The Network Block Device

A network block device (NBD) driver makes a remote resource look like a local device in Linux, allowing a cheap and safe real-time mirror to be constructed.

In April of 1997, Pavel Machek wrote the code for his Network Block Device (NBD), the vehicle for his work being the then-current 2.1.55 Linux kernel. Pavel maintained and improved the code through four subsequent releases, matched to kernels 57, 101, 111 and 132. Andrzej M. Krzysztofowicz contributed 64-bit fixes and Stephen Tweedie later contributed his substantial expertise, particularly in providing a semaphore-based locking scheme to make the code SMP-safe. We have enhanced it for use in an industrial setting by the authors, and here we describe the device, the driver and some of its development history.

The Network Block Device driver offers an access model that will become more common in this network-oriented world. It simulates a block device, such as a hard disk or hard-disk partition, on the local client, but connects across the network to a remote server that provides the real physical backing. Locally, the device looks like a disk partition, but it is a fa<\#231>cade for the remote. The remote server is a lightweight piece of daemon code providing the real access to the remote device and does not need to be running under Linux. The local operating system will be Linux and must support the Linux kernel NBD driver and a local client daemon. NBD setups are being used by us to provide real-time off-site storage and backup, but can be used to transport physical devices virtually anywhere in the world.

Figure 1. An NBD Presents a Remote Resource as Local to the Client

The NBD has some of the classic characteristics of a UNIX system component: it is simple, compact and versatile. File systems can be mounted on an NBD (Figure 1). NBDs can be used as components in software RAID arrays (Figure 2) and so on. Mounting a native Linux EXT2 file system over an NBD gives faster transfer rates than mounting an NFS (Network File System) from the same remote machine (see Table 1 for timings with a near-original version of Pavel's driver).

Figure 2. Remote Mirroring via Software RAID plus an NBD

Table 1

A remote Linux EXT2 file system mounted via NBD measures up to tests under default conditions like an NFS with approximately 1.5KB buffer size. That is, its apparent buffer size is the default Ethernet transmission unit size (MTU/MRU) of 1.5KB, which happens to be 1.5 times the NFS default buffer size of 1KB. The NBD gains resilience through the use of TCP instead of UDP as the transfer protocol. TCP contains its own intrinsic consistency and recovery mechanisms. It is a much heavier protocol than UDP, but the overhead in TCP is offset for NBD by the amount of retransmission and correction code that it saves.

An NBD could be used as a real-time spool mirror for a medium-sized mail server A. The failover is to a backup server B in another room, connected by a 100BT network. The NBD device connects the primary to the backup server and provides half (Y) of a RAID-1 mirror on the primary. The other half of the mirror is the primary server's own mail partition X. The composite device XY is mounted as the primary's mail spool.

On failure of A, a daemon on B detects the outage, disengages the NBD link, checks its image Y of the spool, corrects minor imperfections, mounts it locally as its mail spool and starts aliasing for A's advertised mail-exchanger IP address, thus taking over the mail service. When A recovers, it is detected and the alias is dropped. A and B then re-establish the NBD link, and the mail partition X on A is resynchronized to the NBD image Y. Then the primary server's RAID-1 device is brought back up, the NBD image is slaved to it under RAID, and the mail service resumes in the normal configuration. It is possible to make the setup symmetric, but that is too confusing to describe here.

This approach has advantages over common alternatives. One, for example, is to maintain a reserve mail server in an empty state and bring it up when the main server goes down. This makes any already-spooled mail unavailable during the outage, but reintegration is easy. Simply concatenate the corresponding files after fixing the primary. Some files on the primary may be lost.

Another method is to scatter the mail server over several machines all mounting the same spool area via NFS. However, file locking over NFS has never proven completely reliable in the past, and NFS has never yet satisfactorily been able to support the bursts of activity caused by several clients choosing to download 50MB mail folders simultaneously. The transfer rate seems to slow exponentially with folder size, and in “soft” mode, the transfer can break down under adverse network conditions. If NFS is mounted in synchronous (“hard”) mode for greater reliability while the NFS server is up, failure of the NFS server brings the clients to a halt. The NFS server has to be mirrored separately.

Table 2

A third alternative is to maintain a mirror that is updated hourly or daily. However, this approach warps the mail spool back in time during the outage, temporarily losing received mail, and makes reintegration difficult. The NBD method avoids these problems but risks importing corruption from the source file system into the mirror, when the source goes down. This is because NBD operations are journaled at the block level, not the file system level, so a complete NBD operation may represent only a partially complete file operation. The corruption and subsequent repair is not worse than on the source file system if the source actually crashed; if connectivity was the only thing lost, the source system may be in better shape at reintegration than the mirror. To avoid this problem, the Linux virtual file system (VFS) layer must be altered to tag block requests that result from the same file operation, and the NBD must journal these as a unit. That implies changes in the VFS layer, which we have not yet attempted to implement.

