Chapter 6. Storage Decisions

Storage is found in many parts of the OpenStack stack, and the differing types can cause confusion to even experienced cloud engineers. This section focuses on persistent storage options you can configure with your cloud. It's important to understand the distinction between ephemeral storage and persistent storage.

 Ephemeral Storage

If you deploy only the OpenStack Compute Service (nova), your users do not have access to any form of persistent storage by default. The disks associated with VMs are "ephemeral," meaning that (from the user's point of view) they effectively disappear when a virtual machine is terminated.

 Persistent Storage

Persistent storage means that the storage resource outlives any other resource and is always available, regardless of the state of a running instance.

Today, OpenStack clouds explicitly support three types of persistent storage: object storage, block storage, and file system storage.

 Object Storage

With object storage, users access binary objects through a REST API. You may be familiar with Amazon S3, which is a well-known example of an object storage system. Object storage is implemented in OpenStack by the OpenStack Object Storage (swift) project. If your intended users need to archive or manage large datasets, you want to provide them with object storage. In addition, OpenStack can store your virtual machine (VM) images inside of an object storage system, as an alternative to storing the images on a file system.

OpenStack Object Storage provides a highly scalable, highly available storage solution by relaxing some of the constraints of traditional file systems. In designing and procuring for such a cluster, it is important to understand some key concepts about its operation. Essentially, this type of storage is built on the idea that all storage hardware fails, at every level, at some point. Infrequently encountered failures that would hamstring other storage systems, such as issues taking down RAID cards or entire servers, are handled gracefully with OpenStack Object Storage.

A good document describing the Object Storage architecture is found within the developer documentation—read this first. Once you understand the architecture, you should know what a proxy server does and how zones work. However, some important points are often missed at first glance.

When designing your cluster, you must consider durability and availability. Understand that the predominant source of these is the spread and placement of your data, rather than the reliability of the hardware. Consider the default value of the number of replicas, which is three. This means that before an object is marked as having been written, at least two copies exist—in case a single server fails to write, the third copy may or may not yet exist when the write operation initially returns. Altering this number increases the robustness of your data, but reduces the amount of storage you have available. Next, look at the placement of your servers. Consider spreading them widely throughout your data center's network and power-failure zones. Is a zone a rack, a server, or a disk?

Object Storage's network patterns might seem unfamiliar at first. Consider these main traffic flows:

Object Storage is very "chatty" among servers hosting data—even a small cluster does megabytes/second of traffic, which is predominantly, “Do you have the object?”/“Yes I have the object!” Of course, if the answer to the aforementioned question is negative or the request times out, replication of the object begins.

Consider the scenario where an entire server fails and 24 TB of data needs to be transferred "immediately" to remain at three copies—this can put significant load on the network.

Another fact that's often forgotten is that when a new file is being uploaded, the proxy server must write out as many streams as there are replicas—giving a multiple of network traffic. For a three-replica cluster, 10 Gbps in means 30 Gbps out. Combining this with the previous high bandwidth demands of replication is what results in the recommendation that your private network be of significantly higher bandwidth than your public need be. Oh, and OpenStack Object Storage communicates internally with unencrypted, unauthenticated rsync for performance—you do want the private network to be private.

The remaining point on bandwidth is the public-facing portion. The swift-proxy service is stateless, which means that you can easily add more and use HTTP load-balancing methods to share bandwidth and availability between them.

More proxies means more bandwidth, if your storage can keep up.

 Shared File Systems Service

The Shared File Systems service provides a set of services for management of Shared File Systems in a multi-tenant cloud environment. Users interact with Shared File Systems service by mounting remote File Systems on their instances with the following usage of those systems for file storing and exchange. Shared File Systems service provides you with shares. A share is a remote, mountable file system. You can mount a share to and access a share from several hosts by several users at a time. With shares, user can also:

  • Create a share specifying its size, shared file system protocol, visibility level

  • Create a share on either a share server or standalone, depending on the selected back-end mode, with or without using a share network.

  • Specify access rules and security services for existing shares.

