Xtreme future?

EMC acquisition of XtremIO sent shockwaves across the industry. The news of the acquisition, reported costing EMC USD$430 million can be found here, here and here.

The news of EMC’s would be acquisition a few weeks ago was an open secret and rumour has it that NetApp was eyeing XtremIO as well. Looks like EMC has beaten NetApp to it yet again.

The interesting part was of course, the price. USD$430 million is a very high price to pay for a stealthy, 2-year old company which has 2 rounds of funding totaling USD$25 million. Why such a large amount?

XtremIO has a talented team of engineers; the notable ones being Yaron Segev and Shahar Frank. They have their background in InfiniBand, and Shahar Frank was the chief architect of Exanet scale-out NAS (which was acquired by Dell). However, as quoted by 451Group, XtremeIO is building an all-flash SAN array that “provides consistently high performance, high levels of flash endurance, and advanced functionality around thin provisioning, de-dupe and space-efficient snapshots“.

Furthermore, XtremeIO has developed a real-time inline deduplication engine that does not degrade performance. It does this by spreading the write I/Os over the entire array. There is little information about this deduplication engine, but I bet XtremIO has developed a real-time, inherent deduplication file system that spreads all the I/Os to balance the wear-leveling as well as having scaling performance. I bet XtremIO will dedupe everything that it stores, has a B+ tree, copy-on-write file system with a super-duper efficient hashing algorithm for address mapping (pointers) with this deduplication file system. Ok, ok, I am getting carried away here, because it is likely that I will be wrong, but I can imagine, can’t I? (more…)


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.

Snapshots? Don’t have a C-O-W about it!

Unfortunately, I am having a COW about it!

Snapshots are the inherent offspring of the copy-on-write technique used in shadow-paging filesystems. NetApp’s WAFL and Oracle Solaris ZFS are commercial implementations of shadow-paging filesystems and they are typically promoted as Copy-on-Write filesystems.

As we may already know, snapshots are point-in-time copy of the active file system in the storage world. They perform quick backup of the active file system by making a copy of the block addresses (pointers) of the filesystem and then updating the pointer maps to the inodes in the fsinfo root inode of the WAFL filesystem for new changes after the snapshot has been taken. The equivalent of fsinfo is the uberblock in the ZFS filesystem.

However, contrary to popular belief, the snapshots from WAFL and ZFS are not copy-on-write implementations even though the shadow paging filesystem tree employs the copy-on-write technique.

Consider this for a while when a snapshot is being taken … Copy —- On —- Write. If the definition is (1) Copy then (2) Write, this means that there are several several steps to perform a copy-on-write snapshot. The filesystem has to to make a copy of the original data block (1 x Read I/O), then write the original data block to a new location (1 x Write I/O) and then write the new data block to the location of the original data block (1 x Write I/O).

This is a 3-step process that can be summarized as

  1. Read location of original data block (1 x Read I/O)
  2. Copy this data block to new unused location (1 x Write I/O)
  3. Write the new and modified data block to the location of original data block (1 x Write I/O)

This implementation, IS THE copy-on-write technique for snapshot but NetApp and possibly Oracle guys have been saying for years that their snapshots are based on copy-on-write. This is pretty much a misnomer that needs to be corrected. EMC, in its SnapSure and SnapView implementation, called this technique Copy-on-First-Write (COFW), probably to avoid the confusion. The data blocks are copied to a savvol, a separate location to store the changes of snapshots and defaults to 10% of the total capacity of their storage solutions.

As you have seen, this method is a 3 x I/O operation and it is an expensive solution. Therefore, when we compare the speed of NetApp/ZFS snapshots to EMC’s snapshots, the EMC COFW snapshot technique will be a tad slower.

However, this method has one superior advantage over the NetApp/ZFS snapshot technique. The data blocks in the active filesystem are almost always laid out in a more contiguous fashion, resulting in a more consistent read performance throughout the life of the active file system.

Below is a diagram of how copy-on-write snapshots are implemented:


What is NetApp/ZFS’s snapshot method then?

It is is known as Redirect-on-Write. Using the same step … REDIRECT —- ON —– WRITE. When a data block is about to be modified, the original data block is read (1 x Read I/O) and then the data block is written to a new location (1 x Write I/O). The active file system then updates the filesystem tree and its inode address to reflect the location of the new data block. The original data block remained unchanged.

In summary,

  1. Read location of original data block (1 x Read I/O)
  2. Write modified data block to new location (1 x Write I/O)

The Redirect-on-Write method resulted in 1 Write I/O less, making snapshot creation faster. This is the NetApp/ZFS method and it is superior when compared to the Copy-on-Write snapshot technique discussed earlier.

However, as the life of the filesystem progresses, fragmentation and holes will cause the performance of the active filesystem to degrade. The reason is most related data blocks are no longer contiguous and the active file system will be busy seeking the scattered data blocks across the volume. Fragmented filesystem would have to be “cleaned and reorganized” to regain its performance lustre.

Another unwanted problem using the Redirect-on-Write snapshot technique is the snapshot resides in the same boundary as the active filesystem. Over time, if the capacity consumed by the snapshots could overwhelm the active filesystem, if their recycle schedule is unchecked.

I guess this is a case of “SUFFER NOW/ENJOY LATER” or “ENJOY NOW/SUFFER LATER”. We have to make a conscious effort to understand what snapshots are all about.