1. Things You Should Consider When Building a ZFS NAS

    December 29, 2013

    ZFS is a modern file system designed by Sun Microsystems, targeted at enterprise environments. Many features of ZFS also appeal to home NAS builders and with good reason. But not all features are relevant or necessary for home use.

    I believe that most home users building their own NAS, are just looking for a way to create a large centralised storage pool. As long as the solution can saturate gigabit ethernet, performance is not much of an issue. Workloads are typically single-client and sequential in nature.

    If this description rings true for your environment, there are some options regarding ZFS that are often very popular but not very relevant to you. Furthermore, there are also some facts that you should take into account when preparing for your own NAS build.

    Expanding your pool may not be as simple as you think

    Added August 2015

    If you are familiar with regular hardware or software RAID, you might expect to use on-line capacity expansion, where you just grow a RAID array with extra drives as you see fit. Many hardware RAID cards support this feature and Linux software RAID (MDADM) supports this too. This is very economical: just add an extra drive and you gain some space. Very flexible and simple.

    But ZFS does not support this approach. ZFS requires you to create a new 'RAID array' and add it to the pool. So you will lose extra drives to redundancy.

    To be more presise: you cannot expand VDEVs. You can only add VDEVS to a pool. And each VDEV requires it's own redundancy.

    So if you start with a single 6-disk RAIDZ2 you may end up with two 6-disk RAIDZ2 VDEVS. This means you use 4 out of 12 drives for redundancy. If you would have started out with a 10-disk RAIDZ2, you would only lose 2 drives to redundancy. Example:

    A: 2 x 6-disk RAIDZ2 consisting of 4 TB drives = 12 disks - 4 redundancy = 8 x 4 = 32 TB netto capacity.

    B: 1 x 10-disk RAIDZ2 consisting of 4 TB drives = 10 disks - 2 redundancy = 8 x 2 = 32 TB netto capacity.

    Option A lost you two drives at 150$ = 300$ and also requires 2 extra SATA ports and chassis slots.

    Option B will cost you 4 extra drives upfront, space you may not need immediately.

    Also take into account that there is such a thing as a 'recommended number of disks in a VDEV' depending on the redundancy used. This is discussed further down.

    Tip: there is a 'trick' how you can expand a VDEV. If you replace every drive with a larger one, you can then resize the VDEV and the pool. So replacing 2 TB drives with 4 TB drives would double your capacity without adding an extra VDEV.

    This approach requires a full VDEV rebuild after each drive replacement. So you may understand that this takes quite some time, during which your are running on no (RAIDZ) or less (RAIDZ2) redundancy. But it does work.

    If you have an additional spare SAS/SATA port and power, you can keep the redundancy and do an 'on-line' replace of the drive. This way, you don't lose or reduce redundancy during a rebuild. This is relatively ideal if you also have room for an additional drive in the chassis.

    This can be quite some work if you do have an available SATA port, but no additional drive slots. You will have to open the chassis, find a temporary spot for the new drive and then after the rebuild, move the new drive into the slot of the old one.

    There is a general recommendation not to mix different VDEV sizes in a pool, but for home usage, this is not an issue. So you could - for example - expand a pool based on a 6-drive VDEV with an additional 4-drive VDEV RAIDZ2.

    Remember: lose one VDEV and you lose your entire pool. So I would not recommend mixing RAIDZ and RAIDZ2 VDEVs in a pool.

    You don't need a SLOG for the ZIL

    Quick recap: the ZIL or ZFS intent Log is - as I understand it - only relevant for synchronous writes. If data integrity is important to an application, like a database server or a virtual machine, writes are performed synchronous. The application wants to make sure that the data is actually stored on the physical storage media and it waits for a confirmation from ZFS that it has done so. Only then will it continue.

    Asynchronous writes on the contrary, never hit the ZIL. They are just cached in RAM and directly written to the VDEV in one sequential swoop when the next transaction group commit will be performed (currently by default every 5 seconds). In the mean time, the application gets a confirmation of ZFS that the data is stored (a white lie) and just continues where it left off. ZFS just caches the write in memory and actually write the data to the storage VDEV when it feels like it (fifo).

    As you may understand, asynchronous writes are way faster because they can be cached and ZFS can reorder the I/O to make it more sequential and prevent random I/O from hitting the VDEV. This is what I understood from this source.

    So if you encounter synchronous writes, they must be committed to the ZIL (thus VDEV) and this causes random I/O patterns on the VDEV, degrading performance significantly.

