Matt Connolly's Blog

my brain dumps here…

Monthly Archives: December 2013

Happy Holidays

This is a quick happy holidays and thank you to all the people and companies that have done great things in 2013. In no particular order:


I’ve enjoyed many a podcast episode this year. My favourites are the Edge Cases featuring Wolf Rentzsch and Andrew Pontious, Accidental Tech Podcast featuring John Siracusa, Casey Liss and Marco Arment and Rails Casts by Ryan Bates.
Thank you all for your hard work putting your respective shows together. Your efforts are greatly appreciated, and I hope you are getting enough out of it so that it’s worthwhile continuing in 2014!


JetBrains, makers of Rubymine. These guys pump out great work. If you’re keen to get involved in the early access program you can get nightly or weekly builds. Twice this year I’ve submitted a bug and within a week had it verified by JetBrains, fixed, in a build and in my hands. Their CI system even updates the bug with the build number including the fix. Seriously impressive. They set the bar so high, I challenge any company (including myself) to match their effective communication rapid turn around on issues.

Joyent for actually innovating in the cloud, and your contributions to open source projects such as NodeJS and SmartOS! Pretty impressive community engagement, not only in open source code, but community events too… What a shame I don’t live in San Francisco to attend and thank you guys in person.

Github for helping open source software and providing an awesome platform for collaboration. So many projects benefit from being on Github.

Apple, thanks for making great computers and devices. Well done on 64 bit ARM. The technology improvements in iOS 7 are great, however, my new iPhone 5S doesn’t feel a single bit faster than my previous iPhone 5 due to excessive use of ease out animations which have no place in a User Interface. Too many of my bug reports have been closed as “works as intended”, when the problem is in the design not the implementation. Oh well.

Products / Services:

Strava has helped me improve in my cycling and fitness. The website and iPhone apps are shining examples of a great user experience: works well, easy to use, functional and good looking. Thanks for a great product.

Reveal App is a great way to break down the UI of an iOS app. Awesome stuff.

Twitter has been good, mostly because of how people use it. I suppose it’s more thanks to the people on Twitter who I follow.

Black Star Coffee, it’s how I start my day! Great coffee.


ZeroMQ: This is awesome. Reading the ZeroMQ guide was simply fantastic. This has changed my approach to communications in computing. Say goodbye to mutexes and locks and hello to messages and event driven applications. Special thanks to Pieter Hintjens for his attention to the ZeroMQ mailing lists, and to all of the contributors to a great project.

SmartOS: Totally the best way to run a hypervisor stack. The web page says it all: ZFS + DTrace + Zones + KVM. Get into it. Use ZFS. You need a file system that can verify your data. Hard drives cannot be trusted. I repeat, use ZFS.

Using ZFS Snapshots on Time Machine backups.

I use time machine because it’s an awesome backup program. However, I don’t really trust hard drives that much, and I happen to be a bit of a file system geek, so I backup my laptop an iMac to another machine that stores the data on ZFS.

I first did this using Netatalk on OpenSolaris, then OpenIndiana, and now on SmartOS. Netatalk is an open source project for running AFP (Apple Filesharing Protocol) services on unix operatings systems. It has great support for new features in the protocol required for Time Machine. As far as I’m aware, all embedded NAS devices use this software.

Sometimes, Time Machine “eats itself”. A backup will fail with a message like “Verification failed”, and you’ll need to make a new one. I’ve never managed to recover the disk from this point using Disk Utility.

My setup is RaidZ of 3 x 2TB drives, giving a total of 4TB of storage space (and 2TB redundancy). In the four years I’ve been running this, I have had 3 drives go bad and replace them. They’re cheap drives, but I’ve never lost data due to a bad disk and having to replace it. I’ve also seen silent data corruptions, and know that ZFS has corrected them for me.

Starting a new backup is a pain, so what do I do?

ZFS Snapshots

I have a script, which looks like this:

if [ -n "$1" ]; then
SNAPSHOT=`date "+%Y%m%d_%H%M"`$SUFFIX
echo "Creating zfs snapshot: $SNAPSHOT"
ssh -x $SERVER zfs snapshot $ZFS@$SNAPSHOT

This uses the zfs snapshot command to create a snapshot of the backup. There’s another one for my iMac backup. I run this script manually for the ZFS file system (directory) for each backup. I’m working on an automatic solution that listens to system logs to know when the backup has completed and the volume is unmounted, but it’s not finished yet (like many things). Running the script takes about a second.

