R-fx Networks

ATA Over Ethernet: As an Alternative

by on Apr.04, 2011, under HowTo, My Blog

New technologies, new toys — Oh how I love getting my hands dirty with them. Today I am going to have a look at ATA Over Ethernet (AoE) as an alternative solution to NFS in the role of a NAS/SAN implementation. We will look at both the server side vblade setup and the client side AoE kernel module along with a practical deployment setup which includes a convenience script I developed to make vbladed slightly less of a nuisance to maintain.

First things first though, what exactly is ATA Over Ethernet? Straight off the wikipedia page, here are the important parts that describe AoE best:

"ATA over Ethernet (AoE) is a network protocol developed by the Brantley Coile Company, designed for simple, high-performance access of SATA storage devices over Ethernet networks. It is used to build storage area networks (SANs) with low-cost, standard technologies.
...
AoE runs on layer 2 Ethernet, it does not use internet protocol (IP), so it cannot be accessed over the Internet or other IP networks. In this regard it is more comparable to Fibre Channel over Ethernet.
...
SATA (and older PATA) hard drives use the Advanced Technology Attachment (ATA) protocol to issue commands, such as read, write, and status. AoE encapsulates those commands inside Ethernet frames and lets them travel over an Ethernet network instead of a SATA or 40-pin ribbon cable. By using an AoE driver, the host operating system is able to access a remote disk as if it were directly attached."

OK, of note here is that AoE is an ATA implementation over Ethernet, being layer 2 it is a dumb protocol with no knowledge of the TCP/IP stack, as such it can only communicate in the simplest of ways inside a switched network (its packets cant be routed between multiple networks). As such, AoE is ideal when used on a private network or better yet a network dedicated to SAN (Storage Area Network), it can however be used on a public facing network as so long as the hosts in the AoE network are all within the same switched segment of the network (More info here on routable AoE).

That all said, what makes AoE a viable alternative to NFS? Well in the role of storage access in its simplest capacity, NFS is just bloated and adds a significant amount of overhead and complexity to something that deserves to be simple. Further, NFS is woefully inadequate at maintaining the level of reliability required when you are, for example, exporting an entire file system to another device for the purpose of high-availability usage such as a /home extension or MySQL file system. Personally, I am slightly biased as I hate NFS; I use it, but only for a lack of often anything better to meet the role in exporting file systems and directory trees across networks. Although it does what its supposed to just fine, more often than not you can get woken up at 4AM with the most mysterious and sudden of NFS issues that are notorious for being mind numbing to resolve. It is for this simple reason — NFS’s lack of reliability, that sent me searching for a simple, scalable and reliable alternative. AoE has managed to meet two of these three points — simple and reliable, while coming up short on the scalable side, more on that in a bit.

There are two components of an AoE setup, the server side storage device that will run vblade and the client side that will access the exported storage using the AoE kernel module under Linux. I should note that although the vblade server package is for Linux, the client side drivers are available for Windows, OS X, FreeBSD and more; in Linux the AoE kernel module is part of the mainline kernel.

The server you choose to run vblade can be any device that you want to export files or devices on, there is little in the way of requirements as vblade is a pretty slim package and doesn’t consume much in the way of resources other than CPU. For a modest environment where you plan to export to no more than 10-15 clients, a dual core system with 2GB RAM is more than sufficient for the vblade server. For my deployment, I run vblade on a quad core Xeon 3.0Ghz, 6GB RAM and 9TB Raid5 array that exports to 54 client servers. More on my setup later when we review scalability but for now lets jump right into the vblade setup and usage.

Lets go ahead and grab the vblade package, compile and install it:


# wget http://iweb.dl.sourceforge.net/project/aoetools/vblade/20/vblade-20.tgz
# tar xvfz vblade-20.tgz
# cd vblade-20
# make && make install
install vblade /usr/sbin/
install vbladed /usr/sbin/
install vblade.8 /usr/share/man/man8/

There is no compile time configure script or any other real configuration required, vblade installs straight into /usr/sbin and is an overall painless process. The simplicity of the vblade package comes at a cost, in that there is no support for a configuration file to control multiple vblade instances, making things slightly tedious. This should not detract from the use of vblade, it is a mature and reliable package but one with a very simple approach that does little in the way other than what it is supposed to do.