    The cool thing about ZFS is that it does provide the option to store the ZIL on a dedicated device called the SLOG. This doesn't do anything for performance by itself, but the secret ingredient is using a solid state drive as the SLOG, ideally in a mirror to insure data integrity and to maintain performance in the case of a SLOG device failure.

    For business critical environments, a separate SLOG device based on SSDs is a no-brainer. But for home use? If you don't have a SLOG, you still have a ZIL, it's only not as fast. That's not a real problem for single-client sequential throughput.

    For home usage, you may even consider how much you care about data integrity. That sounds strange, but the ZIL is used to recover from the event of a sudden power-loss. If your NAS is attached to a UPS, this is not much of a risk, you can perform a controlled shutdown before the batteries run out of power. The remaining risk is human error or some other catastrophic event within your NAS.

    So all data in rest already stored on your NAS is never at risk. It's only data that is in the process of being committed to storage that may get scrambled. But again: this is a home situation. Maybe restart your file transfer and you are done. You still have a copy of the data on the source device. This is entirely different from a setup with databases or virtual machines.

    Data integrity of data at rest is vitally important. The ZIL only protects data in transit. It has nothing to do with the data already committed to the VDEV.

    I see so many NAS builders being talked into buying some specific SSDs to be used for the ZIL whereas they probably won't benefit from them at all, it's just too bad.

    You don't need L2ARC cache

    ZFS relies heavily on caching of data to deliver decent performance, especially read performance. RAM provides the fasted cache and that is where the first level of caching lives, the ARC (Adaptive Replacement Cache). ZFS is smart and learns which data is often requested and keeps it in the ARC.

    But the size of the ARC is limited by the amount of RAM available. This is why you can add a second cache tier, based on SSDs. SSDs are not as fast as RAM, but still way faster than spinning disks. And they are cheaper compared to RAM memory if you look at their capacity.

    For additional more detailed information, go to this site

    L2ARC is important when you have multiple users or VMs accessing the same data sets. In this case, L2ARC based on SSDs will improve performance significantly. But if we just take a look at the average home NAS build, I'm not sure how the L2ARC adds any benefit. ZFS has no problem with single-client sequential file transfers so there is no benefit in implementing a L2ARC.

    Update 2015-02-08: There is even a downside to having a L2ARC cache. All the meta-data regarding data stored in the L2ARC cache is kept in memory, and thus eating away at your ARC!, thus your ARC becomes less effective (source).

    You don't need deduplication and compression

    For the home NAS, most data you store on it is already highly compressed and additional compression only wastes performance (Music, Videos, etc). It is a cool feature, but not so much for home use. If you are planning to store other types of data, compression actually may be of interest (documents, backups of VMs, etc). It is suggested by many (and in the comments) that with LZ4 compression, you don't lose performance (except for some CPU cycles) and with compressible data, you even gain performance, so you could just enable it and forget about it.

    Whereas compression may do not much harm, Deduplication is often more relevant in business environments where users are sloppy and store multiple copies of the same data at different locations. I'm quite sure you don't want to sacrifice RAM and performance for ZFS to keep track of duplicates you probably don't have.

    You don't need an ocean of RAM

    The absolute minimum RAM for a viable ZFS setup is 4 GB but there is not a lot of headroom for ZFS here. ZFS is quite memory hungry because it uses RAM as a buffer so it can perform operations like checksums and reorder all I/O to be sequential.

    If you don't have sufficient buffer memory, performance will suffer. 8 GB is probably sufficient for most arrays. If your array is faster, more memory may be required to actually benefit from this performance. For maximum performance, you should have enough memory to hold 5 seconds worth of maximum write throughput ( 5 x 400MB/s = 2GB ) and leave sufficient headroom for other ZFS RAM requirements. In the example, 4 GB RAM could be sufficient.

    For most home users, saturating gigabit is already sufficient so you might be safe with 8 GB of RAM in most cases. More RAM may not provide much more benefit, but it will increase power consumption.

    There is an often cited rule that you need 1 GB of RAM for every TB of storage, but this is not true for home NAS solutions. This is only relevant for high-performance multi-user or multi-VM environments.

    Additional information about RAM requirements can be found here

    You do need ECC RAM if you care about data integrity

    The money saved on a ZIL or L2ARC cache can be better spend on ECC RAM memory.

    ZFS does not rely on the quality of individual disks. It uses parity to verify that disks don't lie about the data stored on them (data corruption).

