Fun with ZFS, part 1: Installing Debian Jessie on ZFS Root


Couple weeks ago I decided to make myself a small home server. Home sever, sounds weird, doesn’t it? Home’s not work place, no?

Well, it is, in my case. I have no need for media center, downloading and streaming movies or even playing on TV, nothing like this. But I need a storage for backups and host to run virtual machines on.

Initially I thought about buying some NAS but then a friend pointed out, correctly, that I need none of the features of small NAS solutions for home sector so why paying for that. He suggested to go for a HP ProLiant MicroServer Gen8. I could get an entry-level model for a reasonable price so I got myself one.

This means, however, that I had to install and setup OS and everything myself. Since some people expressed interest in my experience, I’ll try to write down some interesting bits.

Why ZFS?

Why not? Since I want to run virtual machines on the server, I need something that allows me to allocate storage for them, extend it, take snapshots and so on. I used in the past Linux LVM, LUKS and ext4 / xfs on top of it but overall experience was not-so-good. A lot of hassle to resize volumes, many commands, super-easy to mess it up (I managed to mess it up couple times in the past). ZFS looked interesting, all-in-one solution*, people reported it is stable, battle-hardened and CPU and memory hungry. So I decided to give it a go.

Installing Debian Jessie.

People behind ZFS On Linux did an amazing job and wrote down an idiot-proof step-by-step guide HOWTO install Debian GNU Linux to a Native ZFS Root Filesystem. The only little issue is that it uses ZFS from ZOL project repository.

Since ZFS found its way to Debian Project 4, I decided use Debian packages. Everything was pretty much straightforward but there were some gotchas.

This is how I did it:

  1. Boot from Debian Live 8.6 Live CD
  2. Log in to live session (username is “user”, password “live”) and install package zfs-dkms from jessie-backports:

    • Edit /etc/apt/sources.list and add following:

      deb jessie-backports main
      deb-src jessie-backports main
      deb jessie-backports  contrib
      deb-src jessie-backports  contrib
    • Update package database:

      sudo apt-get update
    • Install zfs module (userland tools will be pulled as dependencies):

      sudo apt-get install zfs-dkms
  3. Now follow ZOL guide up to Step 3: Disk Formatting. My server has an on-board MicroSD card slot and I had old, unused 2GB MicroSD card so I decided to use it for while /boot, not only for /boot/grub as the guide suggest. This looked to me as safer option since this way kernels and initrd images are stored a good old ext3 so GRUB does not need to understand ZFS.
  4. Then continue with ZOL guide up to Step 6: Cleanup and First Reboot. Just before leaving chroot do following:

    • Edit /etc/default/grub and add boot=zfs to GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX_DEFAULT variable. This is required for code in initrd to setup ZFS before mounting root filesystem. Actually, this took me some time for figure this out and I only find out after reading the scripts in generated initrd.

    • In /etc/grub.d/10_linux fix the code that determines current filesystem. Comment the original code and add new one that does it by simply parsing output of mount command.

          # Original code (does not work)
          #rpool=`${grub_probe} --device ${GRUB_DEVICE} --target=fs_label 2>/dev/null || true`
          #bootfs="`make_system_path_relative_to_its_root / | sed -e "s,@$,,"`"
          # Workaround          
          zfsroot=`mount | grep '/ type zfs' | cut -d ' ' -f 1`

      Indeed this is an ugly hack and fragile, but works for me for now. ZOL team seems to be aware of this and is working on a fix, AFAIK.

    • Create new file 70-zfs-grub-fix.rules with following contents:

      KERNEL=="sd*", ENV{ID_SERIAL}=="?*", SYMLINK+="$env{ID_BUS}-$env{ID_SERIAL}"
      ENV{DEVTYPE}=="partition", IMPORT{parent}="ID_*", ENV{ID_FS_TYPE}=="zfs_member", SYMLINK+="$env{ID_BUS}-$env{ID_SERIAL} $env{ID_BUS}-$env{ID_SERIAL}-part%n"

      and refresh dev by issuing:

      udevadm trigger

      For whatever reason (perhaps a bug) GRUB scripts does no look for devices in /dev/disk/by-id but in /dev and fails when it cannot find them. This ugly indeed but again, works for me for now. Again, ZIL team works on this too.

    • Finally, update GRUB:

  5. And continue with ZOL guide.

  6. Have fun with ZFS!

Hope it helps.

A follow up…

Hajo Noerenberg wrote a script that automates the above process and was so nice to share it:


Debian’s grub has problems with detecting ZFS pools with feature@hole_birth=enabled and feature@embedded_data=enabled. If you disable those features (only possible for new pools), grub installs correctly without errors (and /etc/grub.d/10_linux correctly detects ZFS as well).

I’ve put together a fully automatic script for native ZFS installation:

I haven’t tried myself, but clearly worth having a look. I’ll certainly give it a go as soon as native ZFS encryption finds it’s way to ZFS on Linux.

*) I can hear so-called UNIXers screaming this is bad, against UNIX philosophy, blah blah blah. You know, each tool should do exactly one thing then you can combine them the way you like, not the way developer like. This is the one and true “UNIX way”. It might well be against UNIX philosophy, but man: I can’t care less :-) As long as it works well and is easy to use, I’m fine with that.

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