ZFS clones: Probably not what you really want

ZFS clones look great on paper: they’re instantaneously generated, they’re read/write, they’re initially “free” because they reference the same blocks their parent snapshots do. They’re also (initially) frequently extra-snappy performance-wise, because a lot of those parent blocks are very likely already in the ARC. If you create ten clones of the same VM image (for instance), all ten clones will share the same blocks in the ARC instead of them needing to be in the ARC ten different times. Huge win!

But, as great as a clone sounds at first blush, you probably don’t want to use them for anything that isn’t ephemeral (intended to be destroyed in fairly short order). This is because a clone’s parent snapshot is forever immutable; you can’t destroy the parent snapshot without destroying the clone along with it… even if and when the clone becomes 100% divergent, and no longer shares any block references with its parent. Let’s examine this on a small scale.

Practical testing

On my workstation banshee, I create a new dataset, make sure compression is turned off so as not to confuse us, and populate it with a 256MB chunk of random binary stuff:

root@banshee:~# zfs create banshee/demo ; zfs set compression=off banshee/demo
root@banshee:~# dd if=/dev/zero bs=16M count=16 | openssl enc -aes-256-ctr -pass pass:"$(dd if=/dev/urandom bs=128 count=1 2>/dev/null | base64)" -nosalt | pv > /banshee/demo/random.bin
16+0 records in
16+0 records out
268435456 bytes (268 MB, 256 MiB) copied, 0.483868 s, 555 MB/s
 256MiB 0:00:00 [ 533MiB/s] [<=>                                               ]

I know this looks a little weird, but AES-256 is roughly an order of magnitude faster than /dev/urandom: so what I did here was use /dev/urandom to seed AES-256, then encrypt a 256MB chunk of /dev/zero with it. At the end of this procedure, we have a dataset with 256MB of data in it:

root@banshee:~# ls -lh /banshee/demo
total 262M
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 256M Mar 15 14:39 random.bin
root@banshee:~# zfs list banshee/demo
NAME                           USED  AVAIL  REFER  MOUNTPOINT
banshee/demo                   262M  83.3G   262M  /banshee/demo

OK. Next step, we take a snapshot of banshee/demo, then create a clone using that snapshot as its parent.

Creating a clone

You don’t actually create a ZFS clone of a dataset at all; you create a clone from a snapshot of a dataset. So before we can “clone banshee/demo”, we first have to take a snapshot of it, and then we clone that.

root@banshee:~# zfs snapshot banshee/demo@parent-snapshot
root@banshee:~# zfs clone banshee/demo@parent-snapshot banshee/demo-clone
root@banshee:~# zfs list -rt all banshee/demo
NAME                           USED  AVAIL  REFER  MOUNTPOINT
banshee/demo                   262M  83.3G   262M  /banshee/demo
banshee/demo@parent-snapshot      0      -   262M  -
root@banshee:~# zfs list -rt all banshee/demo-clone
NAME                 USED  AVAIL  REFER  MOUNTPOINT
banshee/demo-clone     1K  83.3G   262M  /banshee/demo-clone

So right now, we have the dataset banshee/demo, which shares all its blocks with banshee/demo@parent-snapshot, which in turn shares all its blocks with banshee/demo-clone. We see 262M in USED for banshee/demo, with nothing or next-to-nothing in USED for either banshee/demo@parent-snapshot or banshee/demo-clone.

Beginning divergence: removing data

Now, we remove all the data from banshee/demo:

root@banshee:~# rm /banshee/demo/random.bin
root@banshee:~# zfs list -rt all banshee/demo ; zfs list banshee/demo-clone
NAME                           USED  AVAIL  REFER  MOUNTPOINT
banshee/demo                   262M  83.3G    19K  /banshee/demo
banshee/demo@parent-snapshot   262M      -   262M  -
NAME                 USED  AVAIL  REFER  MOUNTPOINT
banshee/demo-clone     1K  83.3G   262M  /banshee/demo-clone

We still only have 262M of USED – but it’s all actually in banshee/demo@parent-snapshot now. You can tell because the REFER column has changed – banshee/demo@parent-snapshot and banshee/demo-clone still both REFER 262M, but banshee/demo only REFERs 19K now. (You still see 262M in USED for banshee/demo because banshee/demo@parent-snapshot is a child of banshee/demo, so its contents count towards banshee/demo‘s USED figure.)

Next up: we re-fill the parent dataset, banshee/demo, with 256MB of different random garbage.

