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  • Writer's picturekyle Hailey

Database Thin Cloning: WAFL (Netapp)

Write Anywhere File Layout (WAFL)

With EMC, thin cloning can only be achieved by using backup technology; in essence, the process has to be architected manually in order to support databases. How can the same goals be achieved but with database thin cloning specifically in mind?

A more seamless approach to database thin cloning is SnapManager for Oracle (SMO) and SnapManager for SQL Server offered by NetApp. NetApp employs a technology called Write Anywhere File Layout (WAFL) that sounds on the surface like EMC VNX copy on write but is different.  WAFL has been around far longer and has a track record of being used for database thin cloning. WAFL allows quick, easy, and efficient snapshots to be taken of a filesystem. New writes don’t overwrite previous blocks with WAFL; instead, the new writes go to a new location. With this architecture it is easy to snapshot files, filesystems or LUNs in minutes.

Up to 255 snapshots can be created from a single LUN. (The 255 limitation is  per volume) An entire LUN can be the source of a snapshot, or snapshots can be made of specific sets of files. Along with the quick and easy snapshot technology, NetApp provides a feature called SnapMirror that will propagate snapshots to a secondary filer. The secondary filer in turn can use a feature called FlexClone that can be used to create clones.

Clones created in this manner will share duplicate blocks and thus can be used to create database thin clones on a secondary filer. The snapshots on the source array can be managed specifically for databases with NetApp Snapshot Manager for Oracle (SMO), or Snapshot Manager for SQL Server. SMO connects to the database, and in the case of Oracle will put all tablespaces in hot backup mode before taking snapshots then take them out of hot backup mode when the snapshot is complete. Information about the snapshots is tracked and managed within SMO inside an Oracle database that serves as a repository.

The technology involved with snapshot cloning in WAFL is solid but very component heavy. On top of the components already listed is a required installation on the target array called NetApp SnapDrive for UNIX. Snapshots are propagated to the secondary array with SnapMirror but a feature called Protection Manager manages the process. A critical step in cloning operations is correctly synchronizing the snapshot schedule of SMO with the transfer schedule of Protection Manager so that the same retention class is maintained on the source and target arrays. On the destination array it is important to manage and track how many clones are made and which snapshot is used for the basis of each clone. If more than 255 clones are made of a single LUN, the next clone will no longer be a logic (virtual) clone sharing duplicate data blocks but a physical clone with a completely new copy of the datafiles.

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Figure 8. Using NetApp filer technologies including WAFL, SnapMirror, SMO, and FlexClone to create thin provisioned database clones.

An important consideration on WAFL volumes on NetApp is the aggregate pool. The aggregate pool defines which LUNs will be included in a snapshot. The size limitation on this pool varies between 16TB and 100TB depending on the model of the NetApp array. The limits on the size of this pool and the limit of 255 snapshots should be considered when evaluating the capabilities of SMO and FlexClone on NetApp.


  1. A Thorough Introduction to FlexCloneTM Volumes

  2. SnapMirror Async Overview and Best Practices Guide

  3. Using FlexClone to Clone Files and LUNs

  4. SnapManager 3.0 for Oracle Best Practices

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an interesting discussion of Netapp vs EMC filesystem snapshots:

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