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Amazon's Elastic Block Store Explained

Amazon's Elastic Block Store Explained

Now that Amazon's Elastic Block Store is live I thought it'd be helpful to explain all the ins and outs as well as how to use them. The official information about EBS is found on the AWS site. I've written about the significance of EBS before and I'll follow up with a post about some new use cases it enables.

The Basics

EBS starts out really simple. You create a volume from 1GB to 1TB in size and then you mount it on a device (such as /dev/sdj) on an instance, format it, and off you go. Later you can detach it, let it sit for a while, and then reattach it to a different instance. You can also snapshot the volume at any time to S3, and if you want to restore your snapshot you can create a fresh volume from the snapshot. 
Amazon Elastic Block Store features


EBS volumes have redundancy built in, which means that they will not fail if an individual drive fails or some other single failure occurs. But they are not as redundant as S3 storage, which replicates data into multiple availability zones; an EBS volume lives entirely in one availability zone. This means that making snapshot backups, which are stored in S3, is important for long-term data safeguarding.

I know that folks at Amazon have thought long and hard how to characterize the reliability of EBS volumes. Here's their explanation, taken from the EC2 detail page:

Amazon EBS volumes are designed to be highly available and reliable. Amazon EBS volume data is replicated across multiple servers in an Availability Zone to prevent the loss of data from the failure of any single component. The durability of your volume depends both on the size of your volume and the percentage of the data that has changed since your last snapshot. As an example, volumes that operate with 20 GB or less of modified data since their most recent Amazon EBS snapshot can expect an annual failure rate (AFR) of between 0.1% - 0.5%, where failure refers to a complete loss of the volume. This compares with commodity hard disks that will typically fail with an AFR of around 4%, making EBS volumes 10 times more reliable than typical commodity disk drives.

From a practical point of view what this means is that you should expect the same type of reliability you get from a fully redundant RAID storage system. While it may be technically possible to increase the reliability by, for example, mirroring two EBS volumes in software on one instance, it is much more productive to rely on EBS directly. Focus your efforts on building a good snapshot strategy that ensures frequent and consistent snapshots, and build good scripts that allow you to recover from many types of failures using the snapshots and fresh instances and volumes.

Volume Performance

Our performance observations are based on the prerelease EBS volumes, thus some variations on the production systems should be expected. Our prerelease tests were probably running on a small infrastructure with fewer users, but many of these users were also running stress tests, so it's hard to tell how all this will carry over. 

EBS volumes are network-attached disk storage and thus take a slice off the instance's overall network bandwidth. The speed of light here is evidently 1GBps, which means that the peak sequential transfer rate is 120MBytes/sec. "Any number larger than that is an error in your math." We see over 70MB/sec using sysbench on a m1.small instance, which is hot! Presumably we didn't get much network contention from other small instances on the same host when running the benchmarks. For random access we've seen more than 1,000 I/O ops/sec, but it's much more difficult to benchmark those types of workloads. The bottom line though is that performance exceeds what we've seen for filesystems striped across the four local drives of x-large instances.

With EBS it is possible to increase the I/O transaction rate further by mounting multiple EBS volumes on one instance and striping filesystems across them. For streaming performance this doesn't seem worthwhile, as the limit of the available instance network bandwidth is already reached with one volume, but it can increase the performance of random workloads as more heads can be seeking at a time.

Snapshot Backups

Snapshot backups are simultaneously the most useful and the most difficult-to-understand feature of EBS. A snapshot of an EBS volume can be taken at any time. It causes a copy of the data in the volume to be written to S3, where it is stored redundantly in multiple availability zones (like all data in S3). The first peculiarity is that snapshots do not appear in your S3 buckets, thus you can't access them using the standard S3 API. You can only list the snapshots using the EC2 API, and you can restore a snapshot by creating a new volume from it. The second peculiarity is that snapshots are incremental, which means that in order to create a subsequent snapshot, EBS saves only the disk blocks that have changed since previous snapshots to S3.

