NAS, Part 3: Decisions | Choosing a Filesystem

It's another entry in my NAS series! It's still 2020 for me as I type this, but I hope that 2021 is going well. Before we continue, I recommend checking out the previous posts in this series:

Part 1 in particular is useful for context as to the hardware I'm using. Part 2 is a review of my experience assembling the system. In this part, we're going to look at my choice of filesystem and OS.

I left off in the last post after I'd booted into the installer for Ubuntu Server 20.04. After running through that installer, I performed my collection of initial setup tasks for any server I manage:

With my basic setup completed, I also setup a few things specific to devices that have SMART-enabled storage devices:

With these out of the way and after making a mental note to sort out backups, I could now play with filesystems with a view to making a decision. The 2 contenders:

Both of these filesystems are designed to be spread across multiple disks in what's known as a pool thereof. The idea behind them is to enable multiple disks to be presented to the user as a single big directory, with the complexities as to which disk(s) a file is/are stored on. They also come with extra nice features, such as checksumming (which allows them to detect corruption), snapshotting (taking snapshots of what the filesystem looks like at a given point in time), automatic data deduplication, compression, snapshot send / receiving, and more!

Overview: ZFS

ZFS is a filesystem originally developed by Sun Microsystems in 2001. Since then, it has been continually developed and improved. After Oracle bought Sun Microsystems in 2010, the source code for ZFS was closed - hence the OpenZFS fork was born. It's licenced under the CDDL, which isn't compatible with the GPLv2 used by the Linux Kernel. This causes some minor installation issues.

As a filesystem, it seems to be widely accepted to be rock solid and mature. It's used across the globe by home users and businesses both large and small to store huge volumes of data. Given its long history, it has proven its capability to store data safely.

It does however have some limitations. For one, it only has limited support for adding drives to a zpool (a pool of disks in the ZFS world), which is a problem for me - as I'd prefer to have the ability to add drives 1 at a time. It also has limited support for changing key options such as the compression algorithm later, as this will only affect new files - and the only way to recompress old files is to copy them in and out of the disk again.

Overview: Btrfs

Btrfs, or B-Tree File System is a newer filesystem that development upon which began in 2007, and was accepted into the Linux Kernel in 2009 with the release of version 1.0. It's licenced under the GPLv2, the same licence as the Linux Kernel. As of 2020, many different distributions of Linux ship with btrfs installed by default - even if it isn't the default filesystem (that's ext4 in most cases).

Unlike ZFS, Btrfs isn't as well-tested in production settings. In particular, it's raid5 and raid6 modes of operation are not well tested (though this isn't a problem, since raid1 operates at file/block level and not disk level as it does with ZFS, which enables us to use interesting setups like raid1 striped across 3 disks). Despite this, it does look to be stable enough - particularly as openSUSE has set it to be the default filesystem.

It has a number of tempting features over ZFS too. For example, it supports adding drives 1 at a time, and you can even convert your entire pool from 1 raid level to another dynamically while it's still mounted! The same goes for converting between compression algorithms - it's all done using a generic filter system.

Such a system is useful when adding new disks to the pool too, as they it can be used to rebalance data across all the disks present - allowing for new disks to be accounted for and faulty disks to be removed, preserving the integrity of the data while a replacement disk is ordered for example.

While btrfs does have a bold list of features that they'd like to implement, they haven't gotten around to all of them yet (the status of existing features can be found here). For example, while ZFS can use an SSD as a dedicated caching device, btrfs doesn't yet have this ability - and nobody appears to have claimed the task on the wiki.


Inspired by a recent Ars Technica article, I'd like to test the performance of the 2 filesystems at hand. I ran the following tests for reading and writing separately:

I did this for both ZFS in raid5 mode, and Btrfs in raid5 (though if I go with btrfs I'll be using raid1, as I later discovered - which I theorise would yield a minor performance improvement). I tested ZFS twice: once with gzip compression, and again with zstd compression. As far as I can tell, Btrfs doesn't have compression enabled by default. Other than the compression mode, no other tuning was done - all the settings were left at their defaults. Both filesystems were completely empty aside from the test files, which were created automatically in a chowned subdirectory by fio.

Graphs showing the results of the above tests. See the discussion below.

The graph uses a logarithmic scale. My initial impressions are that ZFS benefits from parallelisation to a much greater extent than btrfs - though I suspect that I may be CPU bound here, which is an unexpected finding. I may also be RAM-bound too, as I observed a significant increase in RAM usage when both filesystems were under load. Buying another 8GB would probably go a long way to alleviating that issue.

Other than that, zstd appears to provide a measurable performance improvement over gzip compression. Btrfs also appears to benefit from writing larger blocks over smaller ones.

Overall, some upgrades to my NAS are on the cards should I be unsatisfied with the performance in future:

But for now, I'm perfectly content with these speeds. Especially since I have a single gigabit ethernet port on my storage NAS, I'm not going to need anything above 1000Mbps - which is 119.2 MiB/s if you'd like to compare against the graph above.


As for my final choice of filesystem, I think I'm going to go with btrfs. While I'm aware that it isn't as 'proven' as ZFS - and slightly less performant too - I have a number of reasons for this decision:

  1. Btrfs allows you to add disks 1 at a time, and ZFS makes this difficult
  2. Btrfs has the ability to convert to a different raid level at a later date if I change my mind
  3. Btrfs is easier to install, since it's already built-in to Ubuntu Server 20.04.

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