    But ZFS can't verify the contents of RAM memory, so here ZFS relies on the reliability of the hardware. And there is a reason why we use RAID or redundant power suplies in our server equipment: hardware fails. RAM fails too. This is the reason why every server product by well-known vendors like HP, Dell, IBM and Supermicro only support ECC memory. RAM memory errors do occur more frequent than you may think.

    ECC (Error Checking and Correcting) RAM corrects and detects RAM errors. This is the only way you can be fairly sure that ZFS is not fed with corrupted data. Keep in mind: with bad RAM, it is likely that corrupted data will be written to disk without ZFS ever being aware of it (garbage in - garbage out).

    Please note that the quality of your RAM memory will not directly affect any data that is at rest and already stored on your disks. Existing data will only be corrupted with bad RAM if it is modified or moved around. ZFS will probably detect checksum errors, but it will be too late by then...

    To me, it's simple. If you care enough about your data that you want to use ZFS, you should also be willing to pay for ECC memory. You are giving yourself a false sense of security if you do not use ECC memory. ZFS was never designed for consumer hardware, it was destined to be used on server hardware using ECC memory. Because it was designed with data integrity as the top most priority.

    There are entry-level servers that do support ECC memory and can be had fairly cheap with 4 hard drive bays, like the HP ProLiant MicroServer Gen8.

    I wrote an article about a reasonably priced CPU+RAM+MB combo that does support ECC memory starting at $360.

    If you feel lucky, go for good-quality non-ECC memory. But do understand that you are taking a risk here.

    Understanding random I/O performance

    Added August 2015

    With ZFS, the rule of thumb is this: regardless of the number of drives in a RAIDZ(2/3) VDEV, you always get roughly the random I/O performance of a single drive in the VDEV1.

    Now I want to make the case here that if you are building your own home NAS, you shouldn't care about random I/O performance too much.

    If you want better random I/O performance of your pool, the way to get it is to:

    1. add more VDEVS to your pool
    2. add more RAM/L2ARC for caching
    3. use disks with higher RPM or SSDs combined with option 1.

    Regarding point 1:

    So if you want the best random I/O performance, you should just use a ton of mirrored drives in the VDEV, so you essentially create a large RAID 10. This is not very space-efficient, so probably not so relevant in the context of a home NAS.

    Example similar to RAID 10:

    root@bunny:~# zfs list
    testpool  59.5K  8.92T    19K  /testpool
    root@bunny:~# zpool status
      pool: testpool
     state: ONLINE
      scan: none requested
        NAME        STATE     READ WRITE CKSUM
        testpool    ONLINE       0     0     0
          mirror-0  ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdc     ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdd     ONLINE       0     0     0
          mirror-1  ONLINE       0     0     0
            sde     ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdf     ONLINE       0     0     0
          mirror-2  ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdg     ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdh     ONLINE       0     0     0
          mirror-3  ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdi     ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdj     ONLINE       0     0     0
          mirror-4  ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdk     ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdl     ONLINE       0     0     0
          mirror-5  ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdm     ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdn     ONLINE       0     0     0
          mirror-6  ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdo     ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdp     ONLINE       0     0     0
          mirror-7  ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdq     ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdr     ONLINE       0     0     0
          mirror-8  ONLINE       0     0     0
            sds     ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdt     ONLINE       0     0     0
          mirror-9  ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdu     ONLINE       0     0     0
            sdv     ONLINE       0     0     0

    Another option, if you need better storage efficiency, is to use multiple RAIDZ or RAIDZ2 VDEVS in the pool. In a way, you're then creating the equivalent of a RAID50 or RAID60.

    Example similar to RAID 50:

    root@bunny:~# zfs list
    testpool  77.5K  14.3T  27.2K  /testpool
    root@bunny:~# zpool status
      pool: testpool
     state: ONLINE
      scan: none requested
    testpool    ONLINE       0     0     0
      raidz1-0  ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdc     ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdd     ONLINE       0     0     0
        sde     ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdf     ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdg     ONLINE       0     0     0
      raidz1-1  ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdh     ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdi     ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdj     ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdk     ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdl     ONLINE       0     0     0
      raidz1-2  ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdm     ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdn     ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdo     ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdp     ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdq     ONLINE       0     0     0
      raidz1-3  ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdr     ONLINE       0     0     0
        sds     ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdt     ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdu     ONLINE       0     0     0
        sdv     ONLINE       0     0     0

    You only need to deploy these kinds of pool/vdev configuratoins if you have valid reason that you need the random I/O performance they provide. Creating less but larger VDEVs is often more space efficient and will still saturate gigabit when transferring large files.

