Archiving Data with Snapshots in LVM2

by Petros Koutoupis

Sometimes we use a technology even though we're unaware of its full features and capabilities and how they may be able to benefit us. One such feature is the data snapshot. The snapshot is a single state (that is, a copy) of a storage volume at a particular point in time. A volume can refer to a disk device or partition. The snapshot is primarily a data backup technology. Directed toward larger storage capacities, utilizing such a technique has advantages. For instance, full backups of an entire volume can take a long time and also use large amounts of storage space, even for files that will remain unchanged for some time to come. Also, when performing a data backup of entire volumes or subsets of volumes in a symmetric multiprocessing environment, write operations still may continue to modify the file data on that volume, preventing atomicity and, in turn, possibly leading to data corruption. There are ways around the latter in which the volume can be taken off-line or marked as read-only prior to the archival process, but in high-availability production environments, that may never be an option. This is where the snapshot comes in.

Used to avoid downtime and retain atomicity, the snapshot provides a read-only copy of a specified volume at a specific point in time, usually implemented by a copy-on-write mechanism. Some vendors and software implementations are known to support write commands via a concept known as branching snapshots, in which diverging versions of data are created via an extremely complex system of pointers, all based on the original snapshot. When you write to a snapshot or the original volume, the write will not be seen by the other. The way this works is when a volume marked for snapshot gets written to and data is modified, the original and unchanged data block(s) or file data (in the case of a file-based snapshot) will be copied to the space allocated for the snapshot. After all original and unmodified data are copied over to the snapshot, the original volume will be updated with the new data. When the snapshot volume needs to be mounted, using a system of pointers, the snapshot will reference the parent volume with the original data saved in the snapshot. With such a technique, it now becomes possible to archive valuable data incrementally without losing productivity or the risk of suffering from any data corruption.

The use of snapshot technologies can be seen in a variety of environments, ranging from external storage controllers, filesystems, virtual machines (such as VMware, VirtualBox and so on), databases and even volume managers, which is the focus of this article. Here, I cover the snapshot feature found in LVM2 and how to manage it, all from the command line.


LVM2 refers to a collection of user-space tools that provide logical volume management on Linux.

The Linux Logical Volume Manager

The second generation of the Linux Logical Volume Manager (LVM2) is a logical volume manager capable of pooling multiple storage devices together to represent a single volume or volumes, either in a striped or mirrored fashion. Everything is created and managed on a layer-by-layer basis. First is the physical volume. It is followed by the volume group and then the mountable logical volume itself. Most mainstream Linux distributions usually have the LVM2 userland tools preinstalled. If you find that it's not installed on your distribution, download and install it via your distribution's package repository.

The idea is almost similar in concept to the Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID), and although LVM2 does not support any parity-driven striping, it still adds additional value. For instance, LVM2 allows for the uninterrupted addition, removal and replacement of storage devices. It makes for easy dynamic resizing of volume groups and logical volumes. Most important, it supports the snapshot—the focus of this article. As of LVM2, write operations are supported to snapshot volumes.

As mentioned earlier, LVM2 volumes utilize a layered structure—that is, physical volumes (or PVs) must be created from a physical disk device. This can be accomplished with the pvcreate command followed by the list of physical partitions to label for LVM2 usage:

$ sudo pvcreate /dev/sda1 /dev/sdb1 /dev/sdc1 /dev/sdd1

With the newly labeled physical volumes, volume groups (or VGs) need to be created with the vgcreate command, followed by a name for the volume group and then a list of all physical volumes to use:

$ sudo vgcreate vg0 /dev/sda1 /dev/sdb1 /dev/sdc1 /dev/sdd1
  Volume group "vg0" successfully created

By default, the volume groups are located in the /dev directory path. It is with this volume group that logical volumes (or LVs) can be created, formatted with a filesystem, mounted and, in turn, used for file I/O operations. The best feature of creating logical volumes is that you can use some or all available capacity of the VG. For instance, if a 1GB LV needs to be created from the 4GB VG, the lvcreate command needs to be used followed by the name of the VG and then a size for the LV. When an LV is created, it will create a node name for accessibility in the /dev directory path under the volume group's name:

