11.12. Tuning Disks

11.12.1. Sysctl Variables

11.12.1.1. vfs.vmiodirenable

The vfs.vmiodirenable sysctl variable may be set to either 0 (off) or 1 (on); it is 1 by default. This variable controls how directories are cached by the system. Most directories are small, using just a single fragment (typically 1 K) in the file system and less (typically 512 bytes) in the buffer cache. With this variable turned off (to 0), the buffer cache will only cache a fixed number of directories even if you have a huge amount of memory. When turned on (to 1), this sysctl allows the buffer cache to use the VM Page Cache to cache the directories, making all the memory available for caching directories. However, the minimum in-core memory used to cache a directory is the physical page size (typically 4 K) rather than 512  bytes. We recommend keeping this option on if you are running any services which manipulate large numbers of files. Such services can include web caches, large mail systems, and news systems. Keeping this option on will generally not reduce performance even with the wasted memory but you should experiment to find out.

11.12.1.2. vfs.write_behind

The vfs.write_behind sysctl variable defaults to 1 (on). This tells the file system to issue media writes as full clusters are collected, which typically occurs when writing large sequential files. The idea is to avoid saturating the buffer cache with dirty buffers when it would not benefit I/O performance. However, this may stall processes and under certain circumstances you may wish to turn it off.

11.12.1.3. vfs.hirunningspace

The vfs.hirunningspace sysctl variable determines how much outstanding write I/O may be queued to disk controllers system-wide at any given instance. The default is usually sufficient but on machines with lots of disks you may want to bump it up to four or five megabytes. Note that setting too high a value (exceeding the buffer cache's write threshold) can lead to extremely bad clustering performance. Do not set this value arbitrarily high! Higher write values may add latency to reads occurring at the same time.

There are various other buffer-cache and VM page cache related sysctls. We do not recommend modifying these values, the VM system does an extremely good job of automatically tuning itself.

11.12.1.4. vm.swap_idle_enabled

The vm.swap_idle_enabled sysctl variable is useful in large multi-user systems where you have lots of users entering and leaving the system and lots of idle processes. Such systems tend to generate a great deal of continuous pressure on free memory reserves. Turning this feature on and tweaking the swapout hysteresis (in idle seconds) via vm.swap_idle_threshold1 and vm.swap_idle_threshold2 allows you to depress the priority of memory pages associated with idle processes more quickly then the normal pageout algorithm. This gives a helping hand to the pageout daemon. Do not turn this option on unless you need it, because the tradeoff you are making is essentially pre-page memory sooner rather than later; thus eating more swap and disk bandwidth. In a small system this option will have a determinable effect but in a large system that is already doing moderate paging this option allows the VM system to stage whole processes into and out of memory easily.

11.12.1.5. hw.ata.wc

FreeBSD 4.3 flirted with turning off IDE write caching. This reduced write bandwidth to IDE disks but was considered necessary due to serious data consistency issues introduced by hard drive vendors. The problem is that IDE drives lie about when a write completes. With IDE write caching turned on, IDE hard drives not only write data to disk out of order, but will sometimes delay writing some blocks indefinitely when under heavy disk loads. A crash or power failure may cause serious file system corruption. FreeBSD's default was changed to be safe. Unfortunately, the result was such a huge performance loss that we changed write caching back to on by default after the release. You should check the default on your system by observing the hw.ata.wc sysctl variable. If IDE write caching is turned off, you can turn it back on by setting the kernel variable back to 1. This must be done from the boot loader at boot time. Attempting to do it after the kernel boots will have no effect.

For more information, please see ata(4).

11.12.1.6. SCSI_DELAY (kern.cam.scsi_delay)

The SCSI_DELAY kernel config may be used to reduce system boot times. The defaults are fairly high and can be responsible for 15 seconds of delay in the boot process. Reducing it to 5 seconds usually works (especially with modern drives). Newer versions of FreeBSD (5.0 and higher) should use the kern.cam.scsi_delay boot time tunable. The tunable, and kernel config option accept values in terms of milliseconds and not seconds.

11.12.2. Soft Updates

The tunefs(8) program can be used to fine-tune a file system. This program has many different options, but for now we are only concerned with toggling Soft Updates on and off, which is done by:

# tunefs -n enable /filesystem
# tunefs -n disable /filesystem

A filesystem cannot be modified with tunefs(8) while it is mounted. A good time to enable Soft Updates is before any partitions have been mounted, in single-user mode.

Soft Updates drastically improves meta-data performance, mainly file creation and deletion, through the use of a memory cache. We recommend to use Soft Updates on all of your file systems. There are two downsides to Soft Updates that you should be aware of: First, Soft Updates guarantees filesystem consistency in the case of a crash but could very easily be several seconds (even a minute!) behind updating the physical disk. If your system crashes you may lose more work than otherwise. Secondly, Soft Updates delays the freeing of filesystem blocks. If you have a filesystem (such as the root filesystem) which is almost full, performing a major update, such as make installworld, can cause the filesystem to run out of space and the update to fail.

