FreeBSD’s geom makes life easier.

FreeBSD’s geom is the missing link that I’ve been searching for. Geom is an abstraction for mass storage providers and consumers which really cleans up the mass storage layer in Unix. In geom your disk drive combined with it’s driver is a mass storage provider. The filesystem layer is a mass storage consumer. Geom provides the glue in between providers and consumers which allows greatly enhanced function. Encrypted or compressed storage can be easily built using this framework.

I’m using geom with the automounter, amd to revamp my use of removable media. If you use the new gnome framework gnome’s hald does this also but it requires the user to unmount the drive. I like using amd here. Even though there’s a slight performance penalty amd will automatically unmount the drive for you after a configured period of inactivity. I find that this is an effective way of getting around one of Unix’s quirks. Unix doesn’t react well with a piece of the filesystem just disappears which is what happens when you remove a mounted USB stick. Amd can be configured to unmount the stick 30 seconds after you’ve stopped using it. Doing this almost eliminated the resulting kernel panics and length fscks that I experienced when I first started using USB storage.

The automounter is a utility that was designed to mount storage into the filesystem on demand. It works by providing an NFS look alike storage system. You literally mount the automounter into a directory in the filesystem. The automounter is configured with a map that assigns different directories within it’s filesystem to different pieces of mounted storage. So if amd is providing the directory /Volumes and has a mapping for MyUsbStick when you try to get a directory listing of /Volumes/MyUsbStick, the automounter has all the information needed to do the mount and provide access to the filesystem beyond. So far that’s about even.

Without geom that was a nice enough setup. But when the kernel attaches your usb stick in FreeBSD it gives it a name like /dev/da0s2e or /dev/da1s1. It’s easy enough to figure out what this means. da0s2e is the “e” partition on the second slice of the first “SCSI” drive in the system. USB and firewire drives a psuedo SCSI drives in FreeBSD and in Linux because the SCSI protocol was flexible enough to serve as the model for mass storage. But what happens if you have two systems and one of them has a SCSI controller in it or if you have two USB sticks. SCSI drives are number in the order in which they appear on the system so for the man with two USB sticks the whether they are connected as Drive a is da0s2e and drive b is da1s2e or vice versa depends on the order in which you plug them in. It turns out that geom embraces the concept of a volume label and can create a shadow device based on that label.

To use this feature of geom load the kernel module geom_vol_ffs (Available in FreeBSD from 6.x onwards) then add a label to your FreeBSD filesystems using the tunefs command:

# tunefs -L “MyLabel” /dev/da0s2e

Then you should end up with a device entry for your disk called /dev/vol/MyLabel

Have fun

— Chris