$ sudo lvcreate --name /dev/vg0/test_vg --size 1G
  Logical volume "test_vg" created

The example above showcases the creation of a nonredundant LV. To create an LV with mirroring capabilities, invoke the lvcreate command with the -m option. The example below creates a 500MB-mirrored LV:

$ sudo lvcreate --size 500M -m1 --name mirrorlv vg0 
 ↪/dev/sda1 /dev/sdb1 /dev/sdc1 /dev/sdd1
  Logical volume "mirrorlv" created

You can remove logical volumes, volume groups and physical volumes easily with the lvremove, vgremove and pvremove commands followed by their respective volume names:

$ sudo lvremove /dev/vg0/test_vg
Do you really want to remove active logical volume "test_vg"? [y/n]: y
  Logical volume "test_vg" successfully removed

Note that a list of all logical volumes, volume groups and physical volumes with detailed volume information can be displayed with the lvdisplay, vgdisplay and pvdisplay commands.

LVM2 Snapshots

Now that I've covered a brief summary of how LVM2 is structured and managed, it's time to focus on the snapshot feature. It is worth noting that the LVM2 snapshot feature can be used only on LVM2-managed logical volumes. Assuming that an LV already exists, possibly the partition for the / directory path, a second LV needs to be created for the snapshot of the original logical volume. With regard to size, another great feature of the snapshot is that the snapshot volume does not have to be equal in size to the original volume. The size even can be half or less than the original volume, allowing only that many changes of data to be backed up. By default, LVM2 will disable the snapshot automatically if the snapshot LV ever gets filled. The amount of storage space necessary is dependent on the usage of the snapshot. If the snapshot size equals the size of the original LV, it never will overflow, and snapshot service will not be interrupted. In the worst-case scenario, if it is found that space is running out on the snapshot, the LV always can be resized dynamically to a larger capacity.

Define the size to allocate for the snapshot. Create the snapshot on the desired VG by using the lvcreate command, with the size followed by the snapshot switch, the name for the snapshot and the VG. In this example, only 500MB are allocated for modified data. Realistically, this is not an ideal size to use (it's too small but serves its purpose here):

$ sudo lvcreate -L500M -s -n rootsnapshot /dev/VolGroup/lv_root
  Logical volume "rootsnapshot" created

The lvdisplay command displays all details pertaining to the snapshot LV. One detail to keep an eye on is the “Allocated to snapshot” value. In this example, it is set to 0.06%:

$ sudo lvdisplay /dev/VolGroup/rootsnapshot
  --- Logical volume ---
  LV Name                /dev/VolGroup/rootsnapshot
  VG Name               VolGroup
  LV UUID                kAc3Iq-Gn3e-pBWs-KC9V-bFi8-0fHr-SsdRLR
  LV Write Access     read/write
  LV snapshot status active destination for /dev/VolGroup/lv_root
  LV Status              available
  # open                  0
  LV Size                  5.51 GiB
  Current LE              1410
  COW-table size       500.00 MiB
  COW-table LE         125
  Allocated to snapshot  0.06%
  Snapshot chunk size    4.00 KiB
  Segments               1
  Allocation                inherit
  Read ahead sectors   auto
  - currently set to      256
  Block device             253:3

If the original LV is written to, using the copy-on-write mechanism, the snapshot will write all original data from the original volume to the snapshot volume before it replaces the original volume with the new data. To better understand the mechanics behind the snapshot, mount the snapshot volume, so that it can be accessed like any other mounted device.

