Good Riddance to AUFS

December 08, 2017 at 03:00 PM | categories: Docker, Mozilla | View Comments

For over a year, AUFS - a layering filesystem for Linux - has been giving me fits.

As I initially measured last year, AUFS has... suboptimal performance characteristics. The crux of the problem is that AUFS obtains a global lock in the Linux kernel (at least version 3.13) for various I/O operations, including stat(). If you have more than a couple of active CPU cores, the overhead from excessive kernel locking inside _raw_spin_lock() can add more overhead than extra CPU cores add capacity. That's right: under certain workloads, adding more CPU cores actually slows down execution due to cores being starved waiting for a global lock in the kernel!

If that weren't enough, AUFS can also violate POSIX filesystem guarantees under load. It appears that AUFS sometimes forgets about created files or has race conditions that prevent created files from being visible to readers until many seconds later! I think this issue only occurs when there are concurrent threads creating files.

These two characteristics of AUFS have inflicted a lot of hardship on Firefox's continuous integration. Large parts of Firefox's CI execute in Docker. And the host environment for Docker has historically used Ubuntu 14.04 with Linux 3.13 and Docker using AUFS. AUFS was/is the default storage driver for many versions of Docker. When this storage driver is used, all files inside Docker containers are backed by AUFS unless a Docker volume (a directory bind mounted from the host filesystem - EXT4 in our case) is in play.

When we started using EC2 instances with more CPU cores, we weren't getting a linear speedup for CPU bound operations. Instead, CPU cycles were being spent inside the kernel. Stack profiling showed AUFS as the culprit. We were thus unable to leverage more powerful EC2 instances because adding more cores would only provide marginal to negative gains against significant cost expenditure.

We worked around this problem by making heavy use of Docker volumes for tasks incurring significant I/O. This included version control clones and checkouts.

Somewhere along the line, we discovered that AUFS volumes were also the cause of several random file not found errors throughout automation. Initially, we thought many of these errors were due to bugs in the underlying tools (Mercurial and Firefox's build system were common victims because they do lots of concurrent I/O). When the bugs mysteriously went away after ensuring certain operations were performed on EXT4 volumes, we were able to blame AUFS for the myriad of filesystem consistency problems.

Earlier today, we pushed out a change to upgrade Firefox's CI to Linux 4.4 and switched Docker from AUFS to overlayfs (using the overlay2 storage driver). The improvements exceeded my expectations.

Linux build times have decreased by ~4 minutes, from ~750s to ~510s.

Linux Rust test times have decreased by ~4 minutes, from ~615s to ~380s.

Linux PGO build times have decreased by ~5 minutes, from ~2130s to ~1820s.

And this is just the build side of the world. I don't have numbers off hand, but I suspect many tests also got a nice speedup from this change.

Multiplied by thousands of tasks per day and factoring in the cost to operate these machines, the elimination of AUFS has substantially increased the efficiency (and reliability) of Firefox CI and easily saved Mozilla tens of thousands of dollars per year. And that's just factoring in the savings in the AWS bill. Time is money and people are a lot more expensive than AWS instances (you can run over 3,000 c5.large EC2 instances at spot pricing for what it costs to employ me when I'm on the clock). So the real win here comes from Firefox developers being able to move faster because their builds and tests complete several minutes faster.

In conclusion, if you care about performance or filesystem correctness, avoid AUFS. Use overlayfs instead.

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