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Ext4 snapshots TODO

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This page was created to collaborate the effort to merge the snapshots feature into Ext4.

Developers that wish to contribute to that effort in one or more of the following ways are most welcome to contact the project administrator:

  • Writing better and more coherent documentation.
  • Suggesting solutions to design challenges.
  • Performing actual merge tasks.


Ext4 snapshots design challenges

The following issues require special attention when merging the snapshots feature to ext4.

Ext4 developers are encouraged to comment on these issues and suggest solutions other than the ones proposed here.

Extent mapped file data block re-write

The term re-write refers to a non first write to a file's data block. The first write allocates a new block for that file and requires no special snapshot block operations. If a snapshot was taken after a block was allocated, that block is protected by the snapshot's COW bitmap. Any attempt to re-write that block should result in a snapshot block operation, which either copies the original data to the snapshot file or moves the original block to the snapshot file and allocates a new block for the new data.

Current implementation moves data blocks of indirect mapped files to snapshot on re-write. The move-on-write method is more efficient than the copy-on-write method, but it may cause a file to get fragmented in a use case of re-writes to many random locations.

For extent mapped files re-write, there are 2 possible solutions. Ted T'so has wrote about this choice:

Technically speaking, it's possible to do it both ways, yes? I'm not sure why you consider this such an important design decision. We can even play games where for some files we might do copy-on-write, and for some files, we do move-on-write. It's always possible to check the COW bitmaps to decide what had happened.


Besides the mentioned file fragmentation problem, every move-on-write operation may need to split up a data extent into 2 extents of existing blocks and a third extent for blocks allocated for the new data. The metadata overhead of such a split operation is more significant than that of an indirect mapped file move-on-write operation and these extra metadata updates will have to be accounted for in advance when starting a block re-write transaction. Extent spliting may also degrade re-write performance to extent mapped files.

In general, delayed allocation, or delayed move-on-write for our purpose, should be used to avoid extent splitting as much as possible.

Perhaps the file fragmentation problem can be solved by online de-fragmentation. After all, the original file's blocks are kept safely inside the snapshot file, so a background task can simply copy the snapshot moved blocks to new locations and then copy the file's new data into its original blocks and map them back into the file.


Copying the re-written block to snapshot may seem like the "easy way out" of the file fragmentation problem, but the problems it causes in return are not to be disregarded.

The first and obvious problem is write performance, because every data block re-write involves reading the content of the existing block from storage, before proceeding with the re-write. This read I/O can be avoided when using the move-on-write method. Though the write performance seems like a big limitation, it can be tagged as a trade-off between random write performance and sequential read performance and the choice can be left at the hands of the user.

The second issue with data blocks copy-on-write is the snapshot reserved blocks count. On snapshot take, the file system reserves a certain amount of blocks for snapshot use. The reservation is calculated from the estimated count of metadata blocks that may need to be copied to snapshot at some point in the future. Move-on-write uses much less snapshot reserved blocks than copy-on-write, so the data blocks count doesn't need to be accounted for. When choosing to do copy-on-write on data blocks re-write, the re-write operation should first verify that there is enough disk space for allocating the snapshot copied data blocks without using snapshot reserved blocks. If there is not enough disk space, the operation should return ENOSPC.

The last and most challenging issue has to do with I/O ordering within a single snapshot COW operation. The rule is very simple: To keep the snapshot data safe, the snapshot copy has to secured in storage before the new data is allowed to be written to storage.

With metadata copy-on-write, this ordering is provided as a by product from the journaling sub-system. All snapshot COW'ed blocks are marked as ordered data, which is always written to storage before transaction commit starts and metadata blocks are always written to storage during transaction commit.

When COW'ing a data block, which may be "ordered" or "writeback", there is no mechanism in place to help order the async writes of the snapshot COW'ed blocks before the async writes of the re-written data blocks. Even worse, when COW'ing an "ordered" data block, the journal will force it to storage before transaction commit starts and the snapshot COW'ed block mapping into the snapshot file will only be written during transaction commit.

One possible solution is to implement a "holdback" list of blocks that should not be written before the current transaction commits. Naturally, a block must not be on both the "ordered" and "holdback" lists, but when re-writing an allocated data block, there is no sense in making this block "ordered", because this kind of data modification is directly related to any metadata modification (except change of inode's mtime, but who cares).