Listing 1. Mounting and Listing of the Snapshot-Enabled Volume

$ sudo mkdir -p /mnt/VolGroup/rootsnapshot
$ sudo mount /dev/VolGroup/rootsnapshot /mnt/VolGroup/rootsnapshot/
$ ls -l /mnt/VolGroup/rootsnapshot/
total 124
dr-xr-xr-x.   2   root root  4096  May 15 07:45  bin
drwxr-xr-x.   2  root root  4096  May 15 06:59  boot
drwxr-xr-x.   9  root root  4096  Sep  26 06:12 cgroup
drwxr-xr-x.   2  root root  4096  May 15 06:59  dev
drwxr-xr-x. 116 root root 12288 Sep  26 06:19  etc
drwxr-xr-x.   3  root root  4096  May 15 08:10  home
dr-xr-xr-x.  17  root root 12288  May 15 07:42  lib
drwx------.   2 root root 16384  May 15 06:58  lost+found
drwxr-xr-x.   3  root root  4096  Sep  26 06:15  media
dr-xr-xr-x.   2   root root  4096  Sep  26 06:13 misc
drwxr-xr-x.   3  root root  4096  Dec  4  2009   mnt
dr-xr-xr-x.   2   root root  4096  Sep  26 06:13 net
drwxr-xr-x.   2  root root  4096  Dec  4  2009   opt
drwxr-xr-x.   2  root root  4096 May  15 06:59  proc
dr-xr-x---.   4  root root  4096  Aug  31 15:54  root
dr-xr-xr-x.   2  root root 12288  May 15 07:48  sbin
drwxr-xr-x.   2 root root  4096   May 15 07:02  selinux
drwxr-xr-x.   2 root root  4096   Dec  4  2009   srv
drwxr-xr-x.   2 root root  4096   May 15 06:59  sys
drwxrwxrwt. 15 root root  4096  Sep 26  06:27 tmp
drwxr-xr-x.  14 root root  4096   May 15 07:14 usr
drwxr-xr-x.  22 root root  4096   May 15 07:48 var

Here is a simple exercise to verify that the snapshot is functional: write to the original volume—that is, modify an existing file or add/remove a file. The original data for those files will be present on the mounted snapshot. If a new file is added/removed from the original volume, it will not be present on the snapshot. Note that the same logic applies if the snapshot data is modified. The original volume will remain unaltered:

$ dd if=/dev/zero of=/home/petros/test.file count=65536
65536+0 records in
65536+0 records out
33554432 bytes (34 MB) copied, 2.95349 s, 11.4 MB/s
$ ls /home/petros/
Desktop    Downloads  Music     Public     test.file
Documents  drvadm     Pictures  Templates  Videos
$ ls /mnt/VolGroup/rootsnapshot/home/petros/
Desktop    Downloads  Music     Public     Videos
Documents  drvadm     Pictures  Templates

Using the lvdisplay command, you now can observe that more space has been allocated for the snapshot volume. The value for the “Allocated to snapshot” field has increased to 0.24%:

$ sudo lvdisplay /dev/VolGroup/rootsnapshot
  --- Logical volume ---
  LV Name               /dev/VolGroup/rootsnapshot
  VG Name               VolGroup
  LV UUID                kAc3Iq-Gn3e-pBWs-KC9V-bFi8-0fHr-SsdRLR
  LV Write Access     read/write
  LV snapshot status active destination for /dev/VolGroup/lv_root
  LV Status              available
  # open                 1
  LV Size                 5.51 GiB
  Current LE             1410
  COW-table size      500.00 MiB
  COW-table LE        125
  Allocated to snapshot  0.24%
  Snapshot chunk size    4.00 KiB
  Segments              1
  Allocation               inherit
  Read ahead sectors  auto
  - currently set to     256
  Block device           253:3

Removing a snapshot is almost as simple as creating it. First, unmount the snapshot, and then use the lvremove command to remove the LV from the VG:

$ sudo umount /mnt/VolGroup/rootsnapshot/
$ sudo lvremove /dev/VolGroup/rootsnapshot