To make life easier for myself, I created a wrapper of the sorts to add support for a configuration file along with limited error checking and some command line conveniences — we’ll grab the wrapper and default config template as follows:


# wget http://rfxn.com/downloads/vbladed.conf
# wget http://rfxn.com/downloads/vbladectl
# mv vbladed.conf /etc/
# mv vbladectl /usr/sbin
# chmod 640 /etc/vbladed.conf
# chmod 750 /usr/sbin/vbladectl
# ln -s /usr/sbin/vbladectl /etc/init.d/vbladed
# chkconfig --level 2345 on

You will note, that we enabled vblade to start on boot through init, although the wrapper is not technically an init script, it does support being called from init and managed through chkconfig for convenience. Lets look at the configuration file /etc/vbladed.conf then we’ll review the vbladectl usage after that:

##
# vbladed export configuration file
##

# unique shelf identifier for this vblade server
SHELF="0"     # must be numeric 0-254, default 0

##
# AOESLOT FILE MAC IFACE ALIAS
# 0 /data/server.img FF:FF:FF:FF:FF:FF eth1 server

The configuration file is pretty straight forward, the SHELF variable only matters if you intend to run multiple vblade servers on the same network, if that is the case then this value must be unique to each vblade server or you will run into client side conflicts of being unable to distinguish between vblade servers. The export definitions follow in the format of “AOESLOT FILE MAC IFACE ALIAS” which the below breaks down further:
AOESLOT is a per-client identifier for EACH exported file or device to the SAME client; in other words if you configure multiple exports to the same client server then this value needs to be unique for each.
FILE is the full path to a device or file you want to export, this can be an unformatted raw device such as /dev/sdb, a preformatted partition such as /dev/sdb5 or a loopback image such as /data/server.img.
MAC is the MAC address of the client-side interface that is attached to the network you intend AoE traffic to move over; more appropriately, it is the interface connected to your private network on the client server
IFACE is the server-side interface that can reach the client-side interface you defined the MAC address for; more appropriately, it is the interface connected to your private network on the vblade server
ALIAS is a reference alias for each configuration entry, this must be unique to each vbladed.conf definition

For the purpose of this article, we will go ahead and create a loopback image, format it and export it for a client server called apollo, then we will review how to import the file system onto the apollo server using the AoE kernel module. First, lets create our image:


# dd if=/dev/zero of=/home/apollo.img bs=1 count=0 seek=10G
# yes | mkfs.ext3 /home/apollo.img

This will create a sparse, zero filled file, meaning it will be 0bytes on disk and allocate space, up to 10G, as data is stored to it. There is a slight performance hit to this as the image file must grow itself as data is written, this however is made up for in improved efficiency of space usage. To create an image that preallocates space on the disk you would run ‘# dd if=/dev/zero of=/home/apollo.img bs=1M count=10000‘, be patient as this will take some time to complete, then format it as described above.

Now that we have the image/device we want to export, we need to add the definition for it into the vbladed.conf file, to do so we need to note the MAC address of the interface on apollo that will communicate with the vblade server, in our case this is a private interface eth1 but in your setup it can be a public facing interface if needed — just make sure its within the same subnet as the vblade server.

[root@apollo ~]# ifconfig eth1
eth1      Link encap:Ethernet  HWaddr 00:16:E6:D3:ED:E5
          inet addr:10.10.6.6  Bcast:10.10.7.255  Mask:255.255.252.0
    ... truncated ...

We now have the client side MAC address (00:16:E6:D3:ED:E5) and we have the device/file we want to export (/home/apollo.img), and we also know the private network interface on our vblade server is eth1 as well, so we can create the vbladed.conf definition:

0 /home/apollo.img 00:16:E6:D3:ED:E51 eth1 apollo

That should be appended into the bottom of /etc/vbladed.conf, then we are ready to start the vblade instance for the configuration we’ve added. The vbladectl wrapper includes start, stop and restart flags which also accept an optional alias for performing actions against only a specific vblade instance, run vbladectl with no options for usage help. Time to start the vblade instance for apollo as follows:

# /usr/sbin/vbladectl start apollo
started vbladed for apollo (pid:16320 file:/home/apollo.img iface:eth1 mac:00:16:E6:D3:ED:E51)
( you could also just pass the start option without an alias to start instances for all entries in vbladectl.conf )

The default behavior for vblade also sends log data to the kernel log, typically /var/log/messages on most systems, so tailing the log will produce the following logs if all is normal:

# tail /var/log/messages
Apr  3 16:49:25 backup5 vbladed: started vbladed for apollo (pid:16320 file:/home/apollo.img iface:eth1 mac:00:16:E6:D3:ED:E51)
Apr  3 16:49:24 backup5 vbladed: pid 16320: e0.0, 419430400 sectors O_RDWR

The important part there is the ‘vbladed: pid 16320: e0.0, 419430400 sectors O_RDWR’ entry in the log as this comes from vblade itself, the other log entry comes from the wrapper. This log entry tells us that vbladed forked off successfully and that it has exported our data for the defined server as e0.0 (etherdrive shelf 0 slot 0), you’ll see the significance of this shortly.

