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On Files, the Space They Need, and the Space They Take


xfs Users, Take Care!

Recently, we had a customer ask: Why do many files holding my data take up vastly more space than their size is? That question may sound weird to you, but it is for real, and the customer's observation was correct. For a start, let's make sure we are using the same terms.

  • The size of a file is the number of bytes it will deliver if it is read sequentially from start to end.
  • The space it takes up is the sum of all disk pages which are used to hold the file's data, or to locate those data pages ("indirect" blocks in Unix/Linux terminology).

Every Unix/Linux admin knows (or at least should know) that a file may take up less disk space than its size is. This happens when not all bytes of the file were really written, but the write pointer was advanced via "seek()", leaving a gap. Disk pages which are completely contained in such a gap will not be written, and reading these positions will produce bytes containing zero. This is called a "sparse file". You will find some remarks about them in our blog at, or search the net for that term.

The Customer's Message

Now that we have brought those basics into active memory again, let's return to the original question: Can there be files which take up vastly more space than their size is? We will not consider potential administrative overhead (pointers to pages), because to the customer a file of slightly more than 4 GB was reported to take up 8.1 GB disk space - see this quote from his mail (file name changed):

# ls -l some_table#P#p01.ibd
-rw-rw---- 1 mysql mysql 4307550208 Jan 4 01:06 some_table#P#p01.ibd
# du -hs some_table#P#p01.ibd
8,1G some_table#P#p01.ibd

Luckily, the customer's mail mentioned the file system: It was not one of the "ext" family (ext2, ext3, or etx4), but rather they are using xfs. This gave me a hint to search for information, and Google provided several pointers, IMO the most helpful ones where these:

Both these texts describe that the Linux kernel includes a tuning function for xfs file systems, which is to pre-allocate pages at the end of a growing file. Originally, the amount was small (64 kB), but then the size was made a function of the file size - the larger the file, the more pages were pre-allocated. Hence, this is now called "dynamic speculative EOF preallocation". It is based on the assumption that the file will continue to grow, and these pre-allocated pages are adjacent, so the performance of later file use (especially reads) will be improved. To not waste disk space permanently, such pre-allocated pages will be cut from the file when it is closed.

Measuring File Size and Space Taken

To see this behavior in practice, I wrote a little shell script that lets a file grow in increments of 160 kB (= ten InnoDB pages of default size) without closing it. (You can find it attached.) In parallel, I checked the size ("ls -l --block-size=K") and the space allocated ("du -k"). With this script, I could easily observe the effect:

Test './try-xfs-prealloc' is running on TTY 'pts/10'.

Linux trift-6core 3.13.0-74-generic #118-Ubuntu SMP Thu Dec 17 22:52:10 UTC 2015 x86_64 x86_64 x86_64 GNU/Linux
/dev/mapper/vg1000-XFS_try on /XFS_try type xfs (rw)
Dateisystem 1K-Blöcke Benutzt Verfügbar Verw% Eingehängt auf
/dev/mapper/vg1000-XFS_try 52403200 33504 52369696 1% /XFS_try
-rw-rw-r-- 1 joerg joerg 480K Feb 4 16:56 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile
960 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile
-rw-rw-r-- 1 joerg joerg 960K Feb 4 16:57 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile
960 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile
-rw-rw-r-- 1 joerg joerg 1440K Feb 4 16:57 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile
1984 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile
-rw-rw-r-- 1 joerg joerg 1920K Feb 4 16:57 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile
1984 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile
-rw-rw-r-- 1 joerg joerg 2240K Feb 4 16:57 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile
4032 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile

(( several lines not quoted ))

-rw-rw-r-- 1 joerg joerg 11200K Feb 4 17:02 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile
16320 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile
-rw-rw-r-- 1 joerg joerg 11680K Feb 4 17:02 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile
16320 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile
No further writes, status:
-rw-rw-r-- 1 joerg joerg 12288000 Feb 4 17:02 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile
16320 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile

Writer process killed, status:
-rw-rw-r-- 1 joerg joerg 12288000 Feb 4 17:02 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile
12000 /XFS_try/somedir/bigfile

While dynamic preallocation is a good idea for most files, it fails badly on MySQL data files: The MySQL server will not close them, in general, even when they won't grow any further (like a table partitioned by date). So this is what the customer detected: A table partition which had grown somewhat beyond 4 GB had got pages for another 4 GB pre-allocated, they were not released, and this happened for many files. Those of you who have ample disk space may say "who cares?", but there are others who have to care. For them, this feature has risky consequences, so they should try to prevent them.

Avoiding The Unlimited Growth

Basically, the only way out is to use the "allocsize" mount option, as described in the FAQ. InnoDB reads 64 pages of 16 kB at most, so "allocsize=1M" might be best.

Like the customer, many DBAs or SysAdmins may not be aware of that behaviour and might detect it only on the running system. Of course, the first question will be: "Can I fix that without downtime?" Immediately, a "mount -o remount" comes to mind, so I tried that: While my test script was running, I issued
sudo mount -o remount,allocsize=1M /XFS_try

Sadly, I must tell you it had no effect: The size of the pre-allocated space continued to grow, like in the original run. Even worse, this command also did not have any effect on a run I started after issuing it.

This proves that the value of "allocsize" cannot be changed for a mounted XFS file system, rather its value at mount time remains effective until the unmount. Only when I unmounted it and then mounted it anew, giving "allocsize=1M", did I see the fixed size as pre-allocation amount. From the DBA point of view, it means that a shutdown of the MySQL instance cannot be avoided for this change. (Of course, if we talk about a Galera cluster, the system remains available, because the nodes can be handled one at a time.)

Can You Get It Without Shutdown?

Now what if you really need to avoid a shutdown, but also need to get back the pre-allocated space urgently? As written above, this will happen only when the file is closed. So the question is: How can the DBA let the MySQL server close a table data file without interrupting the service? There seems to be a chance: the "flush tables" statement. The manual says:

Closes all open tables, forces all tables in use to be closed, and flushes the query cache. ...

FLUSH TABLES tbl_name [, tbl_name] ...
With a list of one or more comma-separated table names, this statement is like FLUSH TABLES with no names except that the server flushes only the named tables. ...

The text is identical for versions from 5.1 to 5.7.

But then, see the user comment by Simon Mudd on that page: No effect for InnoDB (currently, the top user comment on that "flush syntax" manual page, in all versions from 5.1 to 5.7).
To check this, I wrote a script that inserts rows into an InnoDB table, then let it run: The effect of preallocation is clearly visible. However, sometimes the space used may suddenly go down to the file size, then go up again. My impression is that XFS will react different to a plain file and an InnoDB table, because a file will grow sequentially at the end only while an InnoDB table also has writes to other blocks during its growth. At the end of the insert run, "ls -l" and "du" might show a big preallocation, but not in all runs.

I issued a flush tables test.let_me_grow command but the difference remained.
To really be sure, I repeated the experiment with the daemon "mysqld" running under "strace" control: No, there was no "close()" logged from the "flush table" command.

I had the opportunity to discuss it with a MySQL developer: Yes, that is correct, and it is intentional. InnoDB relies heavily on background threads, and they do not want to add the complexity of syncing these tasks with a "flush table" command. So there is no command that would guarantee the release of preallocated space.

I have filed that as a bug:


While xfs is a good file system for databases, the "dynamic speculative EOF preallocation" is a feature to be aware of, and you may want to limit its amount so that you don't have too much wasted space on your disk(s). Use the "allocsize=" mount option, and remember that it needs to be set before the mount.

Take care!