The way the incremental snapshots work conceptually is depicted in the diagram below. Each volume is divided up into blocks. When the first snapshot of a volume is taken, all blocks of the volume that have ever been written are copied to S3, and then a snapshot table of contents is written to S3 that lists all these blocks. When the second snapshot is taken of the same volume, only the blocks that have changed since the first snapshot are copied to S3. The table of contents for the second snapshot is then written to S3 and lists all the blocks on S3 that belong to the snapshot. Some are shared with the first snapshot, some are new. The third snapshot is created similarly and can contain blocks copied to S3 for the first, second, and third snapshots.

Illustration of EBS snapshots to show incremental storage of a snapshots block in Amazon S3

The incremental nature of the snapshots saves time and space. Subsequent snapshots can be fast because only changed blocks need to be sent to S3, and it saves space because you're only paying for the storage in S3 of the incremental blocks. What is difficult to answer is how much space a snapshot uses, or, to put it differently, how much space would be saved if a snapshot were deleted. If you delete a snapshot, only the blocks that are only used by that snapshot (i.e. are only referenced by that snapshot's table of contents) are deleted.

Something to be careful about with snapshots is consistency. A snapshot is taken at a precise moment in time, even though the blocks may trickle out to S3 over many minutes. In most situations you want to control what's on disk vs. what's in-flight at the moment of the snapshot. This is particularly important when using a database. We recommend you freeze the database, freeze the filesystem, take the snapshot, then unfreeze everything. At the filesystem level we've been using XFS for all the large local drives and EBS volumes because it's fast to format and supports freezing. Thus when taking a snapshot we perform an XFS freeze, take the snapshot, and unfreeze. When running MySQL we also "flush all tables with read lock" to briefly halt writes. All this ensures that the snapshot doesn't contain partial updates that need to be recovered when the snapshot is mounted. It's like USB dongles: if you pull the dongle out while it's being written to, "your mileage may vary" when you plug it into another machine.

Snapshot performance appears to be pretty much gated by the performance of S3, which is around 20MBytes/sec for a single stream. The three big bonuses here are that the snapshot is incremental, that the data is compressed, and that all this is performed in the background by EBS without much affecting the instance on which the volume is mounted. Obviously the data needs to come off the disks, so there is some contention to be expected, but compared to having to do the transfer from disk through the instance to S3 it is like night and day.

Availability Zones

EBS volumes can only be mounted on an instance in the same availability zone, which makes sense when you think of availability zones as being equivalent to data centers. It would probably be technically possible to mount volumes across zones, but from a network latency and bandwidth point of view it doesn't make much sense.

The way you get a volume's data from one zone into another is through a snapshot. You snapshot one volume and then immediately create a new volume in a different zone from the snapshot. We have really gotten away from the idea that we're unmounting a volume from one instance and then remounting it on the next one. We always go through a snapshot for a variety of reasons. The way we think and operate is as follows:

  • You create a volume, mount it on an instance, format it, and write some data to it.
  • You periodically snapshot the volume for backup purposes.
  • If you don't need the instance anymore, you may terminate it and, after unmounting the volume, you always take a final snapshot. If the instance crashes instead of properly terminating, you also always take a final snapshot of the volume as it was left.
  • When you launch a new instance on which you want the same data, you create a fresh volume from your snapshot of choice. This may be the last snapshot, but it could also be a prior one if it turns out that the last one is corrupt.

By creating a volume from the snapshot you achieve two things: one, you are independent of the availability zone of the original volume, and two, you have a repeatable process in case mounting the volume fails, which can easily happen especially if the unmount wasn't clean.

Of course, in some situations you can directly remount the original volume instead of creating a new volume from a snapshot as an optimization. This applies if the new instance is in the same availability zone, the volume corresponds to the snapshot that we'd like to mount, and the volume is guaranteed not to have been modified since (as for example by a failed prior mount). The best is to think of the volume as a high-speed cache for the snapshot.


Estimating the costs of EBS is tricky. The easy part is the storage cost of $0.10 per GB per month. Once you create a volume of a certain size you'll see the charge. The $0.10 per million I/O transactions are much harder to estimate. To get a rough estimate you can look at /proc/diskstats on your servers, which will include something like this:

   8  160 sdk 9847 77 311900 56570 1912664 3312437 160672914 211993229 0 1597261 212049797
   8  176 sdl 333 86 4561 1538 895 51 19002 20131 0 4043 21669

which is just a pile of numbers. Following the explanation for the columns you should sum the first number (reads completed) and the fifth number (writes completed) to arrive at the number of I/O transactions (9847+1912664 for /dev/sdk above). This is not 100% accurate but should be close. (I believe subtracting the second and sixth numbers gets you closer yet, but I prefer an over-estimate.) As a point of reference, our main database server is pretty busy and chugs along at an average of 17 transactions per second, which should total to around $4.40 per month. But our monitoring servers, prior to some recent optimizations, hammered the disks as fast as they would go with more than 1,000 random writes per second sustained 24x7. That would end up costing more than $250 per month! As far as I can tell, for most situations the EBS transaction costs will be in the noise, but you can make it expensive if you're not careful.

The cost of snapshots is harder to estimate due to their incremental nature. First of all, only the blocks written are captured on S3; blocks on the volume that have never been written are not stored on S3. Second, it's tricky to talk about the cost of a snapshot due to the incremental sharing.

Summing It Up

All in all it's amazing how simple EBS is, yet how complex a universe of options it opens. Between snapshots, availability zones, pricing, and performance there are many options to consider and a lot of automation to provide. Of course at RightScale we're busy working out a lot of these for you, but beyond that it is not an overstatement to say that Amazon's Elastic Block Store brings cloud computing to a whole new level. If you're using traditional forms of hosting, it's gonna get pretty darn hard for you to keep up with the cloud, and you've probably already fallen behind.


[...] volume from the snapshot. Sounds simple, eh? It is but the devil is in the detail!” writes the RightScale blog in another post. In the sense for reliability rightscale blog pointed that “EBS volumes have [...]
So, you mention 70MB/sec without contention. I thought each small instance came with 250Mbit of bandwidth. Are you sure EC2 isn't rate limiting? In my previous testing I've never been able to get more than 200Mbit (~25MB/s) out of my interface, no matter what. Thoughts?
Posted by RD (not verified)   Ι   August 24, 2008   Ι   11:31 AM
@Thorsten We snapshot the master and create the slave from the snapshot Hmm, so how often do you do this for the slaves as they could get out of date quickly for any data I/O web site? It would be nice if multiple EC2 instances could connect to one EBS.
Response by Djb (not verified)   Ι   September 17, 2009   Ι   04:28 AM
The term 'slave' ih mysql terms suggests that you set up replication off the master once you have snapshotted it. This keeps the slaves in sync. Having a shared EBS won't help since (in the majority of scenarios) only one mysql instance can write to the disk at one time.
[...] Amazon’s Elastic Block Store explained Now that Amazon’s Elastic Block Store is live I thought it’d be helpful to explain all the ins and outs as [...] [...]
[...] who offers a management and automation system based on AWS, has an excellent article explaining how Amazon’s Elastic Block Store works. In testing they report over 70 MB/s (that’s over half a gigabit per second) and over 1000 [...]
[...] the snapshot. Sounds simple, eh? It is but the devil is in the detail!” writes the RightScale blog in another [...]
Thorsten, I wonder how many instances they put on one physical machine and how strong the safeguards against overuse are. I can imagine the network port becoming a real bottleneck if you have "greedy" neighbours. I like the snapshot capability though. We have that on a managed $$$ SAN for some servers but not at these prices.
Jan: the cpu and memeory partitions are pretty hard, so you do get your cpu time and your memory. It's harder to tell for network bandwidth, but they don't seem to over-allocate that either, at least not at the host level. But in any case, with small instances you should expect some degree of variability (I use 25% mentally, but I can't really back this up with numbers). Marc: the snapshot is there to initialize the slave. After that the replication built into mysql keeps the slave up-to-date in near real-time. Or perhaps I don't understand your question? RD: you are correct and I was surprised as well. The path to the network interface is clearly different from the one using the network device that is mapped into the virtual machine. Maybe that path is not rate limited, or at least not in the same way. I'm afraid I don't have a good answer other than that we're sure we measured this and we're pretty sure it wasn't a cache artifact. Matt: you can't directly grow a volume. The path to get more storage is to snapshot the volume and then create a new larger volume from the snapshot (it gets padded with zeros at the end).
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Thank you for the excellent article. But regarding the I/O throughput: 70MB/sec is hot? I wouldn't want to run MySQL on that. On our midrange DELL machines with 10 x SAS in a RAID-10 array we get 400 MB/sec.
<strong>Расширение Amazon Web Services:Elastic Block Store...</strong> Теперь у амазоновских EC2-машин появилась возможность иметь таки постоянный диск (оно конечно и раньше можно было через S3 ElasticDrive но данный ...
Can you attach the same EBS volume to multiple EC2 instances? Will you be updating the MySQL Server templates to support
Posted by Sean Geoghegan (not verified)   Ι   August 21, 2008   Ι   02:14 AM
Response by Ed Soria (not verified)   Ι   April 27, 2011   Ι   11:00 AM
According to RightScale, you cannot attach the same EBS vol to multiple EC2 instances but they do have a work around suggestion at the following URL: http://support.rightscale.com/12-Guides/Dashboard_Users_Guide/Clouds/AWS_Region/EBS_Volumes Cheers, Ed
Forgot to finish typing. :) Of course I meant to say will you be update the MySQL server templates to support storing the database on an EBS volume? Is this even feasible performance wise?
Posted by Sean Geoghegan (not verified)   Ι   August 21, 2008   Ι   02:15 AM
[...] Amazon’s Elastic Block Store explained na RightScale blogu Tagged with: aws, storage &#171; Složené, fousaté,&#160;kudrnaté? [...]
[...] a company that has received funding from Amazon and works closely with them has a great explainer on how it works, and is a must read. With EBS developers can deploy scalable solutions including relational [...]
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@Jan: you are correct that with a scsi-attached disk array you can get better peak throughput. The 70MB/s were measured on a small instance (must not have gotten any contention from other smalls on the same host). For the time being the ethernet port is going to be the limiting factor for EBS streaming performance. The question is how EBS compares with your dell array on real workloads, which include seeks and not just sequential reads. @Sean: a volume can only be attached to a single instance at a time. I suspect this will be an FAQ...
@Sean: thanks for the mysql inquiry. We have already updated the mysql templates internally to work with EBS and they work better than before. We need to do some additional tweaks and test them thoroughly before we can make them available. With EBS the replication works the same way but initializing it is much faster. I'll write a blog post on that in a couple of days, but the short is that we mount a volume on the master and one on each slave. To initialize a slave, we snapshot the master and then create the slave volume from that snapshot. Fast, easy, scalable. The database workloads tend to be I/O ops heavy, not bandwidth heavy, and EBS performs better than the local drives. At least that's what we've seen so far (remember, we haven't had access to the production EBS version any longer than you have).
