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BTRFS vs LVM

For some years LVM (the Linux Logical Volume Manager) has been used in most Linux systems. LVM allows one or more storage devices (either disks, partitions, or RAID sets) to be assigned to a Volume Group (VG) some of which can then allocated to a Logical Volume (LVs) which are equivalent to any other block device, a VG can have many LVs.

One of the significant features of LVM is that you can create snapshots of a LV. One common use is to have multiple snapshots of a LV for online backups and another is to make a snapshot of a filesystem before making a backup to external storage, the snapshot is unchanging so there’s no problem of inconsistencies due to backing up a changing data set. When you create a snapshot it will have the same filesystem label and UUID so you should always mount a LVM device by it’s name (which will be /dev/$VGNAME/$LVNAME).

One of the problems with the ReiserFS filesystem was that there was no way to know whether a block of storage was a data block, a metadata block, or unused. A reiserfsck --rebuild-tree would find any blocks that appeared to be metadata and treat them as such, deleted files would reappear and file contents which matched metadata (such as a file containing an image of a ReiserFS filesystem) would be treated as metadata. One of the impacts of this was that a hostile user could create a file which would create a SUID root program if the sysadmin ran a --rebuild-tree operation.

BTRFS solves the problem of filesystem images by using a filesystem specific UUID in every metadata block. One impact of this is that if you want to duplicate a BTRFS filesystem image and use both copies on the same system you need to regenerate all the checksums of metadata blocks with the new UUID. The way BTRFS works is that filesystems are identified by UUID so having multiple block devices with the same UUID causes the kernel to get confused. Making an LVM snapshot really isn’t a good idea in this situation. It’s possible to change BTRFS kernel code to avoid some of the problems of duplicate block devices and it’s most likely that something will be done about it in future. But it still seems like a bad idea to use LVM with BTRFS.

The most common use of LVM is to divide the storage of a single disk or RAID array for the use of multiple filesystems. Each filesystem can be enlarged (through extending the LV and making the filesystem use the space) and snapshots can be taken. With BTRFS you can use subvolumes for the snapshots and the best use of BTRFS (IMHO) is to give it all the storage that’s available so there is no need to enlarge a filesystem in typical use. BTRFS supports quotas on subvolumes which aren’t really usable yet but in the future will remove the need to create multiple filesystems to control disk space use. An important but less common use of LVM is to migrate a live filesystem to a new disk or RAID array, but this can be done by BTRFS too by adding a new partition or disk to a filesystem and then removing the old one.

It doesn’t seem that LVM offers any benefits when you use BTRFS. When I first experimented with BTRFS I used LVM but I didn’t find any benefit in using LVM and it was only a matter of luck that I didn’t use a snapshot and break things.

Snapshots of BTRFS Filesystems

One reason for creating a snapshot of a filesystem (as opposed to a snapshot of a subvolume) is for making backups of virtual machines without support from inside the virtual machine (EG running an old RHEL5 virtual machine that doesn’t have the BTRFS utilities). Another is for running training on virtual servers where you want to create one copy of the filesystem for each student. To solve both these problems I am currently using files in a BTRFS subvolume. The BTRFS kernel code won’t touch those files unless I create a loop device so I can only create a loop device for one file at a time.

One tip for doing this, don’t use names such as /xenstore/vm1 for the files containing filesystem images, use names such as /xenstore/vm1-root. If you try to create a virtual machine named “vm1″ then Xen will look for a file named “vm1″ in the current directory before looking in /etc/xen and tries to use a filesystem image as a Xen configuration file. It would be nice if there was a path for Xen configuration files that either didn’t include the current directory or included it at the end of the list. Including the current directory in the path is a DOS mistake that should have gone away a long time ago.

Psychology and Block Devices

ZFS has a similar design to BTRFS in many ways and has some similar issues. But one benefit for ZFS is that it manages block devices in a “zpool”, first you create a zpool with the block devices and after that you can create ZFS filesystems or “ZVOL” block devices. I think that most sysadmins would regard a zpool as something similar to LVM (which may or may not be correct depending on how you look at it) and immediately rule out the possibility of running a zpool on LVM.

BTRFS looks like a regular Unix filesystem in many ways, you can have a single block device that you mount with the usual mount command. The fact that BTRFS can support multiple block devices in a RAID configuration isn’t so obvious and the fact that it implements equivalents to most LVM functionality probably isn’t known to most people when they start using it. The most obvious way to start using BTRFS is to use it just like an Ext3/4 filesystem on an LV, and to use LVM snapshots to backup data, this is made even more likely by the fact that there is a program to convert a ext2/3/4 filesystem to BTRFS. This seems likely to cause data loss.

3 comments to BTRFS vs LVM

  • Sytoka

    You should propose your article to LWN !

  • Steven C.

    But –rebuild-tree is a last-ditch recovery operation, not for a normal post-crash fsck, but for where you’ve seriously corrupted the underlying disk blocks, and you want to guess what they originally meant. In 10 years well-served by reiserfs I’ve had to use it only once, where I reconstituted a failed RAID5 with a disk that had been ejected from it several days prior. It’s an amazing feature for getting lost data back, but you cannot trust the integrity of such a powerful restore operation; deleted files could come back and have other users’ data in the middle of them I guess.

  • etbe

    Sytoka: I don’t think that LWN works that way. I’ve had my blog posts in the “quote of the day” section of LWN so I’m sure that Jon would contact me if he wanted to republish anything.

    That said I might offer to write an article for LWN at some future time.

    Steven: It’s true that –rebuild-tree is a last resort, but it’s something I’ve done a few times. Even if it was really uncommon it shouldn’t cause security problems.

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