ZFS and Linux and Encryption Part 1: Raining Hard Drives

(Skip to Part II to learn how to install ZFS with encryption on Linux)

Best Buy has been having a constant series of sales on WD Easy Store 8 TB drives. And it turns out, inside many of them (though not all) are WD Red NAS 5400 RPM drives. For $130-180 a piece, that’s significantly less than the regular price on Amazon/Newegg for these drives bare, which is around $250-$275.

(For updates on the sales, check out the subreddit DataHoarder.)


Over the course of several months, I ended up with 6 WD Red NAS 8 TB drives. Which is good, because my current RAID array is starting to show its age, and is also really, really full.

If you’re not familiar with the WD NAS Red’s, they’re drives specifically built to run 24/7. The regular WD Reds are 5400 RPM, so they’re a bit slower than a regular desktop drive (the Red Pro are 7200 RPM), but I don’t really care for my workload. For speed I use SSDs, and these drives for bulk storage. Plus, the slower speeds mean less heat and less power.

My current array is made of (5) 3 TB drives operating at RAID 5 for a total of about 12 TB usable. The drives are about 5 years old now, with one of them already throwing a few errors. It’s a good time to upgrade.

I’ve shucked the 8TB Reds (the process of removing the Red’s from their external case) placed the bare drives in a server case.

So now, what to do with them? I decided this was a good time to re-evaluate my storage strategy and compare my options.

My current setup is a pretty common one: It’s a Linux MD (multi-device) array with LVM (Linux Volume Manger) on top and encrypted with LUKS. It’s presented as a single 12 TB block device which has the ext4 file system on top of it.

It works relatively well, though it has a few disadvantages:

  • It takes a long time to build (days) and presumably a long time to rebuild if a drive fails and is replaced
  • It’s RAID 5, so if I lose a drive while it’s rebuilding from a previous fail, my data is toast. A common concern for RAID 5.

Here’s what I’d like:

  • Encryption: Between things like tax documents, customer data, and my Star Trek erotic fan fiction, I want data-at-rest encryption.
  • Double-parity. I don’t need the speed of RAID 10/0+1, I need space, so that means RAID5/6 or equivalent. But I don’t want to rely on just one drive, so double party (RAID 6 or equivalent).
  • Checksumming would be nice, but not necessary. I think the bit-rot argument is a little over-done, but I’m not opposed to it.

So that leaves me with ZFS (on FreeBSD or Linux) or Linux MD. I generally have a preference to stick with Linux, but if its something like FreeNAS, I’m not opposed to it.

Boyh ZFS and btrfs offer checksumming, however the RAID 5/6 parity implementation on btrfs has been deemed unsafe at this point. So if I want parity and checksumming (which I do), ZFS is my only option.

For checksumming to be of any real benefit the file system must control block devices directly. If you put them in a RAID as a single device and lay the checksumming filesystem on top of it, the only thing the checksumming can do is tell you that your files are fucked up. It can’t actually fix them.



Layered: File system on top of encryption on top of MD RAID array

The layered approach above is how my old array was done. It works fine, however it wouldn’t provide any checksumming benefit. Btrfs (or ZFS) would just have a single block device from its perspective, and couldn’t recover a bad checksum from another copy.

(Turns out you can have a single block device and recover from a bad checksum if you set ZFS to make more than one copy of the data, which of course takes more space)


ZFS encryption in FreeBSD and current ZFS on Linux: ZFS on top of encrypted block devices

ZFS encryption on FreeBSD and current ZFS on Linux is handled via a disk encryption layer, LUKS on Linux and Geli on FreeBSD. The entire drive is encrypted and the encrypted block devices are controlled by ZFS. You can do this with btrfs as well, but again the RAID5/6 problems makes it out of the question.


Native encryption with ZFS on Linux

New to ZFS on Linux is native encryption within the file system. You can, on a dataset by dataset basis, set encryption. It’s done natively in the file system, so there’s no need to run a separate LUKS instance.

It would be great it btrfs could do native encryption (and fix the RAID5/6 write hole).  In fact, the lack of native encryption has made Red Hat pull btrfs from RHEL.

Part II is how I got ZFS with native encryption working on my file server.

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