  • Combine several shares in groups to keep data consistency inside the groups for the following safe group operations.

  • Create a snapshot of a selected share or a share group for storing the existing shares consistently or creating new shares from that snapshot in a consistent way

  • Create a share from a snapshot.

  • Set rate limits and quotas for specific shares and snapshots

  • View usage of share resources

  • Remove shares.

Like Block Storage, the Shared File Systems service is persistent. It can be:

  • Mounted to any number of client machines.

  • Detached from one instance and attached to another without data loss. During this process the data are safe unless the Shared File Systems service itself is changed or removed.

Shares are provided by the Shared File Systems service. In OpenStack, Shared File Systems service is implemented by Shared File System (manila) project, which supports multiple back-ends in the form of drivers. The Shared File Systems service can be configured to provision shares from one or more back-ends. Share servers are, mostly, virtual machines that export file shares via different protocols such as NFS, CIFS, GlusterFS, or HDFS.

 OpenStack Storage Concepts

Table 6.1, “OpenStack storage” explains the different storage concepts provided by OpenStack.

Table 6.1. OpenStack storage
Ephemeral storage Block storage Object storage Shared File System storage

Used to…

Run operating system and scratch space

Add additional persistent storage to a virtual machine (VM)

Store data, including VM images

Add additional persistent storage to a virtual machine

Accessed through…

A file system

A block device that can be partitioned, formatted, and mounted (such as, /dev/vdc)


A Shared File Systems service share (either manila managed or an external one registered in manila) that can be partitioned, formatted and mounted (such as /dev/vdc)

Accessible from…

Within a VM

Within a VM


Within a VM

Managed by…

OpenStack Compute (nova)

OpenStack Block Storage (cinder)

OpenStack Object Storage (swift)

OpenStack Shared File System Storage (manila)

Persists until…

VM is terminated

Deleted by user

Deleted by user

Deleted by user

Sizing determined by…

Administrator configuration of size settings, known as flavors

User specification in initial request

Amount of available physical storage

  • User specification in initial request

  • Requests for extension

  • Available user-level quotes

  • Limitations applied by Administrator

Encryption set by…

Parameter in nova.conf

Admin establishing encrypted volume type, then user selecting encrypted volume

Not yet available

Shared File Systems service does not apply any additional encryption above what the share’s back-end storage provides

Example of typical usage…

10 GB first disk, 30 GB second disk

1 TB disk

10s of TBs of dataset storage

Depends completely on the size of back-end storage specified when a share was being created. In case of thin provisioning it can be partial space reservation (for more details see Capabilities and Extra-Specs specification)

 Choosing Storage Back Ends

Users will indicate different needs for their cloud use cases. Some may need fast access to many objects that do not change often, or want to set a time-to-live (TTL) value on a file. Others may access only storage that is mounted with the file system itself, but want it to be replicated instantly when starting a new instance. For other systems, ephemeral storage—storage that is released when a VM attached to it is shut down— is the preferred way. When you select storage back ends, ask the following questions on behalf of your users:

To deploy your storage by using only commodity hardware, you can use a number of open-source packages, as shown in Table 6.2, “Persistent file-based storage support”.

Table 6.2. Persistent file-based storage support
  Object Block File-level[a]














[a] This list of open source file-level shared storage solutions is not exhaustive; other open source solutions exist (MooseFS). Your organization may already have deployed a file-level shared storage solution that you can use.

Also, you need to decide whether you want to support object storage in your cloud. The two common use cases for providing object storage in a compute cloud are:

  • To provide users with a persistent storage mechanism

  • As a scalable, reliable data store for virtual machine images

 Commodity Storage Back-end Technologies

This section provides a high-level overview of the differences among the different commodity storage back end technologies. Depending on your cloud user's needs, you can implement one or many of these technologies in different combinations:

OpenStack Object Storage (swift)

The official OpenStack Object Store implementation. It is a mature technology that has been used for several years in production by Rackspace as the technology behind Rackspace Cloud Files. As it is highly scalable, it is well-suited to managing petabytes of storage. OpenStack Object Storage's advantages are better integration with OpenStack (integrates with OpenStack Identity, works with the OpenStack dashboard interface) and better support for multiple data center deployment through support of asynchronous eventual consistency replication.

