Oracle 10g Automatic Storage Management, Part 1: Overview

November 23, 2005

Synopsis. Oracle 10g's new Automatic Storage Management (ASM) features allow an Oracle DBA to take advantage of a robust, flexible, scalable file storage system that any Oracle database instance can access. This article - the first in this series -- provides a high-level overview of the ASM architecture, and should be helpful to any DBA contemplating the adoption of ASM for storing Oracle database files as part of a high-volume storage solution.

With the possible exception of having to rebuild a database server from a "cold metal" starting point, I have to admit that the scenario that holds the most dread for me as an Oracle DBA is to run out of disk space for a production database's datafiles or tempfiles. Though, in most cases this situation can be rectified easily - as long as there is sufficient disk space available, of course! - it always seems that these challenges seem to occur either at the busiest time of my client's business day, or between 02:00 and 03:00 on an early Sunday morning when I am scheduled to be out of town enjoying a long weekend. And I have also encountered my share of unexpected (and unlikely) disk media failures. For example, I once watched five disks in a 42-disk mirrored storage array fail within a three-week period after three years of relatively solid performance. The pattern never repeated itself, but it did teach me the value of a good mirroring strategy!

While a storage area network (SAN) and other logical volume manager (LVM) storage solutions like EMC are certainly options for guaranteed storage reliability, the costs of these solutions can be prohibitive for smaller IT organizations. The good news is that Oracle 10g supplies a new set of disk media storage features called Automatic Storage Management (ASM) that are aimed directly at insuring a storage solution for smaller enterprise databases. This series of articles will delve into ASM's rich features and provide examples of how to implement some simple ASM disk configurations for evaluation purposes so that your DBA team can make some decisions about whether ASM is worth pursuing for your organization. I will concentrate this article on a general review of ASM features as well as a brief explanation of the ASM architecture.

Automatic Storage Management Features

Out-Of-The-Box Functionality. First off, ASM was designed specifically for the storage of Oracle database files. This means that it is ready "out of the box" for use against any Oracle database that it services. Though ASM appears to be the intended replacement for Oracle Cluster File System (OCFS) for the Real Applications Cluster (RAC) environment, that doesn't mean that your database needs to be deployed under RAC to take advantage of ASM's myriad features; ASM can be deployed on a single processor (SMP) server just as easily as it can be deployed on a multiple-node RAC cluster. Moreover, it is simple to configure using the graphic interface provided by the Database Configuration Assistant (DBCA), an existing Oracle tool that just about every Oracle DBA has used. Oracle 10g also provides the standard Enterprise Manager (EM) interface for managing an ASM instance once it has been created.

Flexible Storage Configuration. Since ASM is in essence its own file management system, this means that I can add more physical storage, change storage configurations, or remove extraneous storage without having to shut down my Oracle database to change out physical hardware. This is a big advantage over traditional hardware configurations, and is certainly featured in storage-area networks (SANs).

Using ASM also means that I can turn over the majority of my space management tasks to the ASM instance and let it monitor the growth of my database's tablespaces. In addition, ASM maintains pre-existing Oracle database functionality, so regular Oracle databases can continue to operate as usual. New database files can be created as ASM files managed by the ASM instance, existing database files can be migrated to ASM as time and opportunity permit, and other database files can continue to exist as "traditional" database files without ASM file management.

Fault Tolerance. I also expect any file management system to insure that once I write database information to disk, it will never be lost - unless, of course, I tell the database to delete that data. One way that DBAs usually guarantee against the inevitable failure of disk hardware is through mirroring drives via redundant arrays of inexpensive disks (aka RAID) and striping (writing portions of disk files to different disks so that if one disk is lost the information is recoverable from another disk in the set). This guards against the inevitable failure of disk hardware, since even with extremely high estimated mean time between failures (MTBF), a disk drive will almost certainly fail eventually.

Most operating systems provide controls to set up and monitor disk storage to take advantage of these redundancy features. Like any good file management system, ASM provides fault tolerance by allowing me to write duplicate or triplicate copies of any database files' contents. And if my current server and disk storage system already support fault tolerance, so much the better! ASM can also take advantage of existing vendor-supplied fault tolerance mechanisms for increased guarantees to safe data storage.

