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		 NFS Attribute Caching OS Problems and Amd
		      Last updated September 18, 2005

* Summary:

Some OSs don't seem to have a way to turn off the NFS attribute cache, which
breaks the Amd automounter so badly that it is not recommend using Amd on
such OS for heavy use, not until this is fixed.

* Details:

Amd is a user-level NFSv2 server that manages automounts of all other file
systems.  The kernel contacts Amd via RPCs, and Amd in turn performs the
actual mounts, and then responds back to the kernel's RPCs.  Every kernel
caches attributes of files, in a cache called the Directory Name Lookup
Cache (DNLC), or a Directory Cache (dcache).

Amd manages its namespace in the user level, but the kernel caches names
itself.  So the two must coordinate to ensure that both namespaces are in
sync.  If the kernel uses a cached entry from the DNLC, without consulting
Amd, users may see corruption of the automounter namespace (symlinks
pointing to the wrong places, ESTALE errors, and more).  For example,
suppose Amd timed out an entry and removed the entry from Amd's namespace.
Amd has to tell the kernel to purge its corresponding DNLC entry too.  The
way Amd often does that is by incrementing the last modification time
(mtime) of the parent directory.  This is the most common method for kernels
to check if their DNLC entries are stale: if the parent directory mtime is
newer, the kernel will discard all cached entries for that directory, and
will re-issue lookup methods.  Those lookups will result in
NFS_GETATTR/NFS_LOOKUP calls sent from the kernel down to Amd, and Amd can
then properly inform the kernel of the new state of automounted entries.

In order to ensure that Amd is "in charge" of its namespace without
interference from the kernel, Amd will try to turn off the NFS attribute
cache.  It does so by using the NFSMNT_NOAC flag, if it exists, or by
setting various "cache timeout" fields in struct nfs_args to 0 (acregmin,
acregmax, acdirmin, or acdirmax).

We have released a major new version of am-utils, version 6.1, in June 2005.
Since then, a lot of people have experimented with Amd, in anticipation of
migrating from the very old am-utils 6.0 to the new 6.1.  For a couple of
months since the release of 6.1, we have received reports of problems with
Amd, especially under heavy use.  Users reported getting ESTALE errors from
time to time, or seeing automounted entries whose symlinks don't point to
where it should be.  After much debugging, we traced it to a few places in
Amd where it wasn't updating the parent directory mtime as it should have;
in some places where Amd was indeed updating the mtime, it was using a
resolution of only 1 second, which was not fine enough under heavy load.  We
fixed this problem and switched to using a microsecond resolution mtime.

After fixing this in Amd, we went on to verify that things work for other
OSs.  When we got to test certain BSDs, we found out that they always cache
directory entries, and there is no way to turn it off completely.
Specifically, if we set the ac{reg,dir}{min,max} fields in struct nfs_args
all to zero, the kernel seems to cache the entries for a default number of
seconds (something like 5-30 seconds).  On some OSs, setting these four
fields to 0 turns off the attribute cache, but not on some BSDs.  We were
able to verify this using Amd and a script that exercises the interaction of
the kernel's attrcache and Amd.  (If you're interested, the script can be
made available.)

We then experimented by setting the ac{reg,dir}{min,max} fields in struct
nfs_args all to 1, the smallest non-zero value we could.  When we ran the
Amd exercising script, we found that the value of 1 reduced the race between
the DNLC and Amd, and the script took a little longer to run before it
detected an incoherency.  That makes sense: the smaller the DNLC cache
interval is, the shorter the window of vulnerability is.  (BTW, the man
pages on some OSs say that the ac{reg,dir}{min,max} fields use a 1 second
resolution, but experimentation indicated it was in 0.1 second units.)

Clearly, setting the ac{reg,dir}{min,max} fields to 0 is worse than setting
it to 1 on those OSs that don't have a way to turn off the attribute cache.
So the current workaround I've implemented in am-utils is to create a
configuration parameter called "broken_attrcache" which, if turned on, will
set these nfs_args fields to 1 instead of 0.  I wish I didn't have to create
such ugly workaround features in Amd, but I've got no choice.

The near term solution is for every OS to support a true 'noac' flag, which
can be added fairly easily.  This'd make Amd work reliably.

The long term solution is to implement Autofs support for all OSs and to
support it in Amd.  Currently, Amd supports autofs on Solaris and Linux;
FreeBSD is next.  Still, we found that even with autofs support, many
sysadmins still prefer to use the good 'ol non-autofs mode.

* Confirmed Status

This is the confirmed status of various OSs' vulnerability to this attribute
cache bug.  We are slowly checking the status of other OSs.  The status of
any OS not listed is unknown as of the date at the top of this file.

** Not Vulnerable (support a proper "noac" flag):

Sun Solaris 8 and 9 (10 probably works fine)
Linux: 2.6.11 kernel (2.4.latest probably works fine)
FreeBSD 5.4 and 6.0-SNAP001 (older versions probably work fine)
OpenBSD 3.7 (older versions probably work fine)

** Vulnerable (don't support a proper "noac" flag natively):

NetBSD 2.0.2 (older versions are also probably affected)

Note: NetBSD has promised to support a noac flag hopefully after 2.1.0 is
released (maybe in 3.0 or 2.2).  In the mean time, you can apply one of
these two kernel patchs to support a 'noac' flag in NetBSD 2.x or 3.x:
After applying this patch and rebuilding your kernel, reboot with the new
kernel.  Then copy the new nfs.h and nfsmount.h from /sys/nfs/ to
/usr/include/nfs/, and finally rebuild am-utils from scratch.

** Testing

When you build am-utils, a script named scripts/test-attrcache is built,
which can be used to test the NFS attribute cache behavior of the current
OS.  You can run this script as root as follows:

# make install
# cd scripts
# sh test-attrcache

If you run this script on an OS whose status is known (and not listed
above), please report it to us via Bugzilla or the am-utils mailing list
(see, so we can record it in this file.