11.12.2.1. More Details about Soft Updates

There are two traditional approaches to writing a file systems meta-data back to disk. (Meta-data updates are updates to non-content data like inodes or directories.)

Historically, the default behavior was to write out meta-data updates synchronously. If a directory had been changed, the system waited until the change was actually written to disk. The file data buffers (file contents) were passed through the buffer cache and backed up to disk later on asynchronously. The advantage of this implementation is that it operates safely. If there is a failure during an update, the meta-data are always in a consistent state. A file is either created completely or not at all. If the data blocks of a file did not find their way out of the buffer cache onto the disk by the time of the crash, fsck(8) is able to recognize this and repair the filesystem by setting the file length to 0. Additionally, the implementation is clear and simple. The disadvantage is that meta-data changes are slow. An rm -r, for instance, touches all the files in a directory sequentially, but each directory change (deletion of a file) will be written synchronously to the disk. This includes updates to the directory itself, to the inode table, and possibly to indirect blocks allocated by the file. Similar considerations apply for unrolling large hierarchies (tar -x).

The second case is asynchronous meta-data updates. This is the default for Linux/ext2fs and mount -o async for *BSD ufs. All meta-data updates are simply being passed through the buffer cache too, that is, they will be intermixed with the updates of the file content data. The advantage of this implementation is there is no need to wait until each meta-data update has been written to disk, so all operations which cause huge amounts of meta-data updates work much faster than in the synchronous case. Also, the implementation is still clear and simple, so there is a low risk for bugs creeping into the code. The disadvantage is that there is no guarantee at all for a consistent state of the filesystem. If there is a failure during an operation that updated large amounts of meta-data (like a power failure, or someone pressing the reset button), the filesystem will be left in an unpredictable state. There is no opportunity to examine the state of the filesystem when the system comes up again; the data blocks of a file could already have been written to the disk while the updates of the inode table or the associated directory were not. It is actually impossible to implement a fsck which is able to clean up the resulting chaos (because the necessary information is not available on the disk). If the filesystem has been damaged beyond repair, the only choice is to use newfs(8) on it and restore it from backup.

The usual solution for this problem was to implement dirty region logging, which is also referred to as journaling, although that term is not used consistently and is occasionally applied to other forms of transaction logging as well. Meta-data updates are still written synchronously, but only into a small region of the disk. Later on they will be moved to their proper location. Because the logging area is a small, contiguous region on the disk, there are no long distances for the disk heads to move, even during heavy operations, so these operations are quicker than synchronous updates. Additionally the complexity of the implementation is fairly limited, so the risk of bugs being present is low. A disadvantage is that all meta-data are written twice (once into the logging region and once to the proper location) so for normal work, a performance pessimization might result. On the other hand, in case of a crash, all pending meta-data operations can be quickly either rolled-back or completed from the logging area after the system comes up again, resulting in a fast filesystem startup.

Kirk McKusick, the developer of Berkeley FFS, solved this problem with Soft Updates: all pending meta-data updates are kept in memory and written out to disk in a sorted sequence (ordered meta-data updates). This has the effect that, in case of heavy meta-data operations, later updates to an item catch the earlier ones if the earlier ones are still in memory and have not already been written to disk. So all operations on, say, a directory are generally performed in memory before the update is written to disk (the data blocks are sorted according to their position so that they will not be on the disk ahead of their meta-data). If the system crashes, this causes an implicit log rewind: all operations which did not find their way to the disk appear as if they had never happened. A consistent filesystem state is maintained that appears to be the one of 30 to 60 seconds earlier. The algorithm used guarantees that all resources in use are marked as such in their appropriate bitmaps: blocks and inodes. After a crash, the only resource allocation error that occurs is that resources are marked as used which are actually free. fsck(8) recognizes this situation, and frees the resources that are no longer used. It is safe to ignore the dirty state of the filesystem after a crash by forcibly mounting it with mount -f. In order to free resources that may be unused, fsck(8) needs to be run at a later time. This is the idea behind the background fsck: at system startup time, only a snapshot of the filesystem is recorded. The fsck can be run later on. All file systems can then be mounted dirty, so the system startup proceeds in multiuser mode. Then, background fscks will be scheduled for all file systems where this is required, to free resources that may be unused. (File systems that do not use Soft Updates still need the usual foreground fsck though.)

The advantage is that meta-data operations are nearly as fast as asynchronous updates (i.e. faster than with logging, which has to write the meta-data twice). The disadvantages are the complexity of the code (implying a higher risk for bugs in an area that is highly sensitive regarding loss of user data), and a higher memory consumption. Additionally there are some idiosyncrasies one has to get used to. After a crash, the state of the filesystem appears to be somewhat older. In situations where the standard synchronous approach would have caused some zero-length files to remain after the fsck, these files do not exist at all with a Soft Updates filesystem because neither the meta-data nor the file contents have ever been written to disk. Disk space is not released until the updates have been written to disk, which may take place some time after running rm. This may cause problems when installing large amounts of data on a filesystem that does not have enough free space to hold all the files twice.

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