Given the slightly chequered history of NFS in Linux, it may be deemed something of an advantage that the NBD driver requires no NFS code in order to supply a networked file system. (The speed of NFS in the 2.2.x kernels is markedly superior to that of the 2.0.x implementations, perhaps by a factor of two, and it no longer seems to suffer from nonlinear slowdown with respect to size of transfer.) The driver has no file system code at all. An NBD can be mounted as native EXT2, FAT, XFS or however the remote resource happens to be formatted. It benefits in performance from the buffering present in the Linux block device layers. If the server is serving from an asynchronous file system and not a raw physical device at the other end, benefits from buffering accrue at both ends of the connection. Buffering speeds up reads one hundred times in streaming measurements (it reads the same source twice) depending on conditions such as read-ahead and CPU loading, and appears to speed up writes approximately two times. With our experimental drivers, we see raw writes in “normal use” achieving about 5MBps to 6MBps over switched duplex 100BT networks through 3c905 network cards. (The quoted 5-6MBps is achieved with buffering at both ends and transfers of about 16MB or 25% of installed RAM, so that buffering is effective but not dominant.)

In 1998, one of the authors (Breuer) back-ported the then-2.1.132 NBD to the stable 2.0-series kernels, first taking the 2.1.55 code and reverting the kernel interface, then paralleling incremental changes in Pavel's subsequent releases up to 2.1.132. That code is available from Pavel's NBD web pages ( along with Pavel's incrementals. The initial back port took out the new kernel dcache indirections and changed the networking calls back to the older style. The final changes paralleled late 64-bit adaptations in Pavel's sources.

Like the original, the back-ported code consists of a kernel module plus a small adaptation to the kernel block-driver interface, and user-space server and client daemons. Pavel proved to be an extremely helpful correspondent.

The driver worked very well on the development Linux machines in use in our department, where we maintained a much-modified 2.0.25 kernel code base for several years. With the perceived robustness of the 2.0.36 kernel release in particular, we ported the driver forward. Surprisingly, it failed completely. It locked up any client after only about 0.5MB of transfers.

To this day, we do not know precisely the nature of that problem. Stephen Tweedie examined the algorithm in the ported driver and concluded it to be the same as the 2.1.132 algorithm, which works, and Pavel approved the protocols. Tracing back the 2.0-series kernels patch by patch failed to find any point at which the driver stopped working. It did not work in any standard release. Our best guess is that nonstandard scheduler changes in our code base were responsible for the initial port working smoothly in our development environment, and that general changes in the 2.1 series had somehow obviated the problem there.

Experiments showed that the in-kernel queue of outstanding block requests grew to about 17 or 18 in length, then corrupted important pointers. We tried three or four methods aimed at keeping the queue size down, and empirically seemed to control the problem with each of them. The first method (Garcia) moved the networking out of the kernel to the user-space daemons, where presumably the standard scheduling policy served to remove an unknown race condition. The second method (Breuer) kept the networking in-kernel, but serialized network transfers so that every addition to the pending queue was immediately followed by a deletion, thus keeping the queue size always equal to zero or one. The third method (Garcia) removed the queue mechanism entirely, keeping its length at zero. A fourth method (Breuer) made the client daemon thread return to user space after each transfer to allow itself to be rescheduled.

Figure 3.

NFS provides a star configuration, with the server at center (left). NBD, with the help of internal or external RAID, provides an inverted topology with multiple servers and a single client.

For a considerable time, running in serialized mode seemed to be the best solution, although the user-space networking solution is also reliable. With our recent development work, we have gained deeper insight into the kernel mechanisms working here, and although no definitive explanation of the original instability is available, we do have completely stable drivers working in a fully asynchronous in-kernel networking mode as well as user-space versions of the same protocols. A suggestion is the possible misgeneration of code by the gcc compiler (a>b=0; c>d=a; if(c>d>b) printk("bug"); output generated just before lockups!) but it is possible that stack corruption caused a misjump into the linear code sequence from elsewhere. Increased re-entrancy of the driver code and more forgiving network transfer protocols definitely increased the stability while the problem was detectable, which is a good co-indicator for a race condition.



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throughput and availability

Anonymous's picture

Sorry, got thrown off by those dd 's. Reading the summary, it is clear: you actually mount /mnt/remote, it doesn't matter whatever it is. But then, loks like you need to know the filesystem, when you mount it on /nd0 on the client!

throughput and availability

Anonymous's picture

"so that we can route through a second network card on both machines and thus double the available bandwidth through our switched network."

Only if you are limited by the throughput of your NIC (say your network card is an old 10MBit/sec and your network can do 100MBit or better; otherwise "switched" means switched: you wait on one another, and what you gain is just this synchronization overhead.

The other thing that may be missing: how do you "publish" a partition you already have? I did not get it: the "remote" resource has to be dedicated only to the NBD, or can it be still available locally on the server? In other words, say, can I "publish" the /home directory ? Does it have to be a standalone partition then? or may I just publish some part of it, like through NFS or samba?

hi!!!I hope i can learn more

aineed's picture

hi!!!I hope i can learn more about operating system..

The NBD document is really

Anonymous's picture

The NBD document is really good.
But I have some doubts. Can you help me in understanding ,how NBD is different from iSCSI device?
Which will be better for performance NBD or iSCSI?