Exploring the venerable NFS Ganesha

As TrueNAS® SCALE approaches its General Availability date in less than 10 days time, one of the technology pieces I am extremely excited about in TrueNAS® SCALE is the NFS Ganesha server. It is still early days to see the full prowess of NFS Ganesha in TrueNAS® SCALE, but the potential of Ganesha’s capabilities in iXsystems™ new scale-out storage technology is very, very promising.

NFS Ganesha

I love Network File System (NFS). It was one of the main reasons I was so attracted to Sun Microsystems® SunOS in the first place. 6 months before I graduated, I took a Unix systems programming course in C in the university. The labs were on Sun 3/60 workstations. Coming from a background of a VAX/VMS system administrator in the school’s lab, Unix became a revelation for me. It completely (and blissfully) opened my eyes to open technology, and NFS was the main catalyst. Till this day, my devotion to Unix remained sacrosanct because of the NFS spark aeons ago.

I don’t know NFS Ganesha. I knew of its existence for almost a decade, but I have never used it. Most of the NFS daemons/servers I worked with were kernel NFS, and these included NFS services in Sun SunOS/Solaris, several Linux flavours – Red Hat®, SuSE®, Ubuntu, BSD variants in FreeBSD and MacOS, the older Unices of the 90s – HP-UX, Ultrix, AIX and Irix along with SCO Unix and Microsoft® XenixNetApp® ONTAP™, EMC® Isilon (very briefly), Hitachi® HNAS (née BlueArc) and of course, in these past 5-6 years FreeNAS®/TrueNAS™.

So, as TrueNAS® SCALE beckons, I took to this weekend to learn a bit about NFS Ganesha. Here are what I have learned.

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NFS-phobic in Malaysia

I taught the EMC Cloud Infrastructure and Services (CIS) class last week and naturally, a few students came from the VMware space. I asked how they were implementing their storage and everyone said Fibre Channel.

I have spoken to a lot of people about this as well in the past, whether they are using SAN or NAS storage for VMware environments. And almost 99% would say SAN, either FC-SAN or iSCSI-based SAN. Why???

When I ask these people about deploying NFS, the usual reply would be related to performance.

NFS version 3 won the file sharing protocol race during its early days where Unix variants were prevalent, but no thanks to the Balkanization of Unices in the 90s. Furthermore, NFS lost quite a bit of ground between NFSv3 in 1995 and the coming out party of NFSv4.1 just 2 years ago. The in-between years were barren and NFS become quite a bit of a joke with “Need For Speed” or “No F*king Security“. That also could be a contributing factor to the NFS-phobia we see here in Malaysia.

I have experiences with both SAN and NAS and understood the respective protocols of Fibre Channel, iSCSI, NFS and CIFS, and I felt that NFS has been given unfair treatment by people in this country. For the uninformed, NFS is the only NAS protocol supported by VMware. CIFS, the Windows file sharing protocol, is not supported, probably for performance and latency reasons. However, if you catch up with high performance computing (HPC), clustering, or MPP (Massively Parallel Processing) resources, almost always you will read about NFS being involved in delivering very high performance I/O. So, why isn’t NFS proposed with confidence in VMware environments?

I have blogged about this before. And I want to use my blog today to reassert what I believe in and hope that more consideration can be given to NFS when it comes to performance, even for virtualized environments.

NFS performance is competitive when compared to Fibre Channel and in a lot of cases, better than iSCSI. It is just that the perception of poor performance in NFS is stuck in people’s mind and it is hard to change that. However, there are multiple credible sources that stated that NFS is comparable to Fibre Channel. Let me share with you one of the source that compared NFS with other transport protocols:

From the 2 graphs of IOPS and Latency, NFS fares well against other more popular transport protocols in VMware environments. Those NFS performance numbers, are probably not RDMA driven as well. Otherwise RDMA could very well boost the NFS numbers into even higher ground.

What is this RDMA (Remote Direct Memory Access)? RDMA is already making its presence felt quietly, and being used with transports like Infiniband and 10 Gigabit Ethernet. In fact, Oracle Solaris version 11 will use RDMA as the default transmission protocol whenever there is a presence of RDMA-enable NICs in the system. The diagram below shows where RDMA fits in in the network stack.

RDMA eliminates the need for the OS to participate in the delivery of data, and directly depositing the data from the initiator’s memory to the target’s memory. This eliminates traditional networking overheads such as buffers copying and setting up network data structures for the delivery. A little comparison of RDMA with traditional networking is shown below:

I was trying to find out how prevalent NFS was in supporting the fastest supercomputers in the world from the Top500 Supercomputing sites. I did not find details of NFS being used, but what I found was the Top500 supercomputers do not employ Fibre Channel SAN at all!  Most have either proprietary interconnects with some on Infiniband and 10 Gigabit Ethernet. I would presume that NFS would figure in most of them, and I am confident that NFS can be a protocol of choice for high performance environments, and even VMware environments.

The future looks bright for NFSv4. We are beginning to see the word of “parallel NFS (pNFS)” being thrown into conversations around here, and the awareness is there. NFS version 4.2 is just around the corner as well, promising greater enhancement to the protocol.


Highroad to Parallel Road

Unless you are working with highly, parallelized access to files in a large scale-out NAS environment, you probably don’t get to work much with Parallel NFS (pNFS). pNFS is part of the NFSv4.1 (RFC 5661) standard, and was introduced in January 2010 to address NFS protocol in the clustered, scale-out NAS environment. It is to provide parallel file access across distributed servers.

pNFS is heavily driven by Panasas, NetApp, EMC, IBM, Sun (now Oracle) among others. And funnily enough, the company that sticks out from the bunch is one that used to tout block storage as the way to go, not files. That’s EMC, the company that more well known for its SAN solutions than its NAS (remember Celerra and IP4700?). And EMC has embraced pNFS in a big, big way. Read EMC’s CTO for Global Marketing, Chuck Hollis’ blog here and here.

However, unknown to many, a lot of the thinking that goes into pNFS are very similar to an EMC product some years ago. That product is EMC Highroad, which in the later years, renamed as Multi-path File System (MPFS).

Note: If you want to know more about the history of HighRoad/MPFS, read this blog.

The cornerstone of EMC MPFS is their File Mapping Protocol or FMP, which is a robust protocol that lines the mapping of files to their addressable blocks in storage. In a nutshell, when I was made responsible for this product during my time at EMC, I used to pitch to companies that MPFS was a file request is through NFS but respond to the requester can be in blocks (iSCSI or Fibre Channel). The beauty of this was, NFSv3 was chatty and heavy but the delivery of data through blocks via iSCSI or Fibre Channel has lesser overhead compared to NFSv3.

Hence the delivery is faster and EMC touted that the performance was 2-4x faster than NFS. Indeed, I have seen some lab tests results from EMC’s work with Schlumberger High Performance Lab in Houston, and the numbers were impressive. I still have them on Powerpoint somewhere.

In circa of 2003-2004, EMC donated the FMP code to IETF and as they say the rest was history.

The picture below basically summarizes what pNFS is all about.


A NFSv4 client will basically check with a Metadata server via the pNFS protocol about the layout of the distributed cluster of server. The file, could be striped across multiple nodes of the cluster, and it is the metadata server that provides a map to the client to access the blocks or files from these nodes. This is exactly what the EMC HighRoad/MPFS File Mapping Protocol (FMP) did, mapping the file requests to its respective corresponding blocks. See diagram below:


And one of the powerful feature of pNFS is that it is not just about NFS. The green arrow you see in the above diagram is the storage-access protocol. That access protocol can be NFSv4.1, CIFS, iSCSI, Fibre Channel, FCoE, Infiniband, and Object Storage Device (OSD).

In order to have pNFS working, the NFS client must be NFSv4.1 ready and that code has been made available in Linux and OpenSolaris. Other Unix vendors, no doubt, will be coming out with their NFSv4.1 implementation soon. Oooooh, there will be a Windows NFSv4.1 client coming as well!

But I want to dispel the notion that EMC is a SAN company. EMC is a very strong NAS company and if you have seen the IDC market share (ok, ok, many of you out there will argue about it), EMC is #1 in NAS. And their contribution to pNFS is immense.

NFSv4 – Your filesystem librarian

I was up at about 1am several nights ago listening to the SNIA update of NFSv4 and it was worth losing sleep. I was both intrigued and interested to see a full scale NFSv4 adoption in the coming few years.

We all know that NFS has been around for more than 20 years already. Version 2 was released way back in 1989, with version 3 being around since 1995. That’s a long time, and it is beginning to show its age. NFS version 4 is not new as well. Believe or not, it was released in 2000, 11 years ago. But there was a significant update in 2010, with NFS version 4.1 and this came with parallel NFS (pNFS) support to address new requirements such as scale-out NAS and file striping across clusters of nodes.

I am doing my responsible bit to disseminate NFS version 4.x updates and moving the storage networking and filesystem community towards its imminent wide scaled adoption. This is one of the many entries I intend to share about NFS version 4.

So, why this librarian thingy? First of all, for those folks working on NFSv3, you would probably encounter issues about file locking and also high availability.

Don’t you just hate it when the server reboots, and your NFS mount point hangs? Depending if it was a hard mount or soft mount, the NFS retries could take forever or sometimes, the NFS clients just freezes. In additional to that, another frequent complaint is that NFSv3 has lousy file locking.

However, in the beginning years of NFS, the world was a very different place. Such issues about file locking and HA were very well addressed by NFSv2/v3 because the demands of the previous client-server world were lesser. As the world progressed in the 2nd millenium, NFS v2/v3 started to sputter.

In this lesson#1, I would like to share about 2 key features of NFSv4 to address the 2 issues I brought up – which is NFS HA and file locking. The 2 features are

  • Lease
  • Delegation

As I said, NFS high availability in version 3 was simplistic. In version 3, if an NFS client fails, the NFS server has little knowledge that the client has failed. Remember, NFSv3 is stateless. This can cause complications and issues such as ambiguity about file locking. Likewise, if an NFS server fails, the client could freeze and if recovered, could get stale NFS handles and have all sorts of problems related to file locking. Many locks have to be released before an application can restart properly.

