Converting my work laptop to btrfs

The more I read about containers, the more clear it is that btrfs is the future filesystem for DevOps work. This is because btrfs' copy-on-write behavior means that provisioning the disk for a new container is just a 'btrfs snapshot' operation under the hood, and only the blocks that I change use additional space. I've been working more with LXD, which enables this behavior when it detects that /var/lib/lxd is on a btrfs filesystem.

I've read some articles, but it's time to take the plunge. The candidate system for this is my work laptop, since I like to run some local containers. Also, unlike my personal laptop, the disk isn't encrypted, so there's a layer I don't have to reason about.

The first time I considered this, I planned how to do it the old painful way: Install a new OS onto btrfs on a free partition, then over time re-install everything and migrate data from the old partition as needed. Then when I was satisfied that I had everything I needed from the old install, I could expand onto the old partition using btrfs' RAID 0 capability.

The thing is, btrfs provides a new way: the btrfs-convert utility can turn an ext2/3/4 filesystem into a btrfs filesystem in place. This works since btrfs doesn't put its superblocks in fixed places, so it can put the new superblocks around the old ones. The tool even has a --rollback flag if you want to go back to ext2/3/4 after the conversion. I'm committed enough to my current setup that this conversion seems like the best way forward.

Prep work is done

The target machine already has a btrfs-aware kernel, which I know from some toy filesystems created in loopback files.

GRUB 2 is installed. I expect some futzing will be required to make GRUB understand btrfs, but I've configured GRUB modules before (for LVM I think).

I have System Rescue CD on a thumb drive (at all times, on my key ring!) I also have an external USB drive with much free space.

The plan is to boot the machine with the rescue distro, then back up the whole disk to the external USB drive using dd. I'll run btrfs-convert, then adjust my fstab and bootloader as needed.

I need the machine for work tomorrow, so I have to be fully rolled-forward or fully rolled-back by morning. Let's go!


I boot into System Rescue CD and attach the external drive. One partition has 1.5T free, more than enough for my dd operation.

mount /dev/sdc1 /mnt/gentoo
cd /mnt/gentoo
dd if=/dev/sda of=system76bak.img
In another terminal (Alt-F2) I used watch ls -hl /mnt/gentoo/system76bak.img to view the copy. It's also possible to periodically kill -USR1 2431 to cause the dd process (the last arg) to output its progress. This took two and a half hours for 250G on eight cores, but is worth every minute for the peace of mind.


System Rescue CD has btrfs-progs version 3.18.2. This is good enough for me, since 3.14.2 is the latest in Gentoo's stable branch. I just didn't want to use a super-old btrfs-convert, and I'm satisfied I won't.

It was as simple as

btrfs-convert /dev/sda2

I'm a little concerned that the original filesystem was at 93% capacity. I can clear off a few gigs here and there if I need to, but certainly a disk-nearly-full condition is a dealbreaker for an operation like this. I'm counting on the rollback flag in that case. It will help if deduplication is part of this process.

Of course I only saw the -p (show progress) flag after hitting enter. This could take hours, yes? I'll never know now.

Full output:

root@sysresccd /root % btrfs-convert /dev/sda2
creating btrfs metadata.
creating ext2fs image file.
cleaning up system chunk.
conversion complete.
  • Done in 32 minutes without error!
  • The old filesystem has been made available at /ext2_saved/image (178G)
  • The new filesystem shows 94% full now (was 93% before the conversion). That's a remarkably efficient operation.

Make it bootable

First I'll fix /etc/fstab, the easy part right? blkid now gives me a UUID="..." and a SUB_UUID="..." I'm sure the subvolume ID is valid as a mount point, but let's confirm this on the web. Both Arch and Gentoo wikis state UUID, and both remind me that the last field should be 0 to disable fsck on boot.

Now let's update GRUB. We'll do it from within, so chroot in the normal way.

mount --rbind /dev /mnt/gentoo/dev
mount --rbind /proc /mnt/gentoo/proc
chroot /mnt/gentoo /bin/bash

Re-install GRUB

grub2-install --modules=btrfs /dev/sda

There were some "device node not found" messages, but at the end it claimed to encounter no errors.

Finally, let's make sure the grub.cfg has the UUID for the correct volume

grub2-mkconfig -o /boot/grub/grub.cfg

Again, more "device node not found" messages. But let's take our chances and reboot, since it might just work now.

And, voila! It booted immediately into the converted filesystem the first time. I had to check the output of "mount" to be sure that it was really working. Well done, btrfs devs, on making the conversion as intuitive and painless as possible!


The following day at the office, the system twice hung on disk I/O to the point of requiring a hard reboot. I could, for instance, type in a terminal until I did something that required a disk read (e.g. attempt a tab completion), and then that terminal was hung, until they all were.

I had the discard mount option enabled, and have disabled it since reading some warnings about the discard action fully blocking the disk, which sounds a lot like the hang I was experiencing. I'll have to do manual TRIMs. I've also enabled the ssd mount option (which is unrelated to discard). Let's hope for no more hangs!

Somewhat unrelated, a co-worker recommended ncdu, that is "ncurses du", for the problem of quickly identifying what's using all your disk space. I later freed up over 100G - if I knew it was so easy, I'd have done it before my dd backup.