Copy and move on write both have severe performance implications. One idea that can enjoy the best of the two methods, is heal-on-rewrite.

The first time a snapshot protected data block is written, it is moved to snapshot, possibly fragmenting the file (if it is a random write pattern).

At that time, a self-healing I/O sequence is initiated, in which the data in the old file block, which is currently mapped to the snapshot file, is copied to a new block and remapped to the snapshot file. The old block is then freed and inserted to the original file's preallocations.

The seconds time that data is written to the same offset, the file will be automatically de-fragmented, using the new data will be written to the good old block.

The seconds time write can either be initiated after the snapshot remapping is complete or it can rely on the assumption that "random" write patterns are not really random and that writing to offset X in a file is unlikely a singular event. So at some point in time a file may be fragmented, but at a later time it will be healed, preserving a constant level of fragmentation over time.

Large file create and delete performance

Ext4 has improved performance over Ext3 mainly due to delayed allocation and extent mapped files.

Delayed allocation improves performance by reducing I/O flush requests and by helping to allocate large extents of data blocks when creating large files.

Extent mapped files improve performance by reducing the metadata write overhead when creating and deleting large files.

On first look, delayed allocation should not interfere with snapshots and vise versa, so the performance of creating large file should not be affected by snapshots. This statement needs to be investigated and verified.

One thing that does require attention with delayed allocation is the size of the blocks reservation made when re-writing into an already allocated data extent of size N. Without snapshots, there is no need for any reservation. With snapshots, there may be a need to reserve up to N new blocks for the re-write, depending on the snapshot's COW bitmap.

The performance of deleting large file, however, will be affected by snapshots. The question is how much? A special effort should be invested in optimizing the deletion of large data extents with snapshots enabled.

One possible solution would be to use extent mapped snapshot files and to move the entire deleted extent to the snapshot file with significantly fewer metadata I/O operations than when moving deleted blocks into an indirect mapped snapshot file.

Large file system size (64bit support)

Ext3 file system size is limited by 32bit physical block address space.

Ext4 breaks this limit by using 48bit physical block address space in extent mapped files.

Snapshot files are used to map the entire file system block address space. The current snapshot file format is an extended indirect mapped file, with up to 4 triple indirect blocks, that can map a 32bit block address space when the file system block size is 4K.

Even if the snapshot file format would be an extent mapped file, it wouldn't be possible to map a 48bit block address space, because extent mapped files have a 32bit logical block address space.

In order to map a 48bit physical block address space, the snapshot file would have to use a new extent format, which maps a 48bit logical address space to a 48bit physical address space.

Large scale SMP systems

In general, every file system should aim to allow as many concurrent operations as possible on both single and multiple CPU systems. In many cases, file system operations on different objects (i.e. inodes) or on different physical locations (i.e. block groups) can be performed concurrently with very little need for synchronization.

With current snapshots implementation, however, every COW operation of any block in the file system needs to acquire a write lock (the active snapshot file's i_data_sem). One must keep in mind that COW operations are not so common and one might think. New allocated blocks are never COW'ed and COW of modified metadata block happens only once per snapshot era.

To mitigate the COW bottleneck, taking the write lock can be avoided, thanks to the restriction that the active snapshot cannot be truncated nor unlinked.

Instead, the synchronization of concurrent COW operations can be achieved by taking the buffer_head spin lock before splicing a new branch to the indirect map tree. If a branch was already slices to the slice point, the new allocated branch is pruned and sliced at a deeper level of the existing branch.

This solution is unique to the indirect map format, because extent map format may need to re-balance the entire tree on every allocation.

Thanks for Jan Kara for helping me to come up with this solution , which was designed on a napkin in ksummit ;-).

The (ab?)use of page cache

As all other metadata operations, the file system uses the block device's page cache, with attached buffer heads, to perform the I/O of COW operations.

During COW operations, those buffer heads are used to synchronize concurrent COW and snapshot reading tasks. For the sake of simplifying the code dealing with race conditions, a task reading through from a snapshot file to block device, first grabs the block device's associated page.

The result is that many snapshot file readpage operations end up using 2 pages instead of just one (the block device's page for synchronization and the snapshot file's page for the actual read). Further more, when reading the same file system block from several different snapshots, there is one page used per snapshots. Since all those pages read the same block, this is a waste of memory and a waste of I/O.

On top of that, the loop block device associated with the snapshot file has cached pages of it's own.

