systemd and Storage Daemons for the Root File System

a.k.a. Pax Cellae pro Radix Arbor

(or something like that, my Latin is a bit rusty)

A number of complex storage technologies on Linux (e.g. RAID, volume management, networked storage) require user space services to run while the storage is active and mountable. This requirement becomes tricky as soon as the root file system of the Linux operating system is stored on such storage technology. Previously no clear path to make this work was available. This text tries to clear up the resulting confusion, and what is now supported and what is not.

A Bit of Background

When complex storage technologies are used as backing for the root file system this needs to be set up by the initrd, i.e. on Fedora by Dracut. In newer systemd versions tear-down of the root file system backing is also done by the initrd: after terminating all remaining running processes and unmounting all file systems it can (which means excluding the root file system) systemd will jump back into the initrd code allowing it to unmount the final file systems (and its storage backing) that could not be unmounted as long as the OS was still running from the main root file system. The job of the initrd is to detach/unmount the root file system, i.e. inverting the exact commands it used to set them up in the first place. This is not only cleaner, but also allows for the first time arbitrary complex stacks of storage technology.

Previous attempts to handle root file system setups with complex storage as backing usually tried to maintain the root storage with program code stored on the root storage itself, thus creating a number of dependency loops. Safely detaching such a root file system becomes messy, since the program code on the storage needs to stay around longer than the storage, which is technically contradicting.

What’s new?

As a result, we hereby clarify that we do not support storage technology setups where the storage daemons are being run from the storage they maintain themselves. In other words: a storage daemon backing the root file system cannot be stored on the root file system itself.

What we do support instead is that these storage daemons are started from the initrd, stay running all the time during normal operation and are terminated only after we returned control back to the initrd and by the initrd. As such, storage daemons involved with maintaining the root file system storage conceptually are more like kernel threads than like normal system services: from the perspective of the init system (i.e. systemd), these services have been started before systemd was initialized and stay around until after systemd is already gone. These daemons can only be updated by updating the initrd and rebooting; a takeover from initrd-supplied services to replacements from the root file system is not supported.

What does this mean?

Near the end of system shutdown, systemd executes a small tool called systemd-shutdown, replacing its own process. This tool (which runs as PID 1, as it entirely replaces the systemd init process) then iterates through the mounted file systems and running processes (as well as a couple of other resources) and tries to unmount/read-only mount/detach/kill them. It continues to do this in a tight loop as long as this results in any effect. From this killing spree a couple of processes are automatically excluded: PID 1 itself of course, as well as all kernel threads. After the killing/unmounting spree control is passed back to the initrd, whose job is then to unmount/detach whatever might be remaining.

The same killing spree logic (but not the unmount/detach/read-only logic) is applied during the transition from the initrd to the main system (i.e. the “switch_root” operation), so that no processes from the initrd survive to the main system.

To implement the supported logic proposed above (i.e. where storage daemons needed for the root file system which are started by the initrd stay around during normal operation and are only killed after control is passed back to the initrd), we need to exclude these daemons from the shutdown/switch_root killing spree. To accomplish this, the following logic is available starting with systemd 38:

Processes (run by the root user) whose first character of the zeroth command line argument is @ are excluded from the killing spree, much the same way as kernel threads are excluded too. Thus, a daemon which wants to take advantage of this logic needs to place the following at the top of its main() function:

argv[0][0] = '@';

And that’s already it. Note that this functionality is only to be used by programs running from the initrd, and not for programs running from the root file system itself. Programs which use this functionality and are running from the root file system are considered buggy since they effectively prohibit clean unmounting/detaching of the root file system and its backing storage.

Again: if your code is being run from the root file system, then this logic suggested above is NOT for you. Sorry. Talk to us, we can probably help you to find a different solution to your problem.

The recommended way to distinguish between run-from-initrd and run-from-rootfs for a daemon is to check for /etc/initrd-release (which exists on all modern initrd implementations, see the initrd Interface for details) which when exists results in argv[0][0] being set to @, and otherwise doesn’t. Something like this:

#include <unistd.h>

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
        if (access("/etc/initrd-release", F_OK) >= 0)
                argv[0][0] = '@';

Why @? Why argv[0][0]? First of all, a technique like this is not without precedent: traditionally Unix login shells set argv[0][0] to - to clarify they are login shells. This logic is also very easy to implement. We have been looking for other ways to mark processes for exclusion from the killing spree, but could not find any that was equally simple to implement and quick to read when traversing through /proc/. Also, as a side effect replacing the first character of argv[0] with @ also visually invalidates the path normally stored in argv[0] (which usually starts with /) thus helping the administrator to understand that your daemon is actually not originating from the actual root file system, but from a path in a completely different namespace (i.e. the initrd namespace). Other than that we just think that @ is a cool character which looks pretty in the ps output… 😎

Note that your code should only modify argv[0][0] and leave the comm name (i.e. /proc/self/comm) of your process untouched.

To which technologies does this apply?

These recommendations apply to those storage daemons which need to stay around until after the storage they maintain is unmounted. If your storage daemon is fine with being shut down before its storage device is unmounted, you may ignore the recommendations above.

This all applies to storage technology only, not to daemons with any other (non-storage related) purposes.

What else to keep in mind?

If your daemon implements the logic pointed out above, it should work nicely from initrd environments. In many cases it might be necessary to additionally support storage daemons to be started from within the actual OS, for example when complex storage setups are used for auxiliary file systems, i.e. not the root file system, or created by the administrator during runtime. Here are a few additional notes for supporting these setups: