When to Rebalance BTRFS Partitions

Customers running Cumulus Linux, 3.y.z, which uses BTRFS (the b-tree file system), might experience issues with disk space management. This is a known problem of BTRFS because it does not perform periodic garbage collection, or rebalancing. If left unattended, these errors can make it impossible to rebalance the partitions on the disk. To avoid this issue, NVIDIA recommends rebalancing the BTRFS partitions in a preemptive manner, but only when absolutely needed to avoid reduction in the lifetime of the disk. By tracking the state of the disk space usage, you can determine when to perform a rebalancing.

This article describes one approach to determine the proper time to perform a BTRFS rebalance.

Issue Presentation

The issue presents itself when BTRFS is running and just the right pattern of disk I/O and file sizes are present. This causes inefficient use of the disk space and ultimately prevents new writes to the disk. You can tell this issue is occurring because of the of “No space left on device” errors that appear.

When to Rebalance

When determining when you should perform a rebalance, consider these several factors:

  • How often should you run a check?
  • Does the partition have a large amount of allocated space?
  • Would a rebalance free up any space?

Check Interval

This problem happens gradually, with just the right disk I/O over a long period of time. The expectation is that the time period from “everything is fine” to “no space left” (even though there is not much data on the device), is at least one week. The smaller this time period is, the more frequently you must run the check. While the check does not incur significant disk I/O, it does consume some, as well as CPU cycles. Therefore, you should run the check as infrequently as possible.

Allocated Space Check

You do not need to execute a rebalance if BTRFS has not allocated a significant portion of the partition. A 15 GB partition in which BTRFS has allocated only 4 GB has plenty of unallocated space and is in no need of a rebalance. A rebalance on such a volume would free up little or no allocated space. Therefore, the first check is to determine if BTRFS has allocated a significant portion of the partition, where “significant portion” is the greater of:

  • 80% of the partition size, or
  • All but 2 GB of partition size.

By this definition, a 14.66 GB partition qualifies as having a significant portion of disk allocated if either the maximum of (14.66 x 0.80) or (14.66 - 2) is true. That calculates to a maximum of 11.728 GB or 12.66 GB. Because 12.66 GB is greater than 11.728 GB, then 12.66 GB is the determining factor of significant allocation for the disk.

These parameters were chosen because BTRFS appears to allocate chunks as large as 1/10 the size of the partition, up to a maximum of 1 GB. The desire is to have at least one chunk unallocated to use during the rebalance operation. Running a rebalance when the unallocated portion of a partition crosses the 2 GB or 20 % threshold guarantees that at least one chunk is free for the rebalance operation.

If a partition goes from the condition where there is not a significant portion of its space allocated, to less than one chunk unallocated, there is a danger that the rebalance operation cannot run. In this case, you might have to reduce the check interval. The amount of allocated space is not sufficient for determining if you should perform a rebalance operation. Consider, for example, if the partition is truly 97% full of data, the allocated space check would show that a significant portion of the partition is allocated. A rebalance, in this case, would not free up used space because the disk is actually almost full. Therefore, you must consider more criteria to determine if you need to rebalance.

Data Storage Efficiency Check

To determine if a rebalance would free up space, BTRFS compares the amount of space allocated for data against the amount of space that data uses. If the difference between these two is greater than the largest size of a chunk, then a rebalance should likely free up some space. The largest size of a chunk is the minimum of 1 GB or 10% of the partition.

By this definition, for a 14.66 GB partition with 13.94 GB of space allocated for data, and only 2.30 GB of space used by that data, the amount of allocated but unused space is 13.94 GB - 2.30 GB, or 11.64 GB. The largest chunk size is the smaller of (14.66 GB * 0.10) or 1 GB. Because 1 GB is less than 1.466 GB, the largest chunk size is 1 GB. To compare these two, 11.64 GB is greater than 1 GB, indicating that you must perform a rebalance.

The Data Storage Efficiency check is also not sufficient on its own; you must use it in conjunction with the Allocated Space check. Consider a 14.66 GB partition with 4 GB allocated for data and only 1 GB used by that data. Although a rebalance might free up some space, you do not need to rebalance because there is plenty of space left on the device to store additional data. Running a rebalance at this point would cause additional, unnecessary, wear on the disk.

The BTRFS information stored in Metadata and System chunks are not considered in this check. They are only a small portion of the partition usage.

In summary, if both the Allocated Space Check and the Data Storage Efficiency check return positive results, then NVIDIA recommends a rebalance. If only one check returns true, you do not need to rebalance yet.

Perform the Checks: An Example

The BTRFS filesystem usage command output contains all the information needed to perform the checks described above. Here is an example of the output:

$ sudo btrfs fi usage -b /
     Device size:                    7474450432
     Device allocated:               2028994560
     Device unallocated:             5445455872
     Device missing:                          0
     Used:                            904900608
     Free (estimated):               6199468032   (min: 3476740096)
     Data ratio:                           1.00
     Metadata ratio:                       2.00
     Global reserve:                   16777216   (used: 0)

Data,single: Size:1568669696, Used:814657536
   /dev/sda4 1568669696

Metadata,DUP: Size:196608000, Used:45105152
   /dev/sda4 393216000

System,DUP: Size:33554432, Used:16384
   /dev/sda4  67108864

   /dev/sda4 5445455872

The checks use the numbers shown in red.

First, perform the allocated space check. Is the allocated space greater than the maximum of a) 80% of the partition size or, b) all but 2 GB of the partition?

  1. Calculate condition A: 7474450432 * 0.80 = 5,979,560,345
  2. Calculate condition B: 7474450432 - 2147483648 = 5,326,966,784
  3. Take the greater of condition A and B and compare to disk allocation: 2,028,994,560 < 5,979,560,345

Because the disk allocation is less than the condition, the check is False and there is no need to run a BTRFS rebalance on this partition.

In this example, because the Allocated Space check passes, you would not need to perform the Data Storage Efficiency check. However, if it failed you would have to perform this second test to be sure you do not need to rebalance. If you assume the first test failed, and for this same partition, you would check if the amount of space allocated for the data information minus the amount of space used for the data information is greater than the chunk size:

  1. Calculate the difference between space allocated and used: 1568669696 - 814657536 = 754,012,160
  2. Calculate the chunk size: smaller of (7474450432 * 0.10) or 1073741824 = 747,445,043
  3. Compare these two values: 754,012,160 > 747,445,043

Because the difference is greater than the chunk size, the check is True and you might free space by running a rebalance. If both checks fail, you need to rebalance. If only this check fails, you do not need to rebalance.


Although the BTRFS file system does not have a built-in garbage collection facility, you can create a reasonable analog of this capability by periodically examining the BTRFS statistics. When the amount of space allocated by BTRFS becomes large and it is likely that running a rebalance can free up some space (both checks are true), you should run a rebalance. This can prevent the system from getting into a situation where BTRFS allocates the entire partition, but only a small portion of the disk is in use.