1. Gordon Messmer
  2. dragonsdawn-snapshot


What is this project?

QEMU provides a guest agent that can be used to freeze application
data on disk, to ensure consistent backups.  The agent freezes
application data, then a snapshot is made of the virtual machine's
backing store, and then the agent thaws application data.  This
process ensures that any performance impact of freezing data is as
brief as possible.

This project complements the QEMU guest agent by providing similar and
compatible infrastructure for hosts that are backed up by a backup
agent within the OS.

What does "snapshot" do?

snapshot will determine which filesystems contain the named
directories and attempt to make snapshots of each.  It will first run
each of the scripts in its "writers.d" directory with the argument
"freeze" followed by a list of directories being backed up, signaling
to applications that they should make their data consistent and stop
writing new data. Next it will make snapshots of each of the
filesystems containing the directories given as arguments.  When the
snapshots have been made and mounted, snapshot will once again run the
scripts in "writers.d" with the argument "thaw" to notify applications
that they can resume writing data.  At this point, the snapshot
program will close its stdout.  Closing this file descriptor signals
to the caller that the snapshots are ready.  snapshot will then wait
for its stdin to be closed.  When that occurs, the snapshots will be
umounted and removed.

How do I use "snapshot" in my backup application?

For simple integration with snapshot, you can call start-snapshot
before beginning a backup, and stop-snapshot after the backup is

The "snapshot" script is the preferred means of integration.  Direct
integration means that if the backup application crashes, snapshots
will be removed and unmounted, automatically.

The snapshot script will accept "-t path" as an option indicating a
path where the snapshots should be mounted.  This path is the
"target".  The remaining arguments indicate what directories are going
to be backed up.

After calling snapshot, the backup application should wait for the
stdout file descriptor to close.  The backup application should then
proceed to back up its desired directories, treating the target (which
defaults to /mnt) as the root directory.

When backup are complete, the backup application should close
snapshot's stdin file descriptor and wait for it to exit.

How do I freeze a server's data during the snapshot process?

Place an executable script or binary in /usr/lib/snapshot/writers.d
which takes "freeze" or "thaw" as an argument, and optionally takes
additional arguments following "freeze" which name directories which
will be backed up.

The directory /etc/qemu/fsfreeze-hooks.d is also supported, for
compatibility with the QEMU fsfreeze agent, but the former location is
preferred.  FHS forbids binaries in /etc.

When the script or binary in writers.d is called with the "freeze"
argument, it should signal to its server that data should be flushed
to disk in preparation for a backup.  Optionally, it can examine
arguments following "freeze" to determine if the server's data is
going to be backed up, and may avoid flushing data if the server's
data isn't part of the backup set.  However, if no arguments follow
"freeze", the script should assume that flushing data is necessary.

When the script or binary is called with the "thaw" argument, it
should signal to the server that it can resume normal operation.

Why do I care about snapshots?

The most common configurations for servers running GNU/Linux operating
systems support snapshots of filesystems.  Snapshots improve backups
by providing data consistency.

Without snapshots, backing up any file or set of files that are in
active use may corrupt the data in the backup.  Consider a database
server with multiple tables.  As a simplified example:

 ID  |  Name
  1  |  Jim Stone
  2  |  Aaron Kiln
  3  |  Mark Dern

 ID  |  Telephone
  1  |  555-3924
  2  |  555-2858
  3  |  555-0029

If the column in the second table uses data from the first as a
foreign key, and if the database server is instructed to remove Aaron
from the database while a backup is running, it's possible for the
backup to complete on the first table before that transaction is
committed to disk, but for the deletion of both records to be written
to disk before the second table is backed up.  Similar problems can
affect the internal structure of a data file, or even unstructured
data files.

Another potential problem when backing up data is that the application
may have data buffered in memory that it hasn't tried to write to disk
yet. Typically the application will need to be signaled to flush its

One common means of avoiding this problem is to instruct the
application to dump the content of its database to plain text files,
and to back those files up rather than the data files.  While this
technique works, restoring data requires first restoring the text
files, then instructing the server to load data from the text files.
The process of loading the data can be extremely slow, which is a
significant drawback to that backup strategy.

This project provides a common infrastructure for creating snapshots
and signaling applications to make their data files consistent.

Any filesystem for which a snapshot cannot be created will be "bind"
mounted in the target directory.  Data cannot be guaranteed consistent
in these filesystems, but it will be available for backup as best as

snapshot is currently an early iteration, with some design issues that
may be changed in upcoming releases.  Some of these are:

devices.d and directories.d are provided to override the mechanisms
provided for each filesystem type.  Currently these are unused, and
it's not clear if there is a need for them.  These may be removed if
no need is found.

On the other hand, a new directory could be created to cache the
mapping between the filesystem and the script that makes its snapshot,
eliminating the loop used to find a suitable script.  When a
successful snapshot is made, a symlink can be created to the script
used.  On future runs, the link can be used.  If the linked script
exits with a failure, the link would be removed and the loop used to
locate a suitable script.

The initial version of the software is written in bash, except for
start-snapshot, which I don't believe can be written using only bash.
I hope that this will reduce any barriers to making this a standard
system component.  As the project is very small, it could be trivially
re-written in almost any language, and almost any other implementation
would be faster.

Currently, snapshots must be created and mounted read-write in case a
subordinate filesystem requires directories to be created in which to
mount it.  If snapshot simply created a full-system snapshot including
all mounted filesystems, all snapshots could be mounted read-only.