In some versions of various Linux distributions, including Red Hat Enterprise Linux (also in the latest beta release of RHEL 6), CentOS and even SUSE Linux, there exists a known problem when attempting to remove or deactivate logical volumes. Unable to remove the LV, the following error message will be returned: Can't remove open logical volume "rootsnapshot". If dmsetup info -c rootsnapshot is invoked on the command line, the status of the LV will be returned and it will confirm the error message. To work around this, use the dmsetup command followed by the lvremove command. Confirm that the LV has been removed with the lvdisplay command:

$ sudo dmsetup remove /dev/mapper/VolGroup-rootsnapshot-cow
$ sudo dmsetup remove /dev/mapper/VolGroup-rootsnapshot
$ sudo lvremove /dev/VolGroup/rootsnapshot
  Logical volume "rootsnapshot" successfully removed
Best Practices

In some cases, it is advised to ensure that enough storage space is allocated for the snapshot or (as discussed below) a backup directory that will contain all of the archived snapshot data for restoring purposes. To extend an existing volume group, a new PV needs to be labeled. To do so, identify the physical storage device, and using fdisk, sfdisk or parted, create the desired partition size. Verify the partition by reading back the partition table. Then, continue to create the PV:

$ sudo sfdisk -l /dev/sde

Disk /dev/sde: 261 cylinders, 255 heads, 63 sectors/track
Units = cylinders of 8225280 bytes, blocks of 1024 bytes, 
        counting from 0

   Device Boot Start     End   #cyls    #blocks   Id  System
/dev/sde1          0+    260     261-   2096451   83  Linux
/dev/sde2          0       -       0          0           0   Empty
/dev/sde3          0       -       0          0           0   Empty
/dev/sde4          0       -       0          0           0   Empty

$ sudo pvcreate /dev/sde1
  Physical volume "/dev/sde1" successfully created

Append a newly labeled PV to an existing VG with the vgextend command:

$ sudo vgextend VolGroup /dev/sde1
  Volume group "VolGroup" successfully extended

If at some point the PV needs to be removed from a VG, use the vgreduce command followed by the names of the VG and the PV:

$ sudo vgreduce VolGroup /dev/sde1

If the VG is being extended for the purpose of creating a backups directory to archive routine snapshots, following the normal lvcreate procedure, define the name, size and VG for the desired LV. Then, format the LV with a filesystem, and for file I/O accessibility, mount it to a directory path:

$ sudo lvcreate --name backups --size 1G VolGroup
  Logical volume "backups" created
$ sudo mke2fs -j /dev/VolGroup/backups
$ sudo mkdir -p /mnt/VolGroup/backups
$ sudo mount /dev/VolGroup/backups /mnt/VolGroup/backups

When the snapshot has been created, an archive can be made with the tar command, located in the newly created backups directory:

$ sudo tar -pczf /mnt/VolGroup/backups/rootsnapshot.tar.gz 

In an event of failure or if older revisions of files need to be retrieved, the archived snapshot can be used to restore the original data contents. This is an extremely ideal backup strategy when running a high-availability production environment. No downtime is required. Although this backup does not necessarily need to be written to a file, using the tar or dd commands, the snapshot can be written directly to another physical storage device, including a tape drive:

$ sudo tar -cf /dev/st0 /mnt/VolGroup/rootsnapshot

LVM2 comes prepackaged with some of the more common Linux-based distributions. In some cases, it even is used as part of the default filesystem layout. Its snapshot feature is one of those lesser-known treasures that really can be used to one's advantage, ranging from personal to larger-scale environments. All it takes is a little time, a little knowledge and a plan on design, deployment and configuration.


dmsetup(8) is a low-level tool used to manage logical devices that use the device-mapper driver. The LVM2 user-space toolset relies heavily on the device-mapper kernel module and support library.

Petros Koutoupis is a full-time Linux kernel, device driver and application developer for embedded and server platforms. He has been working in the data storage industry for more than six years and enjoys discussing the same technologies.

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