Purging snapshots

My current list of snapshots looks like this:

matt@vault:~$ zfs list -r -t all zones/MacBackup/MattBookPro
NAME                                      USED  AVAIL  REFER  MOUNTPOINT
zones/MacBackup/MattBookPro               574G   435G   349G  /MacBackup/MattBookPro
zones/MacBackup/MattBookPro@20131124_1344 627M      -   351G  -
zones/MacBackup/MattBookPro@20131205_0813 251M      -   349G  -
zones/MacBackup/MattBookPro@20131212_0643 0         -   349G  -

The used at the top shows the space used by this file system and all of its snapshots. The used column for the snapshot shows how much space is used by that snapshot on its own.

Purging old snapshots is a manual process for now. One day I’ll get around to keeping a snapshots on a rule like time machine’s hourly, daily, weekly rules.

Rolling back

So when Time Machine goes bad, it’s as simple as rolling back to the latest snapshot, which was a known good state.

My steps are:

  1. shut down netatalk service
  2. zfs rollback
  3. delete netatalk inode database files
  4. restart netatalk service
  5. rescan directory to recreate inode numbers (using netatalks “dbd -r ” command.)

This process is a little more involved, but still much faster than making a whole new backup.

The main reason for this is that HFS uses an “inode” number to uniquely identify each file on a volume. This is one trick that Mac Aliases use to track a file even if it changes name and moves to another directory. This concept doesn’t exist in other file systems, and so Netatalk has to maintain a database of which numbers to use for which files. There’s some rules, like inode numbers can’t be reused and they must not change for a given file.

Unfortunately, ZFS rollback, like any other operation on the server that changes files without netatalk knowing, ends up with files that have no inode number. The bigger problem seems to be deleting files and leaving their inodes in that database. This tends to make Time Machine quite unhappy about using that network share. So after a rollback, I have a rule that I nuke netatalk’s database and recreate it.

This violates the rule that inode numbers shouldn’t change (unless they magically come out the same, which I highly doubt), but this hasn’t seemed to cause a problem for me. Imagine plugging a new computer into a time machine volume, it has no knowledge of what the inode numbers were, so it just starts using them as is. It’s more likely to be an issue for Netatalk scanning a directory and seeing inodes for files that are no longer there.

Recreating the netatalk inode database can take an hour or two, but it’s local to the server and much faster than a complete network backup which also looses your history.


This used to happen a lot. Say once every 3-4 months when I first started doing it. This may have been due to bugs in Time Machine, bugs in Netatalk or incompatibilities between them. It certainly wasn’t due to data corruptions.


  • Time Machine, yay!
  • ZFS durability and integrity.
  • ZFS snapshots allow point in time recovery of my backup volume.
  • ZFS on disk compression to save backup space!
  • Netatalk uses standard AFP protocol, so time machine volume can be accessed from your restore partition or a new mac – no extra software required on the mac!


  • Effort – complexity to manage, install & configure netatalk, etc.
  • Rollback time.
  • Network backups are slow.

As time has gone on, both Time Machine and Netatalk have improved substantially. And I’ve added an SSD cache to the server, and its is swimmingly fast and reliable. And thanks to ZFS, durable and free of corruptions. I think I’ve had this happen only twice in the last year, and both times was on Mountain Lion. I haven’t had to do a single rollback since starting to use Mavericks beta back around June.

Where to from here?

I’d still like to see a faster solution, and I have a plan: a network block device.

This would, however, require some software to be installed on the mac, so it may not be as easy to use in a disaster recover scenario.

ZFS has a feature called a “volume”. When you create one, it appears to the system (that’s running zfs) as another block device, just like a physical hard disk, or file. A file system can be created on this volume which can then be mounted locally. I use this for the disks in virtual machines, and can snapshot them and rollback just as if they were a file system tree of files.

There’s an existing server module that’s been around for a while:

If this volume could be mounted across the network on a mac, the volume could be formatted as HFS+ and Time Machine could backup to it using local disk mode, skipping all the slow sparse image file system work. And there’s a lot of work. My time machine backup of a Mac with a 256GB disk creates a whopping 57206 files in the bands directory of the sparseimage. It’s a lot of work to traverse these files, even locally on the server.

This is my next best solution to actually using ZFS on mac. Whatever “reasons” Apple has for ditching them are not good enough simply because we don’t know what they are. ZFS is a complex beast. Apple is good at simplifying things. It could be the perfect solution.