Saving Solid State Disk Life (Gentoo)


Today’s mechanical disks are optimized for writing one Excel sheet a day it seems. Holding the browser cache significantly decreases lifetime of a disk. Developing source code and compiling entire trees multiple times a day, plus updating a Gentoo install once a week is a recipe to kill a disk.

So I killed three (three) mechanical disks last year.

I pretty much depend on these disks as I don’t like moving back and forth between the number one and the spare laptop three times in a row. (I’m self employed, and the volume of such undertakings is indirectly proportional to the flow of money into my pocket.)

Which is why I decided to purchase a solid state disk. My choice was a Corsair Force Series 120. It has pretty good reviews on the Internet, especially for having received a firmware overhaul that reserves less space for the wear leveling management, thus leaving more of the space to the user.

I should have known better. Fresh firmware is not cool; it has never been. During the Gentoo install (no, I compile to RAM now, and not to disk) there is a point where I reboot to switch away from the Ubuntu LiveCD boot, into the fresh Gentoo system. That was the time where the SSD has vanished - it was gone! No mention of it, nowhere.

Support request on the Corsair website, sent disk to their returns department in the Netherlands. After a few days received an email saying it would last unusually long as they had to cope with an unusual volume of returns. Looks like I am not alone. I bet they themselves write those SSD reviews you find on the Internet.

Anyway - after two more weeks of aggressive spare laptop harddisk treatment I am now the proud owner of a 120G SSD with even fresher firmware, and have set it up to a point where I can work with it. I describe below what I did to extend its life, and what’s still to be done. If you have recipes that target the same, please let me know.

No Swap

I have plenty of RAM (4G), and I run Linux, so there shouldn’t be any need to swap. Unfortunately hibernating does not work without swap (the kernel uses swap to write the state into). I configured one partition for the purpose of hibernating, which I don’t configure in /etc/fstab.

I usually suspend to RAM when at home, and when I move to the living room or board a train to Germany then I hibernate like so,

# sync && swapon /dev/sda1 && echo disk > /sys/power/state && swapoff /dev/sda1

tmpfs instances here and there

The overall rule is, “You can read from a SSD as often as you want, but don’t write to it.”. With this in mind, I immediately identify two places where I write continuously, and which can be mitigated easily.

  • /tmp is used by programs to hold small amounts of temporary data which is perfect for a tmpfs instance.

  • /var/tmp/portage is used by portage (Gentoo’s package installer) to compile the packages before installation. I have plenty of RAM (4G), so why not use that for compilation. See below for an openoffice rant.

All that needs to be done is add two entries to /etc/fstab:

portage-tmpfs /var/tmp/portage tmpfs rw 0 0
tmp-tmpfs     /tmp             tmpfs rw 0 0

You might want to set TMPDIR=/tmp explicitly, to have GCC write its temporary files there instead of in its current working directory. Create a dedicated file in /etc/env.d, and call env-update.

I could limit the space on these by writing rw,size=500m for example. Anyway, tmpfs limits its size to be half the memory as a default, so in my case this is 2G in each instance.

I hit the limit on the /var/tmp/portage instance really soon, when I tried to install openoffice. That piece of crap requires 6G of disk space for compilation! Ok, I take it I have to make an exception which reads like so,

# # (plug my USB throwaway 1TB disk)
# mount /dev/sdc1 /mnt/disk
# mkdir /mnt/disk/tmp-portage
# mount --bind /mnt/disk/tmp-portage /var/tmp/portage
# emerge openoffice
# # (wait a day or two)
# rm -rf /mnt/disk/tmp-portage
# umount /var/tmp/portage
# umount /mnt/disk

Syslog, /var/log/messages

I like to watch /var/log/messages, and in fact I have tail -f /var/log/messages runnung in a dedicated terminal. I usually have no interest in keeping the logfile; the last time the kernel crashed was when I had put an offending debug message into i2c-dev.c to trap a userspace error I had made. And that was on the Beagleboard.

So, /var/log/messages is another candidate for tmpfs. Complications:

  • Restrict the file in size, which is best done by logrotate.

  • Cannot use /var/log as mountpoint for the tmpfs, as there’s more in that directory.

Mountpoint for messages

I create a dedicated directory as a mountpoint, moving the messages one level deeper,

# rm /var/log/messages
# mkdir /var/log/messages

Mount a tmpfs there, using /etc/fstab,

messages-tmp  /var/log/messages tmpfs rw 0 0

At this point you use mount -a to immediately create the mount. Next, tell syslog-ng about it. In /etc/syslog-ng/syslog-ng.conf write,

# ...
destination messages { file("/var/log/messages/messages"); };
# ...


# emerge app-admin/logrotate

Make sure cron is running (rc-status|grep cron, he runs logrotate). syslog-ng already comes with a logrotate configuration file, /etc/logrotate.d/syslog-ng. Tune this to our needs (rotate the file when its size exceeds 20M, keeping one compressed copy).

/var/log/messages/messages {
     compresscmd /bin/bzip2
     compressoptions -9
     compressext .bz2
     size 20M
     rotate 1
         /etc/init.d/syslog-ng reload > /dev/null 2>&1 || true

Kernel I/O Scheduler

The kernel uses an algorithm called an I/O scheduler to optimize disk access. It does this by collecting read and write requests at adjacent disk locations. This is not necessary with SSDs as there are no disks and no heads. I switch off the scheduler for sda (which is the SSD), and keep the default scheduler (cfq) for USB disks I use to plug on occasion (for example if there’s an openoffice update).</p><p>In /etc/conf.d/local.start I write,

# echo noop > /sys/block/sda/queue/scheduler

Use RAM for the Kernel Build

I am a big believer in out-of-source builds. The kernel build system is also capable of it, and I use to build the kernel in /tmp like so.

# mkdir /tmp/kernel-build
# cp /boot/linux-2.6.36-gentoo-r5/.config /tmp/kernel-build
# make -C /usr/src/linux O=/tmp/kernel-build oldconfig
# make -C /usr/src/linux O=/tmp/kernel-build menuconfig
# make -C /usr/src/linux O=/tmp/kernel-build all
# ...

Don’t forget to save away the .config file, as it will be gone after a reboot. I use to store it along with the kernel image in /boot/linux-2.6.36-gentoo-r5.

Things that are left

There are a couple of things that still need work.

  • Xorg appears to have a hardcoded log location; I didn’t find a config option to have it write its Xorg.0.log in a directory other than /var/log.

  • There appears to be bug in portage; it does not respect the EMERGE_LOG_DIR variable. Otherwise, I could redirect the files emerge.log and emerge-fetch.log out of /var/log, just like I do with /var/log/messages.

  • The fact remains that I build my own projects on disk. I have to solve that somehow; I am thinking of using aufs or unionfs-fuse to partly persist those. Some scripting around it maybe, to persist those parts of the build which are currently in ram. But this is another story, maybe I’ll write about it when I know what I want.