Continuing divergence: replacing data in the parent

root@banshee:~# dd if=/dev/zero bs=16M count=16 | openssl enc -aes-256-ctr -pass pass:"$(dd if=/dev/urandom bs=128 count=1 2>/dev/null | base64)" -nosalt | pv > /banshee/demo/random.bin
16+0 records in
16+0 records out
268435456 bytes (268 MB, 256 MiB) copied, 0.498349 s, 539 MB/s
 256MiB 0:00:00 [ 516MiB/s] [<=>                                               ]
root@banshee:~# zfs list -rt all banshee/demo ; zfs list banshee/demo-clone
NAME                           USED  AVAIL  REFER  MOUNTPOINT
banshee/demo                   523M  83.2G   262M  /banshee/demo
banshee/demo@parent-snapshot   262M      -   262M  -
NAME                 USED  AVAIL  REFER  MOUNTPOINT
banshee/demo-clone     1K  83.2G   262M  /banshee/demo-clone

OK, at this point you see that the USED for banshee/demo shoots up to 523M: that’s the total of the 262M of original random garbage which is still preserved in banshee/demo@parent-snapshot, plus the new 262M of different random garbage in banshee/demo itself. The snapshot now diverges completely from the parent dataset, having no blocks in common at all.

So far, banshee/demo-clone is still 100% convergent with banshee/demo@parent-snapshot, so we’re still getting some conservation of space on disk and in ARC from that. But remember, the whole point of making the clone was so that we could write to it as well as read from it. So let’s do exactly that, and make the clone 100% divergent from its parent, too.

Diverging completely: replacing data in the clone

root@banshee:~# dd if=/dev/zero bs=16M count=16 | openssl enc -aes-256-ctr -pass pass:"$(dd if=/dev/urandom bs=128 count=1 2>/dev/null | base64)" -nosalt | pv > /banshee/demo-clone/random.bin
16+0 records in
16+0 records out
268435456 bytes (268 MB, 256 MiB) copied, 0.50151 s, 535 MB/s
 256MiB 0:00:00 [ 534MiB/s] [<=>                                               ]
root@banshee:~# zfs list -rt all banshee/demo ; zfs list banshee/demo-clone
NAME                           USED  AVAIL  REFER  MOUNTPOINT
banshee/demo                   523M  82.8G   262M  /banshee/demo
banshee/demo@parent-snapshot   262M      -   262M  -
NAME                 USED  AVAIL  REFER  MOUNTPOINT
banshee/demo-clone  262M  82.8G  262M  /banshee/demo-clone

There, done. We now have a parent dataset, banshee/demo, which diverges completely from its snapshot banshee/demo@parent-snapshot, and a clone, banshee/demo-clone, which also diverges completely from banshee/demo@parent-snapshot.

Examining the suck

Since neither the parent, its snapshot, nor the clone share any blocks with one another anymore, we’re using the full 786MB of on-disk space that the three of them add up to. And since they also don’t share any blocks in the ARC, we’re left with absolutely no benefit in either storage consumption or performance to our having used a clone.

Worse, despite having no blocks in common and no perceptible benefit to the clone structure, all three are still inextricably linked, and neither banshee/demo nor banshee/demo@parent-snapshot can be destroyed without also destroying banshee/demo-clone:

root@banshee:~# zfs destroy banshee/demo -r
cannot destroy 'banshee/demo': filesystem has dependent clones
use '-R' to destroy the following datasets:
banshee/demo-clone
root@banshee:~# zfs destroy banshee/demo@parent-snapshot
cannot destroy 'banshee/demo@parent-snapshot': snapshot has dependent clones
use '-R' to destroy the following datasets:
banshee/demo-clone

So now you’re left with a great unwieldy mass of tangled dependencies, wasted space, and no perceptible benefits at all.

Conclusion and practical example

Imagine that you’re storing VM images in ZFS, and you began with a “gold” image of a freshly installed operating system, and created ten different clones to run ten different VMs from. Initially, this seemed great: you could create the clones instantaneously, and they shared tons of blocks, so they consumed a fraction of the ARC they would as complete, separate copies.

A year later, however, your gold image – of, let’s say, Ubuntu 16.04.1 – has diverged to a staggering degree with the set of rolling updates necessary to bring it all the way to Ubuntu 16.04.2. Your VMs have also diverged tremendously, from their parent snapshot and from one another. And now you’re stuck with the year-old snapshot of the “gold” image, completely useless to you but forever engraved on your drive unless and until you’re willing to replicate or otherwise block-for-block copy your VMs painstakingly into self-sufficient datasets with no references. You also have no remaining performance benefits, and you have an extra SPOF (single point of failure) where some admin – maybe even you – might see that parent snapshot nobody cared about anymore taking up all that disk space, and…

root@banshee:~# zfs destroy -R banshee/demo@parent-snapshot
root@banshee:~# zfs list banshee/demo-clone
cannot open 'banshee/demo-clone': dataset does not exist

One “oops” later, that “useless” parent snapshot and every single one of those clones you were using in production are gone forever. (Or, hopefully, just gone until you can restore them from your off-pool backup. You are maintaining replicated backups on at least one other pool, preferably on another machine, aren’t you? Aren’t you?!)

Published by

Jim Salter

Mercenary sysadmin, open source advocate, and frotzer of the jim-jam.

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