A possible solution to all this waste of pages, would be that the file system should expose virtual read-only block devices instead of using loop block devices on snapshot files. The virtual block device could possibly share pages amongst themselves (it this possible?) and in any case, the waste of the snapshot file pages would be avoided.

Ext4 snapshots mile stones

Each of following mile stones will make the snapshot feature available to a wider group of ext4 users.

Mutually exclusive snapshots feature

  • Apply the current patches to ext4 code.
  • Mutually exclude the snapshot feature from other ext4 features (i.e. extents, 64bit).
  • Availability of snapshots feature for upgrading ext3 deployments.

Support ext4 default configuration

  • Add support for default ext4 features (i.e. extents).
  • Availability of snapshots feature for common ext4 deployments.

Performance optimizations

  • Verify that delayed allocation performs well with snapshots.
  • Optimize moving deleted extent data blocks into snapshot.
  • Availability for users that require snapshots functionality combined with improved ext4 performance.

Support custom ext4 configuration options

  • Add support for untested configuration options (no journal, no bh, journaled quota, block size != page size).
  • Availability of snapshots feature for custom ext4 deployments.

Large file system support

  • Implement a snapshot file format that can map up to 48bit block offsets.
  • Availability of snapshots feature to large scale ext4 deployments.

Ext4 snapshots merge tasks

The Next3 snapshot patches add snapshot support to Next3 (after it was cloned from Ext3).

Following is an estimation of the work that has to be done on each patch or group of patches to merge it into Ext4.

The colors indicate the nature of the merge tasks:

  • Trivial - apply current patches to ext4 code.
  • Enhancement - changes to current patches to enhance code clarity and to catch up with new ext4 features.
  • Optimization - not a must for functionality, but needed in order to catch up with ext4 performance improvements.
  • Challenging - solutions should be designed in collaboration with other ext4 developers (not for first release).

Snapshot debug patch

  • Add generic debug functions.

Snapshot hooks patches

  • Add snapshot hooks inside JBD2 meta data write hooks.
  • Add snapshot hooks inside ext4_free_blocks().
  • Move indirect mapped file data blocks to snapshot on write.
  • Move on write from delayed allocation write paths.
  • Move on write from direct I/O write paths.
  • Move on write of extent mapped files.
  • Move on write from mmap write paths.
  • Multi-block delayed move on write.
  • Defrag extent mapped file on re-write.

Snapshot file patches

  • Snapshot implementation as an indirect mapped file, that can map up to 32bit block offsets.
  • Move read-though code from get_blocks_handle() to snapshot_get_block().
  • Move snapshot_get_block() and snapshot_readpage() from inode.c to new snapshot_inode.c file.
  • Implement snapshot_read_pages() for multi-block read through.
  • Snapshot implementation as a new extent mapped file format, that can map up to 48bit of block offsets.

Snapshot block operation patches

  • Copy meta data blocks to snapshot.
  • Move data blocks to snapshot on write.
  • Move deleted blocks to snapshot.
  • Resolve circular locking dependency with grp->alloc_sem.
  • Initialize COW bitmap of non-first flex_bg group.
  • Fast move of large group of deleted blocks to reduce the performance impact on extent mapped file deletion.
  • Reduce locking contention on active snapshot block allocations to improve the performance of concurrent COW operations.
  • Add support block size != page size.

Snapshot control patches

  • Add snapshot control via SETSNAPFLAGS ioctl.
  • Implement the simplified User-kernel API.
  • Initialize global metadata of new ext4 features on snapshot take (like meta block group descriptors).

Snapshot journaling patches

  • Journal snapshot block operations in current transaction.
  • Check for new JBD2 API's that require special attention.
  • Account for buffer credits of COW bitmap of non-first flex_bg group.
  • Add MOW credits to extent file truncate/write transaction.
  • Account for buffer credits of snapshot quota update.

Snapshot list patches

  • Add snapshot list operations and read-through to previous snapshot.

Snapshot race patches

  • Add protection for snapshot race conditions.
  • Stop using buffer heads for synchronization of snapshot block operations.

Snapshot exclude bitmap patches

  • Keep the exclude bitmap up-to-date with snapshot file blocks.

Snapshot cleanup patches

  • Reclaim deleted snapshot file blocks.
  • Move snapshot_shrink_blocks() and snapshot_merge_blocks() from inode.c to new snapshot_inode.c file.
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