The Return of XFS on Linux

If you’re running Linux, and particularly if you’re running a database on Linux, it’s been hard to recommend any filesystem other than plain old ext3 in recent years.  Some of the alternatives that looked interesting at one point–jfs, ReiserFS–are completely abandoned at this point.  The one that has been almost viable for some time now is XFS, originally an SGI projecs.  And it’s back to being in the limelight again this week.

XFS had suffered from a number of problems in the past.  Since it was designed for stable hardware, it wasn’t as robust on standard cheap PC hardware at first; quite a bit of that was just cleaned up two years ago.  It had this odd problem with zeroed files that scared some people off.  It was treated as a second-class citizen in business oriented Linux distributions like RedHat, requiring you to compile your own kernel; even on the less restrictive CentOS, you had to do some strange looking setup steps to add XFS support, and the result was quite obviously unsupported.  And as one of the first filesystems to turn on and aggressively utilize write barriers, deployments were vulnerable to drives and controllers that didn’t flush their caches when told to, an issue you don’t find as often on modern hardware anymore if you configure it right (except for SSDs, but that’s another story).

So why bother?  Well, performance is one major reason.  I found myself working with XFS again when working with Greenplum’s free Single Node Edition software recently.  Greenplum told me flat out that they didn’t recommend anything but XFS for high-performance installs, and given the underlying similarities to community PostgreSQL I felt that was worth investigating why that was some more.

The timing on that turned out to be perfect.  One of the other limitations of ext3 is that on common hardware it will only support 16TB of storage.  Since you can put that much storage in a medium sized disk rack now, that’s clearly not enough for high-end systems nowadays, much less a few years from now.  Realizing that, RedHat has been seriously reviving their support for XFS in their distribution of Linux.  RHEL 5.4, released a few months ago, added it back in as an optional module for some customers.  You still couldn’t install on XFS, and even the CentOS version didn’t support 32-bit installs, but it was clearly making steps toward mainstream again.

Yesterday the first public beta of RHEL6 was released, and XFS is back to being right in the major feature set.  It’s sitting next to ext4 on the supported filesystem list, pointing out its suitablity for large installations in particular.  So I can now tell people that they have XFS support available in somewhat rough form in RHEL/CentOS 5.4, with the expectation that it’s a first class supported filesystem as systems are upgraded to RHEL6 and its derivates in the future, and have some hope that will be reliable.

With the enteprise Linux support and accordingly the perceived stability side of the XFS code finally under control again, how about the performance?  Well, it turns out Greenplum was right about XFS being worth the trouble to get running.  I took my test server and reformatted one of its moderately fast drives with three different filesystem/mount combinations:  ext3 ordered, ext3 journal, and xfs.  After three bonnie++ 1.96 runs with each filesystem, the results I saw broke down like this:

  • ext3 ordered:  39-58MB/s write, 44-72MB/s read
  • ext3 journal:  25-30MB/s write, 49-67MB/s read
  • xfs:  68-72MB/s write, 72-77MB/s read

While the best of the ext3 read results approached similar levels to what xfs was capable of, on average it did much better.  And the write results were at least 25% better in all cases.  I liked the tighter, more predictable throughput as well; inconsistent performance is something I often struggle with on ext3.

I’m not normally one to be an early adopter of new Linux releases, but the RHEL6 beta with full XFS support has replaced the thorougly underwhelming new Ubuntu release at the top of my list of OSes to install next.  It’s not often you see filesystem technology get a second chance to impress, but XFS seems to have made an unexpected transition back to completely relevant again, for now.  I’m not sure how long that will be true, with both ext4 available already and btrfs coming closer to production quality by recently reaching a stable disk format.  It will be interesting to see how this reinvigorated set of filesystem choices on Linux plays out.

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  2. Eric says:

    I have to say, that whole ‘XFS requires special hardware’ bit is bunk. ;) Any filesystem needs storage that doesn’t lie to it, i.e. when the disk says it’s safe on disk, it needs to be safe on disk, or bad things will happen. And if the storage goes belly up, as long as XFS gets the news, it’ll handle it properly (i.e. shut down and not do more damage).

    There is nothing in XFS that requires any more special hardware than, say, ext3 does to ensure filesystem integrity.

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