Therefore, if you eventually plan on distributing your storage cluster across multiple data centers, if you need unified accounts for your users for both compute and object storage, or if you want to control your object storage with the OpenStack dashboard, you should consider OpenStack Object Storage. More detail can be found about OpenStack Object Storage in the section below.


A scalable storage solution that replicates data across commodity storage nodes. Ceph was originally developed by one of the founders of DreamHost and is currently used in production there.

Ceph was designed to expose different types of storage interfaces to the end user: it supports object storage, block storage, and file-system interfaces, although the file-system interface is not yet considered production-ready. Ceph supports the same API as swift for object storage and can be used as a back end for cinder block storage as well as back-end storage for glance images. Ceph supports "thin provisioning," implemented using copy-on-write.

This can be useful when booting from volume because a new volume can be provisioned very quickly. Ceph also supports keystone-based authentication (as of version 0.56), so it can be a seamless swap in for the default OpenStack swift implementation.

Ceph's advantages are that it gives the administrator more fine-grained control over data distribution and replication strategies, enables you to consolidate your object and block storage, enables very fast provisioning of boot-from-volume instances using thin provisioning, and supports a distributed file-system interface, though this interface is not yet recommended for use in production deployment by the Ceph project.

If you want to manage your object and block storage within a single system, or if you want to support fast boot-from-volume, you should consider Ceph.


A distributed, shared file system. As of Gluster version 3.3, you can use Gluster to consolidate your object storage and file storage into one unified file and object storage solution, which is called Gluster For OpenStack (GFO). GFO uses a customized version of swift that enables Gluster to be used as the back-end storage.

The main reason to use GFO rather than regular swift is if you also want to support a distributed file system, either to support shared storage live migration or to provide it as a separate service to your end users. If you want to manage your object and file storage within a single system, you should consider GFO.


The Logical Volume Manager is a Linux-based system that provides an abstraction layer on top of physical disks to expose logical volumes to the operating system. The LVM back-end implements block storage as LVM logical partitions.

On each host that will house block storage, an administrator must initially create a volume group dedicated to Block Storage volumes. Blocks are created from LVM logical volumes.


LVM does not provide any replication. Typically, administrators configure RAID on nodes that use LVM as block storage to protect against failures of individual hard drives. However, RAID does not protect against a failure of the entire host.


The Solaris iSCSI driver for OpenStack Block Storage implements blocks as ZFS entities. ZFS is a file system that also has the functionality of a volume manager. This is unlike on a Linux system, where there is a separation of volume manager (LVM) and file system (such as, ext3, ext4, xfs, and btrfs). ZFS has a number of advantages over ext4, including improved data-integrity checking.

The ZFS back end for OpenStack Block Storage supports only Solaris-based systems, such as Illumos. While there is a Linux port of ZFS, it is not included in any of the standard Linux distributions, and it has not been tested with OpenStack Block Storage. As with LVM, ZFS does not provide replication across hosts on its own; you need to add a replication solution on top of ZFS if your cloud needs to be able to handle storage-node failures.

We don't recommend ZFS unless you have previous experience with deploying it, since the ZFS back end for Block Storage requires a Solaris-based operating system, and we assume that your experience is primarily with Linux-based systems.


Sheepdog is a userspace distributed storage system. Sheepdog scales to several hundred nodes, and has powerful virtual disk management features like snapshot, cloning, rollback, thin provisioning.

It is essentially an object storage system that manages disks and aggregates the space and performance of disks linearly in hyper scale on commodity hardware in a smart way. On top of its object store, Sheepdog provides elastic volume service and http service. Sheepdog does not assume anything about kernel version and can work nicely with xattr-supported file systems.


We hope that you now have some considerations in mind and questions to ask your future cloud users about their storage use cases. As you can see, your storage decisions will also influence your network design for performance and security needs. Continue with us to make more informed decisions about your OpenStack cloud design.

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