We are now ready to move over to our client server, apollo, and import our new AoE file system. This is an easy task and if you are running a current Fedora / RHEL (CentOS) based distribution, you’ll find the AoE kernel module already included. The module is also part of the mainline kernel so if you are using a custom kernel, please be sure to enable the corresponding config option (CONFIG_ATA_OVER_ETH).

There is really no right way to load a kernel module, you can either use modprobe which I recommend or you can use insmod on the modules full path, which is a matter of preference. Let’s first verify the module exists, which modprobe does for us but for the sake of this article and familiarity, we will check (remember you’re running this on the client server, i.e apollo):

# find /lib/modules/$(uname -r)/ -name "aoe.ko"
/lib/modules/2.6.18-194.32.1.el5PAE/kernel/drivers/block/aoe/aoe.ko

There we have it, the module returned fine, listing the full path to it. If you did not get anything back this may be that you are running a custom kernel by your own choosing, and need to configure the CONFIG_ATA_OVER_ETH option. It may also be that your data center provider or a software vendor installed a custom kernel without this feature and you should contact them requesting it. As an alternative, you could download the etherdrive sources for the AoE kernel module on the coraid website and compile it against your kernel, this requires your kernel build sources or on RHEL based systems the kernel-headers package.

That said, we will now load the module using modprobe, the preferred method:

# /sbin/modprobe aoe
( or you can run /sbin/insmod MODULE-PATH )

If everything went OK, then modprobe will generate no output and you can verify the module is loaded as follows:

# lsmod | grep aoe
aoe                    60385  1

When the AoE module is loaded it will start listening for broadcast traffic from AoE on all available interfaces, a very passive process. If you have done everything correct then the module will quickly detect the exported device/file from the vblade server and inform you in the kernel log along with creating the appropriate /dev/etherd/ device file. Let’s verify this by checking the log and then checking the /dev/etherd path:

# tail /var/log/messages
Apr  4 17:13:02 apollo kernel: aoe: aoe_init: AoE v22i initialised.
Apr  4 17:13:02 apollo kernel: aoe: 003048761643 e0.0 v4014 has 419430400 sectors
Apr  4 17:13:02 apollo kernel:  etherd/e0.0: unknown partition table
# ls /dev/etherd/
e0.0

If for some reason you do not see the log entries described above along with no e0.0 device file under /dev/ethered, this may be a misconfiguration on the vblade server, perhaps you got the interface or mac address in vbladed.conf wrong? Double check all values. If you opted to try run things over a public facing interface, the issue may be that your network VLAN’s each server (which is fairly common), in that case you may need to request that all your hardware be part of the same VLAN or the provisioning of a private switch and private links for your hardware.

Assuming that things went good, that you see the appropriate log entries and the e0.0 device file under /dev/etherd/, we are ready to mount the file system, we will mount it as /mnt/aoe for the purpose of this article:

# mkdir /mnt/aoe
# mount /dev/etherd/e0.0 /mnt/aoe
# df -h /mnt/aoe
Filesystem            Size  Used Avail Use% Mounted on
/dev/etherd/e0.0      5G   36M  4.9G  0% /mnt/aoe

You may run into an issue of unrecognized file system on the device, though the file system we created on it, on the vblade server, should show through. If it does not, simply run an ‘mkfs.ext3 /dev/etherd/e0.0′ on it and you will be all set. There is no hard set rule on creating the file system on the vblade server, you could just export raw images and devices then partition/format file systems on them on a per-client basis as you require it.

The only thing that is left is to set our new file system on apollo to load at boot time, the simplest way to do this is to append a couple of lines to /etc/rc.local as follows:

/sbin/modprobe aoe
sleep 5 ; mount /dev/etherd/e0.0 /mnt/aoe -onoatime

The rc.local script is run at boot time after all other services have started, so if you are loading a file system used for mysql, user home data or similar you will probably want to also add a line after the mount to restart said services. You’ll also notice two things about the entries we added to rc.local; The first is the sleep delay before the mount, this allows the aoe kernel module to complete its discovery process for AoE file systems before we try to mount it. Then, we are using the noatime option on the mount command, which disables the updating of the last access time on files during read/write operations. This is important because traditionally whenever a file is read from disk, it causes a write operation back to disk to update the atime attribute on the file, so disabling atime usage can greatly reduce i/o calls (effectively in half for reads), which is especially significant for networked file systems.

Conclusions
I have had an overall good experience with AoE so far, it is incredibly simple and very reliable as an implementation. The only issue I have seen is the scalability of it and I attribute this more to the vblade server package than AoE as a protocol. There appears to be a degradation in I/O throughput performance for exported file systems that is in-line with the number of (instances) file systems you export on the same physical server. The best usage example of this is that in my environment I run vblade on one server with exports to 54 servers, the throughput when there is 1-10 instances running averages about 51MB/s (408Mbit), as that increases though to 54 instances, the throughput per client server drops drastically to an average of 14MB/s (112Mbit). This is a very sharp decrease in performance, one that makes the viability of vblade in much larger of a setup questionable.

I do need to caution that this issue may be environment specific as speaking to other vblade users has produced mixed feedback, some do not experience this kind of performance loss while others do. I will also note that I run vblade on a second storage device, on the same private network as the 54 instance vblade server, and this second storage device has only 4 instances running with an average throughput of 71MB/s (568Mbit). So the conclusion you draw from this is up to you, at the end of the day I am more than happy with the implementation as a whole and can accept the loss of performance for the larger implementation in the name of reliability and simplicity.

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4 Comments for this entry

  • Michael Adams

    I read over this, and am curious if it’d be possible to use tinc-vpn to turn this into an iSCSI-lite. Also curious if btrfs would work better than ext3.

    http://unquietwiki.blogspot.com/2011/06/recipe-for-doing-semi-routed-ata-over.html

  • xnor

    You are basically using aoe as a network block device. So why not use nbd? It’s already in the kernel. I don’t see much point in using aoe if no ata-to-aoe hardware chip is present.

  • Justin Traer

    Hi,

    This is a neat write up. I’ve been interesting in trying out AoE for a while now.

    I’d like to warn you that MySQL’s data files over any type of networked file system should be discouraged as there would be a race condition. If MySQL starts before the mount is up, there maybe data loss.

    Also, I’d be concerned about the the stability of any database storing it’s info on network file system.

  • Tracy Reed

    Nice writeup!

    I have been using AoE for 6 years. I really like it. Much easier and simpler to deal with than iSCSI. In practical terms with modern CPUs the performance is probably about the same unless you really are maxing out your network. Do people still bother with TCP offload for iSCSI? If so AoE would be a benefit because there is no TCP to be offloaded. But I find that physical disk limitations almost always prevent you from regularly reaching 1Gb/s unless you put a lot of disks in the array, especially on seeking (non-streaming) workloads like mail, databases, etc. But in the near future I may be deploying 48 10k RPM SAS disks so my 2Gb/s (802.3ad bonded gig-e pair) may actually become saturated for once. I can definitely saturate it for transfers that go from cache to cache resulting in 200MB/s of actual application data transfer speed. So AoE itself is no slouch.

    Be sure to join the:

    aoetools-discuss@lists.sourceforge.net

    mailing list and there is a #aoe IRC channel on freenode. Only a few of us idle there so if you ask a question be patient as it may be hours before someone gets back to you.

    I know the wikipedia page says “high-performance access of SATA storage devices over Ethernet networks” but note that it is in no way SATA specific. I export SCSI drives with it. It is unfortunate that iSCSI has a more “enterprisey” feel to it because it has SCSI in the name an AoE less so because it has “ATA” in the expanded acronym.

    You should point out that one should always get the latest aoe kernel module source as what comes with the kernel has a tendency to be quite old. Especially in RHEL5.

    You should also be careful of partition alignment issues. If you export an LVM inside a partition and then the VM installed into it creates a partition also all of your disk writes will be mis-aligned. This requires special disk partitioning hackery to get around. iSCSI probably has the same issue but it is important to be aware of it. To avoid this I just use lvm to create a physical volume of the raw disk device.

    I currently run a vblade for each of my 35 exports (I have 8 machines in my SAN exporting AoE, that just happens to be the one with the most LUNs exported) and have not seen a performance decreased with number of vblades running. In old vblade implementations (a few years ago) there used to be the “thundering herd” problem where each packet that came in would wake up each vblade to see if the packet was for them. That has been fixed and now only the appropriate process gets to look at the packet.

    Everyone mentions AoE not being routable. I think that is a very good thing. AoE is not routable in the same sense that TCP is not routable. You have to wrap TCP in something else, like IP, to make it routable. You can do the same thing with AoE if you want. This makes the design of both TCP and AoE much better. There are many ways to wrap/tunnel/bridge AoE, some easier than others. Here is just one article that came out last month describing how to do it:

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/03/08/aoe_and_mpls_routability/

    It is funny that you are using sparse files for thin provisioning. I am considering that also. Although I am also thinking I should probably keep it simple. My setup is tricky enough already, not sure if I want to go for sparse files. Probably not. I almost always end up needing more spindles as opposed to more space. I’m big on keeping the performance as high as possible.

    Enough for now, stop by the IRC channel or drop me an email if you have any AoE questions or problems.

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