    It's ok to use multiple VDEVs of different drive sizes

    This only true in the context of a home NAS.

    Let's take an example. You have an existing pool consisting of a single RAIDZ VDEV with 4 x 2 TB drives and your pool is filling up.

    It's then perfectly fine in the context of a home NAS to add a second VDEV consisting of a 5 x 4 TB RAIDZ.

    ZFS will take care of how data is distributed across the VDEVs.

    It is NOT recommended to mix different RAIDZ schemas, so VDEV 1 = RAIDZ and VDEV 2 = RAIDZ2. Remember that losing a single VDEV = losing the whole pool. It doesn't make sense to mix redundancy levels.

    VDEVs should consist of the optimal number of drives

    Added August 2015: If you use the large_blocks feature and use 1MB records, you don't need to adhere to the rule of always putting a certain number of drives in a VDEV to prevent significant loss of storage capacity.

    This enables you to create an 8-drive RAIDZ2 where normally you would have to create either a RAIDZ2 VDEV that consists of 6 drives or 10 drives.

    For home use, expanding storage by adding VDEVs is often suboptimal because you may spend more disks on redundancy than required, as explained earlier. The support of large_blocks allows you to buy the number of disks upfront that suits current and future needs.

    In my own personal case, with my 19" chassis filled with 24 drives, I would enable the large_blocks feature and create a single 24-drive RAID-Z3 VDEV to give me optimal space and still very good redundancy.

    The large_blocks feature is supported on ZFS on Linux since version 0.6.5 (September 2015).

    Thanks to user "SirMaster" on Reddit for introducing this feature to me.

    Original advice:

    Depending on the type of 'RAID' you may choose for the VDEV(s) in your ZFS pool, you might want to make sure you only put in the right number of disks in the VDEV.

    This is important, if you don't use the right amount, performance will suffer, but more importantly: you will lose storage space, which can ad up to over 10% of the available capacity. That's quite a waste.

    This is a straight copy&paste from sub.mesa's post

    The following ZFS pool configurations are optimal for modern 4K sector harddrives:
    RAID-Z: 3, 5, 9, 17, 33 drives
    RAID-Z2: 4, 6, 10, 18, 34 drives
    RAID-Z3: 5, 7, 11, 19, 35 drives

    Sub.mesa also explains the details on why this is true. And here is another example.

    The gist is that you must use a power of two for your data disks and then add the number of parity disks required for your RAIDZ level on top of that. So 4 data disks + 1 parity disk (RAIDZ) is a total of 5 disks. Or 16 data disks + 2 parity disks (RAIDZ2) is 18 disks in the VDEV.

    Take this into account when deciding on your pool configuration. Also, RAIDZ2 is absolutely recommended. with more than 6-8 disks. The risk of losing a second drive during 'rebuild' (resilvering) is just too high with current high-density drives.

    You don't need to limit the number of data disks in a VDEV

    For home use, creating larger VDEVs is not an issue, even an 18 disk VDEV is probably fine, but don't expect any significant random I/O performance. It is always recommended to use multiple smaller VDEVs to increase random I/O performance (at the cost of capacity lost to parity) as ZFS does stripe I/O-requests across VDEVs. If you are building a home NAS, random I/O is probably not very relevant.

    You don't need to run ZFS at home

    ZFS is cool technology and it's perfectly fine to run ZFS at home. However, the world doesn't end if you don't.

    1. https://blogs.oracle.com/roch/entry/when_to_and_not_to 

    Tagged as : ZFS Storage
  2. An Affordable Server Platform Based on Server-Grade Hardware

    December 13, 2013

    Updated post (June 2014) found HERE

    There are some reasons why you should consider buying true server-grade harware when building a server, wether it's for home or business use.

    This is why I want to introduce you to the Supermicro X9SCM-F motherboard.


    This motherboard costs about $160 or €160, which is more than a desktop grade motherboard, but you get quite a lot in return.

    Remote KVM over IP

    First of all, this motherboard has a separate network interface dedicated to an on-board Keyboard-Video-Mouse interface (IPMI). This interface allows you to power the server on or off, enter the BIOS all through a web interface, through the network. You never need to be in the vicinity of your server unless you need to perform some hardware maintenance.

    Support for ECC (Error-correcting Code) RAM

    All server grade hardware from manufactures like Supermicro, Dell or HP all ship their servers with ECC RAM. This type of memory is more expensive than regular RAM, but based on the name, you may guess the benefit: it detects and corrects memory errors. If you truly care about data integrity and availability, this is a recommended feature.

