Josef “Jeff” Sipek

O_PONIES & Other Assorted Wishes

You might have already heard about ext4 “eating” people’s data. That’s simply not true.

While I am far from being a fan of ext4, I feel an obligation to set the record straight. But first, let me give you some references with an approximate timeline. I’m sure I managed to leave out a ton of details.

In mid-January, a bug titled Ext4 data loss showed up in the Ubuntu bug tracker. The complaining users apparently were using data on system crashes when using ext4. (The fact that Ubuntu likes to include every unstable & crappy driver into their kernels doesn’t help at all.) As part of the discussion, Ted Ts’o explained that the problem wasn’t with ext4 but with applications that did not ensure that the data they wrote was actually safe. The people did not like hearing that.

Things went pretty quiet until mid-March. That’s when a slashdot article made it painfully obvious that many of today’s apps are buggy. Some applications (KDE being a whole suite of applications) gotten used to the fact that ext3 was a very common filesystem used by Linux installations. More specifically, they got used to the behavior that ext3’s default mount option (data=ordered) provided. This is really the issue. The application developers assumed that the POSIX interface gave them more guarantees that it did! To make matters worse, the one way to ensure that the contents of a file get to the disk (the fsync system call) is very expensive on ext3. So over the past (almost) decade that ext3 has been around, application developers have been “trained” (think Wikipedia article: Pavlov reflexes) to not use fsync — on ext3, it’s expensive and the likelyhood of you losing data is much lower due to the default mount options. ext4’s fsync implementation, much like other filesystems’ implementations (e.g., XFS) does not suffer from this. (You may have heard about fsync on ext3 being expensive almost a year ago when Firefox was hit by this: Fsyncers and curveballs (the Firefox 3 fsync() problem). Note that in this case, as Ted Ts’o points out, the problem is that Firefox uses the same thread to draw the UI and do IO. That’s plain stupid.)

Over the next few days, Ted Ts’o posted two blog entries about delayed allocation (people seem to like to blame it for dataloss): Delayed allocation and the zero-length file problem, Don’t fear the fsync!.

About the same time, Eric Sandeen wrote a blurb about the state of affairs: fsync, sigh. He points out that XFS has faced the same issue years ago. When the application developers were confronted about their application being broken, they just put fingers in their ears, hummed loudly, yelled “I can’t hear you!” There is a word for that, and here’s the OED definition for it:


The asserting (of anything) to be untrue or untenable; contradiction of a statement or allegation as untrue or invalid; also, the denying of the existence or reality of a thing.

The problem is application developers not wanting to believe that it’s an application problem. Well, it really is! Not only are those apps broken, but they are not portable. AIX, IRIX, or Solaris will not give you the same guarantees as ext3!

(Eric is also trying to fight the common misconception that XFS nulls files: XFS does not null files, and requires no flux, which I assure you is not the case.)

About a week later, on an episode of Free Software Round Table, the problem was discussed a bit. They got most of it right :) (Here’s a 55MB mp3 of the show: 2009-03-21.)

When April 1st came about, the linux-fsdevel mailing list got a patch from yours truly: [PATCH] fs: point out any processes using O_PONIES. (The pony thing…it’s a bit of an inside joke among the Linux filesystem developers.) The idea of having O_PONIES first came up in #linuxfs on OFTC. While I don’t remember who first thought of it (my guess would be Eric), I know for sure that it wasn’t me. At the same time, I couldn’t help it, and considering that the patch took only a minute to make (and compile test), it was well worth it.

Few days later, during the Linux Storage and Filesystem workshop, the whole fsync issue got some discussion time. (See “Rename, fsync, and ponies” at Linux Storage and Filesystem workshop, day 1.) The part that really amused me:

Prior to Ted Ts’o’s session on fsync() and rename(), some joker filled the room with coloring-book pages depicting ponies. These pages reflected the sentiment that Ted has often expressed: application developers are asking too much of the filesystem, so they might as well request a pony while they’re at it.

In the comments for that article you can find Ted Ts’o saying:

Actually, it was Josef ’Jeff’ Sipek who deserves the first mention of application programmers asking for pones, when he posted an April Fools patch submission for the new open flag, O_PONIES — unreasonable file system assumptions desired.

Another file system developer who had worked on two major filesystems (ext4 and XFS) had a t-shirt on that had O_PONIES written on the front. And the joker who distributed the colouring book pages with pictures of ponies was another file system developer working yet another next generation file system.

Application programmers, while they were questioning my competence, judgement, and even my paternity, didn’t quite believe me when I told them that I was the moderate on these issues, but it’s safe to say that most of the file system developers in the room were utterly unsympathetic to the idea that it was a good idea to encourage application programmers to avoid the use of fsync(). About the only one who was also a moderate in the room was Val Aurora (formerly Henson). Both of us recognize that ext3’s data=ordered mode was responsible for people deciding that fsync() was harmful, and I’ve said already that if we had known how badly it would encourage application writers to Do The Wrong Thing, I would have pushed hard not to make data=ordered the default. Unfortunately, memory wasn’t as plentiful in those days, and so the associated page writeback latencies wasn’t nearly as bad ten years ago.

Hrm, I’m not sure how to take it…he makes it sound like I’m an extremist. Jeff — a freedom fighter for sanity of filesystem interfaces! :) As I said, I can’t take credit for the idea of O_PONIES. As I was writing this entry, I mentioned it to Eric and he promptly wrote an entry of his own: Coming clean on O_PONIES. It looks like he isn’t sure that he was the one to invent it! I’ll give him credit for it anyway.

The next day, a group photo of the attendees was taken… You can clearly see Val Aurora wearing an O_PONIES shirt. The idea was Eric’s, and as far as I know, he had his shirt the first day.

Fedora 11 is supposedly going to use ext4 as the default filesystem. When Ars Technica published an article about it (First look: Fedora 11 beta shows promise), some misguided people thinking that that ext4 eats your data left a bunch of comments….*sigh*

Well, there you have it. That’s the summary of events with some of my thoughts interleaved. If you are writing a userspace application that does file IO, do the right thing, fsync the data you care about (or at least fdatasync).

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