In NFSv4, things related to either the NFS server or client failing with regards to file locking are much more simplified. The mechanism is leasing and both the client and server will know what happening to each other. NFSv4 is a stateful protocol.  This is how leasing works:

  1. The NFS client leases a file lock from the NFS server for a certain period of time, eg. N seconds. It renews the lock with after the N seconds period has expired.
  2. If the NFS client fails, the lock is reclaimed by the server and released by the NFS server to other clients after a grace period
  3. If the NFS server fails and rebooted, all the files are locked for M seconds for the incumbent NFS clients to reclaim the locks. If they are not reclaimed by the respective client, the file lock is released.

Such an agreement with the stateful communication between the clients and the NFS server, makes file locking in an high availability environment much simpler and more robust.

Another new feature of NFSv4 is delegation. Part of the exported filesystem from the NFS server can be delegated or “loaned out” to the NFS client. The NFS client which had “borrowed” this piece of the filesystem can then work on it in its local cache with little communication to the NFS server (performance gain and reduced chattiness of the previous version).  Here’s a step-by-step guide of this delegation process.

  1. NFS client request a piece of the filesystem. The NFS server “lends” this piece to the client if it is not already locked, as a lease.
  2. NFS client works on this piece in its local cache
  3. Once the NFS client has completed the writes and commits to the piece of filesystem on the local cache, it releases the “borrowing” lease back to the NFS server
  4. If other NFS clients requests for the same piece of filesystem while it out on loan, the NFS server would say “Sorry, I loaned it out”
  5. If there is a high order authority requesting for the piece of filesystem, the NFS server would say to the NFS client, “I need this back” and will send an order to recall the filesystem

In many ways, both file locking lease and delegation works like a librarian. Pieces of the filesystem are loaned to the requester for a lease period much like books are loaned to the borrower for a period of time.

Enjoy your weekend!

NFS version 4

NFS has been around for almost 20 years and is the de-facto network file sharing protocol for Unix and Linux systems. There has been much talk about NFS, especially in version 2 and 3 and IT guys used to joke that NFS stands for “No F*king Security”.

NFS version 4 was different, borrowing ideas from Windows CIFS and Carnegie Mellon’s Andrew File System. And from its inception 11 years ago in IETF RFC 3010 (revised in 2003 with IETF RFC 3530), the notable new features of NFSv4 are:

Performance enhancement – One key enhancement is the introduction of the COMPOUND RPC procedure which allows the NFS client to group together a bunch of file operations into a single request to the NFS server. This not only reduces the network round-trip latency, but also reduces the small little chatters of the smaller file operations.


Removing the multiple daemons in NFSv3 – NFSv3 uses various daemons/services and various protocols to do the work. There isportmapper (TCP/UDP 111) which provides the port numbers for mounting and NFS services. There’s the mountd (arbitrary port byportmapper) service that does the mounting of NFS exports for the NFS clients. There’s nfsd on TCP/UDP 2049and so on. The command ‘rpcinfo -p’ below shows all the ports and services related to NFS


There are other features as well such as

Firewall friendly – The use ofportmapper dishing out arbitrary ports made it difficult for the firewall. NFSv4 changed that by consolidating most of the TCP/IP services into well-known ports which the security administrator can define in the firewall.


Stateful – NFSv3 is stateless and it does not maintain the state of the NFS clients. NFSv4 is stateful and implements a mandatory locking and delegation mechanisms. Leases for locks from the servers to the clients was introduced. A lease is a time-bounded grant for the control of the state of a file and this is implemented through locks.

Mandated Strong Security Architecture – NFSv4 requires the implementation of a strong security mechanism that is based on crytography. Previously the strongest security flavour was AUTH_SYS, which is level 1 clearance.

 "The AUTH_SYS security flavor uses a host-based authentication model
where the client asserts the user's authorization identities using small
integers as user and group identity representations (this is EXACTLY how NFSv3
authenticates by default). Because of the small integer authorization ID
representation, AUTH_SYS can only be used in a name space where all clients and
servers share a uidNumber and gidNumber translation service. A shared translation
service is required because uidNumbers and gidNumbers are passed in the RPC
credential; there is no negotiation of namespace in AUTH_SYS."

NFSv4 security mechanism is based on RPCSEC_GSS, a level 6 clearance. RPCSEC_GSS is an API that is more than an authentication mechanism. It performs integrity checksum and encryption in the entire RPC request and response operations. This is further progressed with the integration of Kerberos v5 for user authentication. This is quite similar to Windows CIFS Kerberos implementation, providing a time-based ticket to gain authentication.

In addition to that, there are many other cool, new features with NFSv4. There was a further extension to NFSv4 last year, in 2010, when NFSv4.1 was added in IETF RFC5661. As quoted in Wikipedia – NFSv4.1 “aims to provide protocol support to take advantage of clustered server deployments including the ability to provide scalable parallel access to files distributed among multiple servers (pNFS extension).

NFSv4 has much to offer. The future is bright.