Making consistent backups with LVM


All the important stuff you have should be backed up. On production servers, you don’t want to have down time for the backups, but you want the backups to be consistent anyway. LVM is a very interesting storage system since it provides disk snapshots which are required to make consistent data backup. They can be done when the system is running with no impact on your production environment. It can be used for both desktops and servers running Linux as long as the filesystem that you want to backup is stored on a Logical-Volume. No particular backup software is required to make such backups. You can just use the standard commands such as tar that come for free with Linux. It is recommended that you read the previous pages about LVM before reading this one.

Backups and consistency

If your operating system is running, files can be written at any time. Because the backup can take some time, important files which are references to other files may have changed between the beginning and the end of the backup. Let’s consider that your system hosts a website using Apache and Mysql. People who visit your website can upload images to their profile. When they do that, the file is stored in /www/upload and a new entry is added in a mysql table that refers to that file on the disk.

Here is the situation that we want to avoid:

  • The backup which is not based on LVM snapshots starts.
  • The backup program does a backup of the upload directory
  • A visitor uploads an image. The file is created on the disk and a reference to that is added in the database
  • The backup program does a backup of the database files
  • The backup is now finished

In this example we can see that the backup is inconsistent because the database files which have been backed up contain a reference to a file which does not exist in the upload directory when it was backed up, just because the user uploaded that file when the backup was in the middle of the process. If you restore your system using this backup, the database will refer to a file which is missing. The LVM snapshots are a good solution to this sort of problem.

Creation of an LVM snapshot

An LVM snapshot is a frozen view of an LVM Logical-Volume. When you make modifications to the files of the original volume, the snapshot is not modified. So you end up with two volumes: the normal Logical-Volume of your system and the Logical-Volume of the snapshot. Let’s consider that you run that command at 2am. Then each time you read data from the snapshot you have created, you will see the data as they were at 2am.

You have to run a command to take a snapshot of an LVM Logical-Volume. This command is lvcreate which is also the command you use to create a normal LVM Logical-Volume. Here is the general syntax:

lvcreate -L size -s -n snapname origlv

  • origlv: name of the normal Logical-Volume that you want to backup
  • snapname: name of the snapshot that will be created
  • size: space reserved for the snapshot in your Volume-Group

Let’s take an example: You are running Linux Redhat Enterprise RHEL5. It’s installed on /dev/VolGroup00/LogVolRoot. The size of this Logical-Volume is 16GB and you want to make a backup of it using LVM snapshots. You have 5GB available in your Volume-Group which is called VolGroup00. Here is the appropriate command to do that:

  • creation of the LVM snapshot: lvcreate -L5G -s -n LogVolSnap /dev/VolGroup00/LogVolRoot
  • new situation: now you can see two Logical-Volumes of 16GB each: /dev/VolGroup00/LogVolRoot and /dev/VolGroup00/LogVolSnap
  • destruction of the LVM snapshot: lvremove /dev/VolGroup00/LogVolSnap

You may be surprised to see that the size of the snapshot is 16GB since we passed a size of 5GB to lvcreate. The reason is that the space reserved for the snapshot which is 5GB is only used for data that have changed after the snapshot has been taken. LVM does not keep two copies of the data when you do an LVM snapshot. That’s why the creation of the LVM snapshot is very quick: it’s almost immediate because it does not make any copy at that time.

What really happens is LVM makes a copy of the original data each time a modification is requested on the Logical-Volume. When a block of the Logical-Volume is modified, LVM first makes a copy of the original version which is stored in the snapshot, and then the modification is written on the normal Logical-Volume. So the normal Logical-Volume always contains the latest version of the data and the snapshot only contains a copy of the blocks which have been modified. For each block that has not been modified since the snapshot creation, then the snapshot just contains a reference to the block on the normal Logical-Volume. As a consequence, having a snapshot makes your Logical-Volume slower because two blocks have to be written each time a block is modified on the volume.

It’s important to remember that LVM works at the block level. As a hard disk, LVM just considers the data as a list of fixed size blocks. It does not know anything about files and directories. This is the job of the filesystem which uses that LVM Logical-Volume. Also there is a problem if you want to make too many modifications to the volume. If you created a snapshot of 5GB, the snapshot won’t be able to store the data if you modify more than 5GB of data on your Logical-Volume. When that happens the snapshot is automatically destroyed, and you loose the original version of your volume. The latest version with modification is always preserved. You can create snapshots which are as big as the original Logical-Volume if you want to be sure not to loose the snapshot in case of modifications.

Backup based on the snapshot

The snapshot that has been created is just like a standard LVM Logical-Volume, so you can read it just as you would read any other Logical-Volume of your system. Internally LVM only stores the blocks which have been modified, but the user can read all the blocks of the volume. Reading blocks of an LVM snapshot is just the same as reading the blocks of the original volume at the time the snapshot has been created. As a consequence the snapshot should contain a valid filesystem that can be mounted read-only.

Then you have two options to make a backup of an LVM snapshot:

  • work at the block level: you can consider the snapshot at the block level and make a backup with tools such as dd or partimage
  • work at the file level: you can mount the snapshot on an alternative mount point and use rsync or archivers such as tar, dar, or fsarchiver

The second option is recommended because it will be more flexible, because you can just work with all of the tools that can perform disk or file backups.

Backup script using fsarchiver

Here is an example of a simple shell script that performs a backup using fsarchiver. This tool has been used because it provides high compression, good performance as well as reliability because of the checksums. You can probably reuse this script by just changing the details at the top of the file to the names of your own volumes:

VOLGROP='vgmain'                 # name of the volume group
ORIGVOL='rootfs'                 # name of the logical volume to backup
SNAPVOL='mysnap'                 # name of the snapshot to create
SNAPSIZ='5G'                     # space to allocate for the snapshot in the volume group
FSAOPTS='-z7 -j3'                # options to pass to fsarchiver
BACKDIR='/backups/'              # where to put the backup
BACKNAM='backup-of-mysystem'     # name of the archive

# ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

TIMESTAMP="$(date +%Y%m%d-%Hh%M)"

# only run as root
if [ "$(id -u)" != '0' ]
        echo "this script has to be run as root"
        exit 1

# check that the snapshot does not already exist
if [ -e "/dev/${VOLGROP}/${SNAPVOL}" ]
        echo "the lvm snapshot already exists, please destroy it by hand first"
        exit 1

# create the lvm snapshot
if ! lvcreate -L${SNAPSIZ} -s -n ${SNAPVOL} /dev/${VOLGROP}/${ORIGVOL} >/dev/null 2>&1
        echo "creation of the lvm snapshot failed"
        exit 1

# main command of the script that does the real stuff
if fsarchiver savefs ${FSAOPTS} ${BACKDIR}/${BACKNAM}-${TIMESTAMP}.fsa /dev/${VOLGROP}/${SNAPVOL}
        md5sum ${BACKDIR}/${BACKNAM}-${TIMESTAMP}.fsa > ${BACKDIR}/${BACKNAM}-${TIMESTAMP}.md5
        echo "fsarchiver failed"

##      exit (1);  # don't remove the snapshot just yet
                   # perhaps we will want to try again ?


if [ "$RES" != '1' ]  # prevent removal if error occurred above.

  # remove the snapshot
  if ! lvremove -f /dev/${VOLGROP}/${SNAPVOL} >/dev/null 2>&1
        echo "cannot remove the lvm snapshot"


exit ${RES}