Since ASM handles the mirroring of data, there is no need to purchase a third-party Logical Volume Manager (LVM). Mirroring is applied on a file-by-file basis, rather than on a per-volume basis, so the same disk group may contain a combination of files protected by mirroring (or perhaps not even mirrored at all, if mirroring is not required for some files). ASM also supports Oracle Real Application Clusters (RAC), so there is no need for a separate Cluster LVM or a Cluster File System.

I/O Load Balancing. ASM is responsible for providing equal distribution of I/O loads across all available disk storage resources, so there is a measurable performance improvement. For example, ASM will split a datafile into its component extents and then spread those extents evenly across all defined disks that ASM is managing; those extents are then tracked via an indexing technique. ASM also automatically manages data via selection of desired reliability and performance characteristics instead of manually manipulating data file storage characteristics, and therefore it tends to reduce (or even eliminate) manual tuning and retuning of I/O.

A big advantage to this approach is that when ASM storage capacity changes, ASM doesn't need to re-stripe all data - it just moves enough data in proportion to the amount of added (or reduced!) storage, thus redistributing the datafile's extents evenly and keeping a balanced data load across all disks. Moreover, since ASM can accomplish the rebalancing act while the database is active, there is virtually no impact on database availability. I can also instruct ASM to increase the speed of a space rebalancing operation if I know that sufficient system resources are available, or I can tell ASM to reduce the speed of the rebalancing operation to limit the impact on the ASM I/O subsystem.

Productivity Increases. Here is one final, intangible benefit of ASM: an increase in my productivity as a DBA. Since I am freed up from physical and logical space management worries, I can now concentrate my limited and valuable time on more critical database tuning issues, like poorly-structured SQL statements and inefficient logical storage structures that tend to be the real culprits behind database performance issues.

The ASM Instance

The ASM instance is at the heart of Automatic Storage Management. Rather than "reengineer the wheel," Oracle decided to adopt the basic architecture of a normal Oracle database instance. An ASM instance never actually opens a database; instead, it is responsible for storing and processing the metadata that is required to make available the files stored within the ASM storage system to non-ASM Oracle databases (henceforth referred to as database instances).

In addition to the normal database background processes like CKPT, DBWR, LGWR, SMON, and PMON, an ASM instance uses at least two additional background processes to manage data storage operations. The Rebalancer process, RBAL, coordinates the rebalance activity for ASM disk groups, and the Actual ReBalance processes, ARBn, handle the actual rebalance of data extent movements. There are usually several ARB background processes (ARB0, ARB1, and so forth). I will talk more about disk rebalancing operations in the final article in this series.

Starting Up and Shutting Down an ASM Instance. The ASM instance can be can be started in NOMOUNT mode, and ASM disk groups are mounted via the MOUNT command. Similarly, disk groups can be taken offline with the SHUTDOWN command. When an ASM instance is started and appropriate ASM disk groups are mounted, all ASM files contained on those disk groups are made accessible to any Oracle database. Any database instance can use the ASM disk groups as targets for creating new ASM-managed files.

Managing an ASM Instance. Managing access to the ASM instance is relatively straightforward. The DBA can issue the ALTER SYSTEM ENABLE RESTRICTED SESSION; command to prevent database instances from accessing ASM disk groups while maintenance is being performed against the ASM instance or any ASM disk groups. Alternatively, issuing the ALTER SYSTEM DISABLE RESTRICTED SESSION; command re-enables access to the ASM instance.

The only way to connect to an ASM instance is via OS authentication (i.e. SYSDBA or SYSOPER) because an ASM instance does not have a data dictionary per se. Connecting to an ASM via a remote connection implies, of course, that a password file must be used. Normally, the SYSDBA privilege is granted through the use of an operating system group (on UNIX or Linux, typically the dba group). Since by default members of that group have SYSDBA privilege on all instances on the node, including the ASM instance, any user that connects to the ASM instance with the SYSDBA privilege has administrative access to all ASM disk groups in the system.

