Use the AUFS storage driver

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AUFS a union filesystem. The aufs storage driver is the default storage driver used for managing images and layers on Docker for Ubuntu, and for Debian versions prior to Stretch. For Debian Stretch, overlay2 is the default.

AUFS is the most mature storage driver used by Docker. It provides fast container startup time, as well as efficient usage of memory and storage.

If your Linux kernel is version 4.0 or higher, and you use Docker CE, consider using the newer overlay2, which has potential performance advantages over the aufs storage driver.

Note: Even though AUFS is used by default if it is present in the Linux kernel, it is not supported on some distributions and Docker editions. See Prerequisites > for more information about supported platforms, and see also the order of preferences for storage drivers.

Prerequisites

  • For Docker CE, AUFS is supported on Ubuntu, and on Debian versions prior to Stretch.
  • For Docker EE, AUFS is supported on Ubuntu.
  • If you use Ubuntu, you need to install extra packages to add the AUFS module to the kernel. If you do not install these packages, you will need to use devicemapper on Ubuntu 14.04 (which is not recommended), or overlay2 on Ubuntu 16.04 and higher, which is also supported.
  • AUFS cannot use the following backing filesystems: aufs, btrfs, or ecryptfs. This means that the filesystem which contains /var/lib/docker/aufs cannot be one of these filesystem types.

Configure Docker with the aufs storage driver

If the AUFS driver is loaded into the kernel when you start Docker, and no other storage driver is configured, Docker uses it by default.

  1. Use the following command to verify that your kernel supports AUFS.

    $ grep aufs /proc/filesystems
    
    nodev   aufs
    
  2. Check which storage driver Docker is using.

    $ docker info
    
    <truncated output>
    Storage Driver: aufs
     Root Dir: /var/lib/docker/aufs
     Backing Filesystem: extfs
     Dirs: 0
     Dirperm1 Supported: true
    <truncated output>
    
  3. If you are using a different storage driver, then it means that either AUFS is not included in the kernel (in which case a different default driver will be used) or that means that Docker has been explicitly configured to use a different driver. Check /etc/docker/daemon.json or the output of ps auxw |grep dockerd to see if Docker has been started with the --storage-driver flag.

How the aufs storage driver works

AUFS is a union filesystem, which means that it layers multiple directories on a single Linux host and presents them as a single directory. These directories are called branches in AUFS terminology, and layers in Docker terminology. The unification process is referred to a a union mount.

The diagram below shows a Docker container based on the ubuntu:latest image.

Layers of an Ubuntu container

Each image layer, and the container layer, are represented on the Docker host as subdirectories within /var/lib/docker/. The union mount provides the unified view of all layers. The directory names do not directly correspond to the IDs of the layers themselves.

AUFS uses the Copy-on-Write (CoW) strategy to maximize storage efficiency and minimize overhead.

Example: Image and container on-disk constructs

The following docker pull command shows a Docker host downloading a Docker image comprising five layers.

$ docker pull ubuntu

Using default tag: latest
latest: Pulling from library/ubuntu
b6f892c0043b: Pull complete
55010f332b04: Pull complete
2955fb827c94: Pull complete
3deef3fcbd30: Pull complete
cf9722e506aa: Pull complete
Digest: sha256:382452f82a8bbd34443b2c727650af46aced0f94a44463c62a9848133ecb1aa8
Status: Downloaded newer image for ubuntu:latest

The image layers

All of the information about the image and container layers is stored in subdirectories of /var/lib/docker/aufs/.

  • diff/: the contents of each layer, each stored in a separate subdirectory
  • layers/: metadata about how image layers are stacked. This directory contains one file for each image or container layer on the Docker host. Each file contains the IDs of all the layers below it in the stack (its parents).
  • mnt/: Mount points, one per image or container layer, which are used to assemble and mount the unified filesystem for a container. For images, which are read-only, these directories will always be empty.

The container layer

If a container is running, the contents of /var/lib/docker/aufs/ change in the following ways:

Note: If you see files or directories which end in -init, these are used to prepare the container to use bind mounts, and should be considered an implementation detail.

  • diff/: Differences introduced in the writable container layer, such as new or modified files.
  • layers/: Metadata about the writable container layer’s parent layers.
  • mnt/: A mount point for each running container’s unified filesystem, exactly as it appears from within the container.

How container reads and writes work with aufs

Reading files

Consider three scenarios where a container opens a file for read access with overlay.

  • The file does not exist in the container layer: If a container opens a file for read access and the file does not already exist in the container layer, the storage driver searches for the file in the image layers, starting with the layer just below the container layer. It is read from the layer where it is found.

  • The file only exists in the container layer: If a container opens a file for read access and the file exists in the container layer, it is read from there.

  • The file exists in both the container layer and the image layer: If a container opens a file for read access and the file exists in the container layer and one or more image layers, the file is read from the container layer. Files in the container layer obscure files with the same name in the image layers.

Modifying files or directories

Consider some scenarios where files in a container are modified.

  • Writing to a file for the first time: The first time a container writes to an existing file, that file does not exist in the container (upperdir). The aufs driver performs a copy_up operation to copy the file from the image layer where it exists to the writable container layer. The container then writes the changes to the new copy of the file in the container layer.

    However, AUFS works at the file level rather than the block level. This means that all copy_up operations copy the entire file, even if the file is very large and only a small part of it is being modified. This can have a noticeable impact on container write performance. AUFS, which can suffer noticeable latencies when searching for files in images with many layers. However, it is worth noting that the copy_up operation only occurs the first time a given file is written to. Subsequent writes to the same file operate against the copy of the file already copied up to the container.

  • Deleting files and directories:

    • When a file is deleted within a container, a whiteout file is created in the container layer. The version of the file in the image layer is not deleted (because the image layers are read-only). However, the whiteout file prevents it from being available to the container.

    • When a directory is deleted within a container, an opaque file is created in the container layer. This works in the same way as a whiteout file and effectively prevents the directory from being accessed, even though it still exists in the image layer.

  • Renaming directories: Calling rename(2) for a directory is not fully supported on AUFS. It returns EXDEV (“cross-device link not permitted”), even when both of the source and the destination path are on a same AUFS layer, unless the directory has no children. Your application needs to be designed to handle EXDEV and fall back to a “copy and unlink” strategy.

AUFS and Docker performance

To summarize some of the performance related aspects already mentioned:

  • The AUFS storage driver is less performant than the overlay2 driver, but is a good choice for PaaS and other similar use-cases where container density is important. This is because AUFS efficiently shares images between multiple running containers, enabling fast container start times and minimal use of disk space.

  • The underlying mechanics of how AUFS shares files between image layers and containers uses the page cache very efficiently.

  • The AUFS storage driver can introduce significant latencies into container write performance. This is because the first time a container writes to any file, the file has to be located and copied into the containers top writable layer. These latencies increase and are compounded when these files exist below many image layers and the files themselves are large.

Performance best practices

The following generic performance best practices also apply to AUFS.

  • Solid State Devices (SSD) provide faster reads and writes than spinning disks.

  • Use volumes for write-heavy workloads: Volumes provide the best and most predictable performance for write-heavy workloads. This is because they bypass the storage driver and do not incur any of the potential overheads introduced by thin provisioning and copy-on-write. Volumes have other benefits, such as allowing you to share data among containers and persisting even when no running container is using them.

container, storage, driver, AUFS