btrfs – a better butter from a better COW?

There’s better a lot of chatter about the default file system in the recently released Fedora 16. Fedora 16 was released on November 8, 2011. For months, there were rumours that the default file system for Fedora 16 will be btrfs (btree file system, or better known as butter-FS). But after the release, the default file system of Fedora 16 is still ext4, much to the dismay of many. btrfs holds a lot of potential because in the space of less than 4 years, it has moved up the hierarchy to be one of the top file systems in the Linux ecosystem.

File systems in Linux has not seen had a knight in shining armour for the long time. The file systems kings of the Linux world were ext2/3 for the RedHat and Debian flavoured distros and reiserfs for the SuSE  flavoured distros. ext4 is now default in most Linux distros but the concept of  ext2/3/4 has not changed much since its inception decades ago.

At the same time, reiserfs  had a lot of promise as well, but its development and progress have lost it lustre after its principal developer, Han Reiser was convicted of the murder of his wife a few years ago. If you are KPC (Malaysian Chinese colloquialism, meaning busybody), you can read the news here.

btrfs is going to be the new generation of file systems for Linux and even Ted T’so, the CTO of Linux Foundation and principal developer admitted that he believed btrfs is the better direction because “it offers improvements in scalability, reliability, and ease of management”.

For those who has studied computer science, B-Tree is a data structure that is used in databases and file systems. B-Tree is an excellent data structure to store billions and billions of objects/data and is able to provide fast data retrieval in logarithmic time. And the B-Tree implementation is already present in some of the file systems such as JFS, XFS and ReiserFS. However, these file systems are not shadow-paging filesystems (popularly known as copy-on-write file systems).

You see, B-Tree, in its native form of implementation, is very incompatible with COW file systems. In fact, the implementation was thought of impossible, until someone by the name of Ohad Rodeh came along. He presented a paper in Usenix FAST ’07 which described the challenges of combining the B-Tree concept with shadow paging file systems. The solution, as he described it, was to introduce insert/remove key into the tree structure, and removing the dependency of intra-leaf linking.

Chris Mason, one of the developers of reiserfs, took Ohad’s idea and created a shadow-paging file system based on the B-Tree idea.

Traditional file systems tend to follow the idea of the Berkeley Fast File Systems. Different cylinder groups have its own inode, bitmap and disk blocks. The used space in one cylinder group cannot be shared to another cylinder group, resulting in wastage. At the same time, performance can be an issue as the disk read/head frequently have to move to the inodes to find out where the next used or free blocks will be. In a way, it looks like the diagram below.

Chris Mason’s idea of btrfs made the file system looked like this:

Today, a quick check in btrfs wiki page, shows that the main Btrfs features available at the moment include:

  • Extent based file storage
  • 2^64 byte == 16 EiB maximum file size
  • Space-efficient packing of small files
  • Space-efficient indexed directories
  • Dynamic inode allocation
  • Writable snapshots, read-only snapshots
  • Subvolumes (separate internal filesystem roots)
  • Checksums on data and metadata
  • Compression (gzip and LZO)
  • Integrated multiple device support
  • RAID-0, RAID-1 and RAID-10 implementations
  • Efficient incremental backup
  • Background scrub process for finding and fixing errors on files with redundant copies
  • Online filesystem defragmentation

And Chris Mason and his team have still plenty more to offer for btrfs. It will likely be the default file system in Fedora 17 and at the rate it is going, could be the file system of choice for RedHat, Debian and SuSE distros very soon.

There’s been a lot of comparisons between btrfs and ZFS, since both are part of Oracle now. ZFS is obviously a much more mature file system, with more enterprise features and more robust, (Incidentally, ZFS just celebrated its 10th birthday on Halloween 2011 – see Matt Ahren’s blog) and the btrfs is the rising star in the Linux world. But at this moment, the 2 file systems are set apart in their market positioning and deployment.

ZFS is based on the CDDL (Common Development and Distribution License) while btrfs is based on GNU GPL, open source licensing. There are controversies surrounding CDDL licensing scheme, while is incompatible with GNU GPL scheme.

Oracle can count itself very lucky to have 2 of the most promising and prominent COW file systems around. It will be interesting to see what Oracle will do next. As a proponent of innovation, community and sharing, I sincerely hope that both file systems will continue to thrive in Oracle’s brutal, sales-driven organization. We certainly don’t want to see controversies about dual ownership BS of Oracle and mySQL that could end in 2015.


I have to get this off my chest. Oracle’s Solaris ZFS is better than NetApp’s ONTAP WAFL! There! I said it!

I have been studying both similar Copy-on-Write (COW) file systems at the data structure level for a while now and I strongly believe ZFS is a better implementation of the COW file systems (also known as “shadow-paging” file system) than WAFL. How are both similar and how are both different? The angle we are looking at is not performance but about resiliency and reliability.

(Note: btrfs or “Butter File System” is another up-and-coming COW file system under GPL license and is likely to be the default file system for the coming Fedora 16)

In Computer Science, COW file system are tree-like data structures as shown below. They are different than the traditional Berkeley Fast File System data structure as shown below:

As some of you may know, Berkeley Fast File System is the foundation of some modern day file systems such as Windows NTFS, Linux ext2/3/4, and Veritas VxFS.

COW file system is another school of thought and this type of file system is designed in a tree-like data structure.

In a COW file system or more rightly named shadow-paging file system, the original node of the data block is never modified. Instead, a copy of the node is created and that copy is modified, i.e. a shadow of the original node is created and modified. Since the node is linked to a parent node and that parent node is linked to a higher parent node and so on all the way to the top-most root node, each parent and higher-parent nodes are modified as it traverses through the tree ending at the root node.

The diagram below shows the shadow-paging process in action as modifications of the node copy and its respective parent node copies traverse to the top of the tree data structure. The diagram is from ZFS but the same process applies to WAFL as well.


As each data block of either the leaf node (the last node in the tree) or the parent nodes are being modified, pointers to either the original data blocks or the copied data blocks are modified accordingly relative to the original tree structure, until the last root node at the top of the shadow tree is modified. Then, the COW file system commit is considered complete. Take note that the entire process of changing pointers and modifying copies of the nodes of the data blocks is done is a single I/O.

The root at the top for ZFS is called uberblock and called fsinfo in WAFL. Because an exact shadow of the tree-like file system is created when the data blocks are modified, this also gives birth to how snapshots are created in a COW file system. It’s all about pointers, baby!

Here’s how it looks like with the original data tree and the snapshot data tree once the shadow paging modifications are complete.


However, there are a few key features from the data integrity and reliability point of view where ZFS is better than WAFL. Let me share that with you.

In a nutshell, ZFS is a layered architecture that looks like this

The Data Management Unit (DMU) layer is one implementation that ensures stronger data integrity. The DMU maintains a checksum on the data in each data block by storing the checksum in the parent’s blocks. Thus if something is messed up in the data block (possibly by Silent Data Corruption), the checksum in the parent’s block will be able to detect it and also repair the data corruption if there is sufficient data redundancy information in the data tree.

WAFL will not be able to detect such data corruptions because the checksum is applied at the disk block level and the parity derived during the RAID-DP write does not flag this such discrepancy. An old set of slides I found portrayed this comparison as shown below.


Another cool feature that addresses data resiliency is the implementation of ditto blocks. Ditto blocks stores 3 copies of the metadata and this allows the recovery of lost metadata even if 2 copies of the metadata are deleted.

Therefore, the ability of ZFS to survive data corruption, metadata deletion is stronger when compared to WAFL .This is not discredit NetApp’s WAFL. It is just that ZFS was built with stronger features to address the issues we have with storing data in modern day file systems.

There are many other features within ZFS that have improved upon NetApp’s WAFL. One such feature is the implementation of RAID-Z/Z2/Z3. RAID-Z is a superset implementation of the traditional RAID-5 but with a different twist. Instead of using fixed stripe width like RAID-4 or RAID-DP, RAID-Z/Z2 uses a dynamic variable stripe width. This addressed the parity RAID-4/5 “write hole” flaw, where incomplete or partial stripes will result in a “hole” that leads to file system fragmentation. RAID-Z/Z2 address this by filling up all blocks with variable stripe width. A parity can be calculated and assigned with any striped width, as shown below.


Other really cool stuff are Hybrid Storage Pool and the ability to create software-based caching using fast disk drives such as SSDs. This approach of creating ReadZilla (read caching) and LogZilla (write caching) eliminates the need for proprietary NVRAM as implemented in NetApp’s WAFL.

The only problem is, despite the super cool features of ZFS, most Oracle (not Sun) sales does not have much clue how to sell ZFS storage. NetApp, with its well trained and tuned, sales force is beating Oracle to pulp.