    Support for both cheap or faster and more expensive processors

    Cheap processor with ECC RAM support

    The cheapest solution seems to be the Intel Pentium G2030 @ 2.00 GHz. For only 72 dollar or 52 Euro it can be yours and it supports ECC memory. Performance is not stellar but sufficient for most NAS builds. More proof that a build based on ECC does not have to be expensive.

    One step up the ladder is the Intel Core i3-3220. It retails for about $124 or €125 and it supports ECC memory, something I didn't suspect of the i3 series. At 3.3Ghz it's quite fast and it is a dual-core processor with hyper-threading support. The processor also supports virtualisation (VT-x), but it does not support I/O virtualisation (VT-d).

    Faster processor with full virtualisation support

    At $229 or €200 the Intel Xeon E3-1230 V2 cost you twice the price of the Core i3, but you get twice the processor cores (quad-core) with hyper-threading, turbo-boost up to 3.7 ghz and full virtualisation support (both VT-x and VT-d). For the money, you get a beast of a processor with ECC RAM support.

    Overview of CPU's

    CPUPassmark scorePrice in EuroPrice in Dollars
    Intel Pentium G2030 @ 3.00GHz300852 Euro72 Dollar*
    Intel Core i3-3220 @ 3.30GHz422697 Euro125 Dollar
    Intel Xeon E3-1230 V2 @ 3.30GHz8890196 Euro230 Dollar

    • Dollars are from Newegg (* is estimate).
    • Euros are including taxes.

    Support for 32 GB RAM

    32 GB is quite some RAM and the maximum amount supported by the free version of VMware ESXi (ESXi 5.5 does not have this limit I've been told). Basically, it supports entry-level virtualisation needs or web-application needs. The 32 GB RAM limit is one of the biggest constraints of this platform, but may be sufficient for most applications except for large virtualisation loads or big databases.

    32 GB is more than enough for everyone who likes to build a beefy storage server.

    Expandability: 4 x PCI-e 8x (physical size) slots

    This is probably why the Supermicro X9SCM-F motherboard is so interesting for NAS or storage builders. It has four PCI-e slots in a 8x physical form factor. Two of them are PCI-e 2.0 4x in a physical 8x slot and the other two are true PCI-e 3.0 8x slots. But even a PCI-e 2.0 4x slot provides you with 4 x 500 MB/s = 2000 MB/s per slot. The 8x slots have 8 lanes at 985 MB/s each thus totalling almost 8 GB/s! Let's be honest: the PCI-e 2.0 4x provide more than enough bandwidth to power any disk controller or network interface.

    Because there are four slots, there are several possibilities. For example, you could populate them with four IBM M1015 HBA's providing you with 32 SAS/SATA ports for a total of 32 disks. With the six on-board SATA ports, you could theoretically connect 38 disks.

    If you put only 3 x IBM M1015 HBA's in the motherboard you will leave room for fast networking, like a quad-port gigabit network card. You can then put the four gigabit ports into Linux interface bonding to achieve 400 MB/s network transfer speeds.


    You could also consider to implement 10GB network cards (more expensive) or take a look into fibre channel or infiniband network connectivity.

    With those four PCI-e slots, you can come a very long way.

    Two on-board Gigabit network interfaces

    The motherboard supports two on-board network interfaces and you can use them to bond them together for extra performance and/or fail-over.

    You could also use one interface for regular LAN traffic and the other one for iSCSI or other protocols.


    I believe the Supermicro X9SCM-F motherboard is a very interesting all-round platform for any type of server and particularly interesting as a platform for storage servers.

    If you take the motherboard ($160), 8 GB RAM ($75) and entry level processor ($125) you get a server-grade platform for $360. The same platform with 16 GB RAM will cost you about $435. The prices in Euros will be about the same.

    Tagged as : storage
  3. Script That Shows Smart Values of All Disks'

    October 05, 2013

    So you have a Linux system with a lot of hard drives. If you want to quickly check on some key SMART values to determine the health of individual disks, you might be interested in this script.

    I wrote a small Python script called 'showsmart' that displays key SMART values for all disks that support SMART. This has been tested on Ubuntu and Debian.


    • REALLOC. = Reallocated Sector Count
    • PENDING = Current Pending Sector

    This script only requires python and smartctl (smartmontools).

    I hope someone will find it useful.

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