Several blogs and manuals with examples on kvm or xen setups use NFS as storage backend. Mostly they state that for production use iSCSI is recommended. However there are examples where NFS is part of the architecture, eg. OpenNebula. I tried to find specific statistics on the performance differences between NFS, iSCSI and local storage. During this search I encountered some pointers that NFS and Xen is not a good combination, but never a straight comparison.

I decided to invest some time and setup a small test environment and run some bonnie++ statistics. This is not a scientific designed experiment, but a test to show the differences between the platforms. Two test platforms are setup, 1 with a Xen server (DL360G6) (xen1) and a 12 disk SATA storage server (storage1), and another with a KVM server (DL360G5) (kvm1) and a 2 disk SATA storage server (storage2) . Both servers are connected with a gigabit network. I’ve also run a test with a 100mb/s network between the kvm1 and storage2 server. For reference I’ve also done tests with the images on localdisk.

I realize that LVM and iSCSI storage is most efficient, but storage with image files is very convenient and in case of cloud setups sometimes the only option.

Seq output Seq input Random
Per Chr Block Rewrite Per Chr Block Seeks
Size K/sec %CP K/sec %CP K/sec %CP K/sec %CP K/sec %CP /sec %CP
Xen-guest-via-nfs-tapaio 1G 3570 5 2436 0 1366 0 26474 41 24831 0 6719.0 1
xen-guest-via-iscsi 1G 25242 40 12071 1 15175 0 32071 42 47742 0 7331.3 1
kvm-guest-nfs-1gb-net 1G 8140 16 17308 3 11864 2 40861 81 71711 3 2126.6 54
kvm-guest-nfs-qcow-100mb 1G 1922 3 9874 1 3994 0 10720 22 10441 0 595.4 33
kvm-guest-nfs-qcow-100mb-2nd 1G 9735 21 2039 0 3197 0 10729 22 10463 0 685.3 38
kvm-guest-nfs-qcow-100mb-3rd 1G 5327 10 7378 1 4421 0 10655 18 10512 0 706.3 39
xenserver-nfsmount 1G 41507 60 60921 7 29687 1 33427 48 64147 0 4674.4 11
kvmserver-nfs-1G 20G 31158 52 32044 17 10749 2 19152 28 18987 1 90.3 1
localdisk-on-nfs-server-cloudtest3 4G 41926 65 43805 7 18928 3 52943 72 56616 3 222.6 0

The  conclusion of the tests is that local storage is fastest. NFS storage with Xen is not a good combination. Xen runs best with iSCSI backed storage. KVM with NFS runs significantly better. It is safe to say that if you want to use NFS use it with KVM, not with Xen. In any case iSCSI is always the best option for Xen. I have not yet tested KVM with iSCSI but I expect this to perform better than NFS.

A SAN is often implemented as a dedicated network that is considered to be a secure network. However, the nature of a SAN is that it is a shared network. This involves some serious security risks, that should be evaluated when using an iSCSI based SAN. Some vendors consider an iSCSI network save when it is implemented as a dedicated switches network (Dell EqualLogic. Securing storage area networks with iSCSI. EqualLogic Inc., 2008.). They consider it virtually impossible to snoop or inject packets in a switched network. We all know this is not the case. If this is true, why do we use firewalls, ids and tons of other security measures? Even if iSCSI runs on an isolated network, and only the management interface of the storage devices are connected to a shared/general-purpose network, security is just as good as the hosts that are connected to the dedicated network. A single compromised host connected to the dedicated iSCSI network can attack the storage devices to get access to LUNs for other hosts.

When implementing an iSCSI network you should be aware of the security risks that this imposes on the environment. To estimate the risk, awareness of the methods that can be used to secure iSCSI is paramount. The iSCSI protocol allows for the following security measures to prevent unintended or unauthorized access to storage resources:

  • Authorization
  • Authentication
  • Encryption

Because iSCSI setups are generally shared environments access to the storage elements (LUNs) by unauthorized initiators should be blocked. Authorization is implemented by means of the iQN. The iQN is the initiator node name (iSCSI Qualified Name), this can be seen as a mac-address. During an audit, storage systems must demonstrate controls to ensure that a server under one regime cannot access the storage assets of a server under another.
Typically, iSCSI storage arrays explicitly map initiators to specific target LUNs; an initiator authenticates not to the storage array, but to the specific storage asset it intends to use.

As an added security method, the iSCSI protocol allows initiators and targets to use CHAP to authenticate each other. This prevents simple access by spoofing the iQN. And last, because iSCSI runs on IP, IPSec can be used to secure and encrypt the data flowing between the client (initiator) and the storage server (target).

Now that we know there are multiple ways to secure access to the storage resouces, you might conclude that iSCSI must be safe and secure to use. Unfortunately this is not evident. There are several flaws in the iSCSI security design:

  • iQN’s are trusted, but are easy to spoof, sniff and guessed
  • iSCSI authorization is the only required security method, and this uses only the iQN
  • Authentication is disabled by default
  • Authentication is (mostly) only implemented as CHAP
  • IPSec is difficult to implement

Because iQN’s are manually configured in the iSCSI driver on the client, it is easy to change them. To get access to a LUN that is only protected by a iQN restriction, you can sniff the communication to get the iQN, or guess the iQN as it is often a default string (eg.:, configure the iscsi driver to use this name and get access to the LUN.

The CHAP protocol is basically the only authentication mechanism that is supported by iSCSI vendors. The protocol allows for other mechanisms like Kerberos. The CHAP protocol is not a protocol know for its strong security on shared networks. The CHAP protocol is vulnerable to dictionary attacks, spoofing, or reflection attacks. Because the security issues with CHAP are well known, the RFC even mentions ways to deal with the limitations of CHAP (

While IPSec could stop or reduce most of the security issues outlined above, it is hard to implement and manage. Therefor not many administrators will feel the need to use it. It should not only be possible to make a secure network, it should also be made easy.

To reduce the risk, and make your iSCSI network as safe as possible, you should do the following:

  • Enable mutual (incoming/outgoing) authentication
  • Follow advice to secure CHAP
  • Enable CRC checksums
  • Do not only rely on iQN for authorization
  • Enable IPSec (if performance allows it)

Also vendors/distributors should enable authentication by default, and add other authentication mechanisms to the iSCSI target and initiator software.