I recently converted the root filesystem on my netbook, a now rather old Acer Aspire One with an incredibly slow 1.8″ Flash SSD, from the ext3 I had been using for quite a while to the shiny new btrfs, which becomes more stable every time the Linux kernel gets updated. As I don’t keep any data of particular importance on there, I had no problem with running an experimental filesystem on it.
Not only was the conversion relatively painless, but the system now performs better than it ever did with ext3/4.
Btrfs supports a nearly painless conversion from ext2/3/4 due to its flexible design. Because btrfs has almost no fixed locations for metadata on the disc, it is actually possible to allocate btrfs metadata inside the free space in an ext filesystem. Given that, all that’s required to convert a filesystem is to run btrfs-convert on it- the only requirement is that the filesystem not be mounted.
As the test subject of this experiment was just my netbook, this was easy, since I keep a rather simple partition layout on that machine. In fact, before the conversion, I had a single 8GB ext4 partition on the system’s rather pathetic SSD, and that was the extent of available storage. After backing up the contents of my home directory to another machine, I proceeded to decimate the contents of my home directory and drop the amount of storage in-use from about 6GB to more like 3GB, a healthy gain.
To run a system on Btrfs, there must, of course, be support for it in the kernel. Because I customarily build my own kernels on my netbook, it was a simple matter of enabling Btrfs support and rebuilding my kernel image. Most distribution kernels probably won’t have such support enabled since the filesystem is still under rather heavy development, so it was fortunate that my setup made it so easy.
The system under consideration runs GRUB 2, currently version 1.97, which has no native btrfs support. That’s a problem, as I was hoping to only have a single partition. With a little research, it was easy to find that no version of GRUB currently supports booting from btrfs, although there is an experimental patchset with provides basic btrfs support in a module. Unfortunately, to load a module, GRUB needs to be able to read the partition in which the module resides. If my /boot is on btrfs, that’s a bit troublesome. Thus, the only option is for me to create a separate partition for /boot, containing GRUB’s files and my Linux kernel image to boot, formatted with some other file system. The obvious choice was the tried-and-true ext3.
This presents a small problem, in that I need to resize my existing root partition to make room on the disc for a small /boot partition. Easily remedied, however, with application of the Ultimate Boot CD, which includes the wonderful Parted Magic. GParted, included in Parted Magic, made short work of resizing the existing partition and its filesystem, as well as moving that partition to the end of the disc, which eventually left me with a shiny new ext3 partition filling the first 64MB of the disc.
After creating my new /boot partition, it was a simple matter of copying the contents of /boot on the old partition to the new one, adjusting the fstab, and changing my kernel command line in the GRUB config file to mount /dev/sda2 as root rather than sda1.
Move the contents of /boot:
$ mount /dev/sda1 /mnt/boot
$ cp -a /boot /mnt/boot
$ rm -r /boot
/dev/sda1 /boot ext3 defaults 0 1
/dev/sda2 / btrfs defaults 0 1
Finally, it was time to actually run btrfs-convert. I booted the system into the Arch Linux installer (mostly an arbitrary choice, since I had that image laying around) and installed the btrfs utilities package (btrfs-progs-unstable) in the live environment. Then it was a simple matter of running btrfs-convert on /dev/sda2 and waiting about 15 minutes, during which time the disc was being hit pretty hard. Finally, a reboot.
..following which the system failed to come back up, with GRUB complaining loudly about being unable to find its files. I booted the system from the Arch installer once again and ran grub-install on sda1 in order to reconfigure GRUB to handle the changed disc layout. With another reboot, everything was fine.
With my new file system in place, I took some time to tweak the mount options for the new partition. Btrfs is able to tune itself for solid-state devices, and will set those options automatically. From the Btrfs FAQ:
There are some optimizations for SSD drives, and you can enable them by mounting with -o ssd. As of 2.6.31-rc1, this mount option will be enabled if Btrfs is able to detect non-rotating storage.
However, there’s also a ssd_spread option:
Mount -o ssd_spread is more strict about finding a large unused region of the disk for new allocations, which tends to fragment the free space more over time. Mount -o ssd_spread is often faster on the less expensive SSD devices
That sounds exactly like my situation- a less expensive SSD device which is very slow when doing extensive writes to ext3/4. In addition to ssd_spread, I turned on the noatime option for the filesystem, which cuts down on writes at the expense of not recording access times for files and directories on the file system. As I’m seldom, if ever, concerned with access times, and especially so on my netbook, I lose nothing from such a change and gain (hopefully) increased performance.
Thus, my final (optimized) fstab line for the root filesystem:
/dev/sda2 / btrfs defaults,noatime,ssd_spread 0
After running with the new setup for about a week and working on normal tasks with it, I can safely say that on my AA1, Btrfs with ssd_spread is significantly more responsive than ext4 ever was. While running Firefox, for example, the system would sometimes stop responding to input while hitting the disc fairly hard.
With Btrfs, I no longer have any such problem- everything remains responsive even under fairly high I/O load (such as while Firefox is downloading data from Firefox Sync, or when I’m applying updates).