So there I was, reading the source code to FreeBSD’s nfsd (as you do), trying to figure out why ESXi’s performance was so bad when used with an NFS datastore in a ZFS dataset. Actually, I had some idea. There’s a lot out there on the interweb about whether it’s safe to tweak it to ignore requests to flush the write cache using the sysctl tunable vfs.zfs.cache_flush_disable. (For what it’s worth, I’d say that if your drives are on a UPS it’s fine).
But why does ESXis suck so badly in this respect with NFS connected datastores? What is this excessive cache flushing all about? I decided to install it on an HP Microserver and get to some serious debugging.
Okay, here is how ZFS writes work. When you write something it doesn’t actually write, it puts it in the ZIL. This is an Intent Log – i.e. writes intended to happen. Not exactly a write cache, but it has the same effect, and because of the way ZFS works it’s perfectly safe for avoiding data corruption. If a transaction is waiting in the ZIL when the music stops, the transaction is lots but the disk isn’t trashed. (NB. It’s also possible to put a ZIL on a log drive rather than RAM – I won’t discuss this here).
This should speed things up, right? Normally it does, but not when NFS is being abused. Let me explain. NFS has a transaction commit instruction. The client can tell NFS to flush everything in a transaction to permanent storage and not return until it’s finished. Sometimes you really need this, like if you’re updating the super-block in a database structure. Most of the time you don’t.
Enter ESXi running brain-dead Windows guest machines. How does it know when they’re writing something it isn’t a super-block? It doesn’t. So its solution (as far as I can tell) is to send NFS a commit after every single write and hang around waiting until it’s done it. There’s no point in having the ZIL at all, as it needs to be flushed every time. Putting the ZIL on disk is even worse, as you get an extra write/read for each transaction. I’ve seen people trying to put fast SSDs on the system to try and overcome this – best of luck with that.
As you move further down the chain, FreeBSD, being POSIX compliant whenever possible, will pass on the request for a synchronous write all the way to the disk. Send a block to a SATA or SAS drive and it will initially be cached, right? The write will then complete and the data actually written in the background while the rest of the system zips along. Except that it then issues a SATA or SAS “flush cache” command and waits until everything in its cache has been committed.
In tests this paranoid behaviour lead to running at 20% throughput or less.
Now, if you’re backing an emulated Windows disk you’re always at risk of data corruption, because FAT and NTFS are corruptable. And, dare I say it, crash rather too often. Let’s face it, if you’re worried about stuff like that you wouldn’t be running Windows – never mind as a VM, So lets be sensible about it.
So why was I reading the nfsd code? Well the obvious answer to this performance problem would be to simply ignore NTFS commit commands coming from the client. This is better than killing off all synchronous writes using the tunable vfs.zfs.cache_flush_disable because ZFS itself might be updating its uberblock and have a valid reason for doing it.
My plan was to hack the code – I’ve seen this done elsewhere. But wanting to do things properly I thought I should make it a system tunable. So I took a look at where the synchronous writes were happening – vdev_disk.c and vdev_geom.c (depending on whether you were hitting the raw drive or the GEOM). Lo and behold there was a global called nfs_sync that was compared along with the SYNC flag, and if either were true the sync request was ignored. So where did nfs_async come from? Digging further back it comes from nfs_nfsdserv.c , where it’s set by a system tuneable – vfs.nfsd.async. Now that’s an interesting name! Follow the stable auto variable in nfsrvd_write() and the nfs_async global if you want to see what I’m on about.
A quick Google for vfs.nfsd.async revealed – nothing. I seem to have found another useful tunable that’s yet to be documented. although it’s been in the source since at least 10.0. So I’ll get on to documenting after I’ve done a few more tests.
But if you’re having Windows/NFS problems, especially with ESXi, try setting vfs.nfsd.async instead of crudely disabling cache flushing with vfs.zfs.cache_flush_disable. Let me know how you get on.
Incidentally, you can disable synchronous writes to a dataset using the “sync=disabled” ZFS option. It helps, but not much. I’m still digging to find out why.
Or you could just use Virtualbox instead.