Making the Case for Partitioning

What is it about partitioning? The old school rule was that there were separate partitions for /, /usr, /home, /var, and /tmp. In fact, default server installations (including Solaris) still use this partitioning set up.

Has partitioning outlived its usefulness?

This question has come up before. There are negative and positive aspects to partitioning, and the case for partitioning might not be as strong as it once was.

Partitioning means that you may have a situation with no space in one partition and lots in another. This, in fact, is the most common argument against partitioning. However, using LVM or ZFS where disks can be grown dynamically makes this a moot point. With technologies such as ZFS and LVM, you can expand a disk and filesystem any time you need to.

However, this still means that the system will require maintenance – but that is what administrators are for, right? If a filesystem fills – or is going to fill – it is up to a system administrator to find the disk space and allocate it to the disk.

Another argument against partitioning says “Disk is cheap.” Well, if this is true, then why do companies still balk at getting terabytes of disk into their SANs? The phrase “Disk is cheap” is trite but untested: in truth, buying 144Gb disks is not done in bulk. Companies still have to watch the budget, and getting more disk space is not necessarily going to be a high priority until disk runs out.

So, what are the benefits to partitioning disks? There are many.

Each partition can be treated seperately – so the /usr filesystem can be mounted read-only, the /home directory can be mounted with the noexec and nosuid options, which makes for a more secure and more robust system.

Also, if there are disk errors, then a single partition can be affected rather than the entire system. Thus, on a reboot, the system still comes up instead of being blocked because the root filesystem is trashed. In this same vein, if a filesystem requires a check, going through a 144Gb filesystem check could take a very long time – whereas, if the partition was 10Gb it would be not nearly as long and the system would come back up that much faster.

Backups – and restores – are another thing that is simplified by having multiple partitions. For example, when backing up an HP-UX system using make_tape_recovery, you specify which partitions to back up to tape. These partitions are then restored when the tape is booted. If you used a single partition for everything (data, home, etc.) then you would probably not be able to make this sort of backup at all.

One of the nicest reasons to partition is the ability to separate user data from system data. This allows the reinstallation of the system while keeping user data (and application data) untouched. This saves time and effort. I recently installed Ubuntu Server in place of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and since the system was a single partition, there was no way to install Ubuntu Server without wiping out 200Gb of application data and restoring it – which took around 9 hours each way on a gigabit network link (if nothing else was sharing the network). Alternately, I converted my OpenSUSE laptop to using Xubuntu – and was able to keep all of my user settings because /home was on a separate partition. Keeping a system on a single partition cost the company somewhere in the order of a full day’s worth of time and effort – how much money would the company have saved by having a separate partition for /var/lib/mysql?

Performance is another reason for partitioning – but this is only relevant for separate disks. If you have multiple disks, you can segregate them into separate partitions, which means then that if a disk is heavily used for one purpose it can be dedicated to that purpose – you won’t have your database accesses slowing down because of system log writes, for example. However, this problem can be reduced or eliminated – or made moot – by moving data to a striped volume, and possibly with disk cache as well. Yet, as long as there are disk accesses, do you want them competing with your database?

Having said all of this, how does using a virtual machine change these rules? Do you need partitioning in a virtual machine?

A virtual machine makes all of the arguments relating to the physical disk moot – performance on a virtual disk doesn’t have a high correlation with true physical hardware unless the virtual machine host is set up with segregated physical disk. Even so, the disks may actually be separate LUNs created in a RAID.

However, the ability to secure a filesystem (such as /usr), save filesystem check time, prevent excessive /home usage, and other reasons suggest that the case for partitions is still valid.

DOS Partitions (fdisk) and the 2TB Limit

If you are trying to create disk volumes over two terabytes (2TB) you’ll find that fdisk won’t let you do it. The problem lies not with fdisk, but with the old PCDOS disk label used on disks for the last three decades or so. Back in 1981 when the IBM PC was introduced, a disk of over two terabytes would have seemed inconcievable.

Thus, we struggle with the limitations of PCDOS disk labels today.

Some (newer?) versions of fdisk report the problem with large drives, giving this warning:

WARNING: The size of this disk is 8.0 TB (8001389854720 bytes).
DOS partition table format can not be used on drives for volumes
larger than (2199023255040 bytes) for 512-byte sectors. Use parted(1) and GUID
partition table format (GPT).

To get around the size limitation, there is only one solution: dump the PCDOS disk label for another label. The usual recommendation is the GPT (the GUID Partition Table) created by Intel. The GPT has a much larger limit, making 2TB partitions feasable.

However, the Linux utility fdisk does not work with drives that use GPT; thus, you have to use a different partitioning tool. The usual recommendation to Linux users is GNU parted. GNU parted handles multiple partition formats, including GPT. Documentation is available in multiple formats (PDF is one).

The steps to getting a large partition done with parted are simple:

  1. Create a disklabel (partitioning) on disk.
  2. Create a partition of the appropriate size.
  3. Create a filesystem (if needed).
  4. Mount.

First, create the GPT disklabel – in other words, create the partitioning tables to support GPT:

# parted /dev/sdc
GNU Parted 2.2
Using /dev/sdc
Welcome to GNU Parted! Type 'help' to view a list of commands.
(parted) print
Model: Ext Hard  Disk (scsi)
Disk /dev/sdc: 8001GB
Sector size (logical/physical): 512B/512B
Partition Table: msdos
Number  Start   End     Size    Type     File system  Flags
(parted) mklabel gpt
Warning: The existing disk label on /dev/sdc will be destroyed and all data on this disk will be lost. Do you want to
Yes/No? yes

Then after this, create a partition:

(parted) mkpart primary xfs 0 8001.4GB
Warning: The resulting partition is not properly aligned for best performance.
Ignore/Cancel? c

This is what happens when the disk is not aligned properly on the appropriate boundary. Traditionally, the boundary was 512 bytes; now it is changing to 4K. GPT also apparently use a significant portion of the beginning of the disk.

To get around the alignment problem, you can use a start position of 1MB and an end position 1MB from the end:

(parted) mkpart primary xfs 1 -1
(parted) p
Model: Ext Hard  Disk (scsi)
Disk /dev/sdc: 8001GB
Sector size (logical/physical): 512B/512B
Partition Table: gpt

Number  Start   End     Size    File system  Name     Flags
 1      1049kB  8001GB  8001GB               primary

Parted supports a wide variety of units (and defaults to megabytes), all of which can be specified during numeric input – such as for start and end points. Using an end point of “100%” is probably just as good as using “-1” (1MB from end).

Jamie McClelland has a nice article about 2TB drives and alignment. Don’t blindly trust the tools to get the partitioning right; specify the appropriate numbers and units in order to force correct alignment.

GNU parted also supports an option that at least suggests it will use the best alignment when it can:

parted --align optimal

Again, don’t blindly trust it: check the numbers.