The SYSOPER privilege is also supported in ASM instances and limits the set of allowable SQL commands to the minimum required for basic operation of an already-configured system. A user with SYSOPER permissions can start up or shut down an ASM instance, take disk groups online or offline, issue a manual rebalance request, and verify a disk group. However, more advanced command sets like those for creating new ASM disk groups, resizing ASM disks, adding new ASM disks to existing ASM disk groups, and dropping ASM disk groups are reserved to users with the SYSDBA privilege.

The ASM Storage Hierarchy

ASM provides a flexible storage hierarchy for managing access to its disk files, starting with the smallest unit of storage, the Allocation Unit (AU). All ASM disk space is partitioned in AUs of 1 MB each, and blocks will never be split across any allocation unit.

ASM Files. Next in the hierarchy are the actual ASM files themselves. With the exception of trace files and operating system files, ASM can store every type of Oracle database file, including control files, server parameter files (SPFILEs), datafiles, tempfiles, online redo logs, archived redo logs, flashback logs, DataPump dump sets. In addition, ASM can store all types of files managed by Recovery Manager (RMAN), including backup sets, archived redo log image copies, datafile image copies, and autobackups.

ASM Disk Groups. The highest level of storage unit in an ASM instance is the ASM Disk Group. An ASM disk group can support multiple files that belong to multiple Oracle database instances. Each ASM disk group consists of one or more ASM Disks, and an ASM Disk belongs to one and only one ASM Disk Group. All ASM files in the ASM Disk Group will be spread across all the ASM disks in the ASM disk group; however, a single ASM File will never span more than one ASM disk group.

ASM disk groups are accessible by either ASM instances or database instances, and database instances can access the contents of ASM files directly, communicating with an ASM instance only to get information about the layout of these files. An ASM instance supports the addition of new ASM disks, deletion of existing ASM disks and disk groups, and modifications to existing ASM disk groups (e.g. adding new ASM disks).

ASM File Naming Conventions and File Name Aliasing. ASM uses a four-layer file name to identify an ASM file. The ASM file name consists of the ASM disk group name, the database instance name, and the file type; the final file name component consists of three tokens, a file type token (e.g. CF for control file) and two integer values. The combination of these file name components insures that an ASM file name is always unique and can be easily tied back to its owning ASM disk group and database instance. Since the ASM file naming convention can be cumbersome, ASM also supports file name aliases for easier referencing of the ASM file instead of using the fully-qualified ASM file name.

Implementing ASM Storage In Oracle Databases

Every database instance that uses ASM for file storage will also need two new processes. The Rebalancer background process (RBAL) handles global opens of all ASM disks in the ASM Disk Groups, while the ASM Bridge process (ASMB) connects as a foreground process into the ASM instance when the regular database instance starts. ASMB facilitates communication between the ASM instance and the regular database, including handling physical file changes like data file creation and deletion.

ASMB exchanges messages between both servers for statistics update and instance health validation. These two processes are automatically started by the database instance when a new Oracle file type - for example, a tablespace's datafile -- is created on an ASM disk group. When an ASM instance mounts a disk group, it registers the disk group and connect string with Group Services. The database instance knows the name of the disk group, and can therefore use it to locate connect information for the correct ASM instance.

ASM Instance Failure Scenarios. There are some implications for any database instance that is using ASM files for storage: When an ASM instance is shut down, any database instance that is using that ASM instance to store ASM files will lose contact with those ASM-managed files. Oracle 10g overcomes this potential failure scenario by allowing multiple ASM instances to share ASM disk groups, so if one ASM instance should fail, another ASM instance can continue to manage the changes to data stored on those disk groups.

Next Steps

The next article in this series will focus on a simple implementation of Automated Storage Management. It provides examples of how to create an example ASM instance in both the Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and Windows NT environments as well as a demonstration of how to implement basic ASM storage for an existing Oracle database instance.

References and Additional Reading

While there is no substitute for direct experience, reading the manual is not a bad idea, either. I have drawn upon the following Oracle 10g documentation for the deeper technical details of this article:

B10739-01 Oracle Database Administrator's Guide, Chapter 12

B10743-01 Oracle Database Concepts, Chapter 14

B10755-01 Oracle Database Reference

B10759-01 Oracle Database SQL Reference

» See All Articles by Columnist Jim Czuprynski








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