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Does anybody know if there is a way to grow an EBS volume? For instance, say that I create a 10GB volume and fill that space up. Can I easily expand it to 20GB without disrupting usage? Or would you have to create a new 20GB volume, copy data over, and delete the old volume?
[...] of detail here, if you want to know the full details I suggest you check out the blog entries from RightScale or from Amazon’s own CTO, Werner Vogels  ’s blog entry on the [...]
Hey guys, great writeup, very helpful. Out of curiosity, have you done any benchmarks of MySQL running on EBS? In the past you've published some numbers (http://blog.rightscale.com/2007/11/13/mysql-performance-on-amazon-ec2/), I'm curious how and if they've changed on the new hardware. Some initial tests on our end have yielded same perf numbers, which left me a little suspicious.
[...] step of the Amazon EC2 cloud solution is the Elastic Block Store. Together with SimpleDb and S3, we have the perfect solution to store with improved persistence the [...]
Ilya: I have o admit we haven't benchmarked. We didn't focus on benchmarks during the alpha period due to the fact that we expected them to change and we haven't had the resources to cycle back. Good nudge, though! Note that it's tricky to get the sysbench to measure anything other than cpu/memory. Getting it to hit the disk is required to see a difference...
Thorsten, I'll be interested in your benchmarks as well. I've just done two bonnie++ tests -- nothing I'd consider conclusive, as benchmarks taken over time and averaged is what you'd really need to account for network activity impact on performance. However, the two tests I did were as follows, mounted on an m1.xlarge instance with a RightImage 3.0.0 server template: Single 1TB EBS volume, xfs file system (no special xfs settings, just defaults). Random seeks/sec: 206.1 Four 1TB EBS volumes, RAID0 configuration, xfs file system. Random seeks/sec: 469.3 On the same server, a 1.6TB RAID0 made from the four local disks yielded 554.3 random seeks/sec. So, I'm skeptical about the claims I've been hearing (all around) about EBS performance being comparable to a decent-quality local disk. My goal is 800 random seeks sec -- the optimum disk performance for heavy-duty Splunk indexing. I'm sure that additional striped EBS volumes would eventually yield better results, but the added complexity of accurate snapshotting against a 6-8 volume array is distasteful to say the least. I'm not sure that the complexity is worth the trouble if I can already get 550+/sec with RAID0 on four local volumes. EBS is great, and the snapshot features are very nice -- but I'm not sure that it's the magic bullet to disk performance in the cloud just yet. I'll keep my fingers crossed that future releases will improve upon these numbers. But, as you say in your post, the speed of light is what it is. Not sure that future releases can upgrade the speed of light. :)
Thorsten: Based on our benchmarks, we're seeing equivalent perf numbers as with non EBS mounts (also confirmed by Tobias Lutke), which leads me to believe that either we're not really hitting the IO bottleneck with sysbench, or some misconfiguration on our part. Clay: Striping sure seems to give a nice boost - much more so than striping the disks that come native with EC2 instances. As for local disk.. that'll never be true. It's a NAS, no matter which way they spin it. :) Thorsten/Clay: any suggestions for backup strategies for striped EBS drives? If you go ahead with this model, you can't really take a snapshot of the drive anymore (well, I guess you could, and then try to reassemble the mirror, but that seems like an error prone strategy).
Hi, Any thoughts on how to increase the upload speed to EBS? I've been trying to upload 15 TB of data, and getting upload speeds in the range of 32kB, which would mean 113 days to upload the data! Even 1TB (one hard drive worth) would be about a week's time to upload. I understand this is a common problem. Is the solution: 1) Contact your ISP and remove the limits? 2) Unhook your RAID arrays and physically mail/bring them to Amazon's upload centers? 3) Something else? Once you're on EBS, things seem great because all further data generation will be local. Getting on, however, seems like a nontrivial logistical issue for people with existing mid or large-scale compute infrastructure. I'm really excited about the potential -- any thoughts here on how to solve this?
Posted by sam (not verified)   Ι   August 30, 2008   Ι   02:36 PM
[...] that can be attached, detached and re-attached to any instance in its availability zone. There are numerous advantages to using EBS over the local block storage devices of an instance, and one of the most important of [...]
[...] On EC2 we have access to formidable Elastic Block Storage volumes, which are capable of sustaining upwards of 1000 IOPS. Should we need more oomph, the volumes can be soft-raided together until the 1GBps link from the [...]
[...] layer of redundancy you can take snapshots of your EBS, which are stored on S3. RightScale have an excellent article regarding the ins and outs of the [...]
[...] features so-called Elastic Block Store and snapshots from EBS volumes that are stored in S3. This article says that snapshots are incremental &#8211; they only affect the block of the volume actually [...]
[...] attributing the service disruption to the failure of several volumes in a subset of Amazon’s Elastic Block Store to read and write operations, which was triggered by a network configuration change. The failure [...]

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