and important machines which don't need a lot of disk space.
  • RAID 5: OK for personal storage servers, avoid once disks become larger than 500GB-1TB, depending on personal preference. To write data, you need to calculate new checksums and thus read all data from all corresponding slices, impacting write performance significantly.
  • RAID 6: The RAID 10 people will disagree, but I like this RAID level best. While your write performance will definitely take a hit, you can mitigate this by decreasing your volume sizes. The extra cost in ways of power, disks, controllers, and rack space are a price we gladly pay for the ability to lose two disks and still retain all data.
  • RAID 10: Great write performance until the day when two disks in the same RAID position die right after each other and your company's main mail storage dies. Yes, this has happenend to me and it sucks.
  • RAID 2,3,4,50,60,foo: Mostly irrelevant in the real world; disregard.

Silent corruption

All the RAID levels with redundancy are fine and dandy if you lose a whole disk and put in a new one. Of course, that does not help you the tiniest bit once you get read errors. Controllers which manage RAID 1 or 10 may or may not compare the data while it's being read and may or may not tell you about discrepancies. They can then toss a coin and give you either result. There is no way to determine which is correct. RAID 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 could, in theory, verify the data as it's being read, but that would limit your read rate to that of a single disk so no one does that.

We actually had a massive web presence fail over night, once. No one knew what the cause was as there hadn't been any kind of access logged. As that particular deployment is done directly from a VCS, we simply ran a diff and found one change. We traced the failure down to a syntax error; a one character change made everything fail. Looking at the ASCII table, it was clear that one single bit had flipped. This sucked. A lot.


So you end up scrubbing your RAID sets on a weekly basis, recovering from silent corruption with the help of your RAID 6's two parity stripes. And even though you schedule the scrubbings with the least priority, you still take a performance hit when randomly seeking a lot.


Some smart people at Sun set out to fix these problems and more, and fix it they did. The "Z" in ZFS is meant to imply that this is the last file system you will ever need and if not for its license, this might have worked. Of course, "last" and "forever" mean "not now" and "10 years" respectively, in computer terms. The limits within ZFS have been chosen so that the entropy needed to create a disk able to max out a ZFS volume would, literally, require our oceans to boil. Let's just say that you won't encounter these limits any time soon.

While that is a nice thing to know, it does not say anything about data integrity.

There are several mechanisms ensuring data integrity built in ZFS, the most fundamental being extensive checksumming. Checksums are vastly superior to live comparisions which RAID would have to perform as it does not need to sacrifice any significant i/o reading checksum data. With HDD access, you are i/o-bound, and not CPU-bound, anyway, so performing the checksum calculations is laughably cheap when factoring in the added safety. Everything, be data, metadata, inodes, you name it, is checksummed. Every read operation must go through the checksumming functions, ensuring that all data which reaches your user space is correct. If ZFS can't verify the checksum, it will not deliver any data at all, ensuring noticeable, as opposed to silent, corruption. So how does ZFS recover when the checksum does not match the data?


The easy way is to store several copies of your data within your volume. Mount a ZFS volume or subvolume with copies=2 or 3 and all data that is being written from then on will be copied twice or three times. Trivial in principle, but powerful when built into a file system.


This is where things start to get interesting. RAIDz1, 2, and 3 will allow you to lose 1, 2, or 3 disks respectively while still retaining your data; at the obvious expense of the storage capacity of as many disks. Basically, RAIDz2 is ZFS' variant of RAID 6, but it's so much better than mere RAID 6.


RAIDz will not assign fixed slices and fill them up like RAID does. It will look at the current write speeds and use appropriate slice sizes dynamically. As a direct result, data which has been written at roughly the same time will always be near other data written at the same time. This is very nice for functionality like snapshots, writeable subvolumes and other things and is called COW, ZFS' variant of super cow powers. This also enables ZFS to write data, read it back and verify the checksum and only then point to the new data. Atomic commits done right.

Keep rollin'

As ZFS has to keep track of what data is still in use in which volumes and subvolumes anyway, it knows which regions are free to be reclaimed. Instead of filling up random places, ZFS will roll over your disks, overwriting unused data on the fly.

This bears repeating: Contrary to RAID 5 and 6, ZFS will never need to read old data in order to write new data. Write performance galore and anyone still stuck on RAID 10 can finally enjoy the increased data security.


To be completely honest, I do not know Btrfs as well as I know ZFS. If I get anything wrong, correct me. If I offend anyone with my outsider's interpretation, that is not my intention.

Btrfs has been initiated by Oracle way before it ever even thought about buying Sun or history might have run a different course, for worse or a lot worse. The closing of Java, Solaris, ZFS, Hudson, OpenOffice (since then "gifted" aka thrown away), and others makes me think the latter. As there are few technological developments which caused me as much stress, overtime and pain as OCFS2, I am naturally wary of file systems sponsored by Oracle and their data focus integrity/availability. The fact that there's still no way to fsck a Btrfs volume could be birthing pain or yet another facet of Oracle's stance on this topic, I honestly don't know. Either way, it's a good idea to be wary for now.

I can't say too much on Btrfs' technical underpinnings, but I know it uses COW and that it has its own variant of RAID. Toss in snapshots (writeable?), subvolumes and integrated block device management, and you have the building blocks of a decent file system.

Still, Btrfs is not ready for prime time. Btrfs has been "one or two years in the future" for a few years now so I will not be holding my breath. And once the first distributions are starting to use Btrfs by default, people will lose data. A year or three after that, I will feel comfortable to use it myself and in production.

Commercial solutions

You can either hand a lot of money to proprietary vendors who will not tell you a thing about how things work internally (and no way to fix things directly) or you can buy solutions that employ ZFS in the back-end. I prefer my storage hardware to be relatively dumb while keeping the intelligent bits where I can see and poke them so this is not really part of these considerations.

So what can you do?

Test your disks before deploying them

Easy, but vitally important:

smartctl -a $disk
smartctl -t long $disk
badblocks -swo $vendor_$model_$serial_$timestamp.badblocks.swo $disk
smartctl -a $disk

If you are lazy, get a copy of disktest, a tool I wrote to do exactly this. It should wait for the long self-test to finish, can not read out all vendor names, and does not have a way to document who ran the test, but it's a start. Patches and feedback are, obviously, welcome.

And yes, I will package this soonish.

Using your disks

This list is surprisingly short. You can use

  • distinct disks
  • RAID as per above
  • Debian/kFreeBSD
  • Nexenta

And that's it.

At work, I prefer small RAID 6 volume sets. It sucks, but there is nothing better.

For personal use, I have a machine with a FUSE-based RAIDz2 mounted with copies=2. Three disks can fail and my data is still secure. While this setup is slow as molasses due to FUSE, speed is not a consideration for me here; data safety is. A migration to Debian/kFreeBSD in the medium term is still likely.

If you have things to add or disagree with me, I would love to hear from you.

Update: Jan Christian Kaessens pointed out that, contrary to my experience, zfsonlinux did not bring down his sytem in flames. As zfsonlinux is a kernel module, potential performance is a lot better. Also, it supports ZFS Pool Version 28 as opposed to FUSE-ZFS' 23. While the really nice features are in v 29 and 30 (which are closed thanks to Oracle) v 28 still has some nice changes.