Keeping File Ownership (UIDs) Consistent when Using EBS on EC2

Persistent storage on Amazon EC2 is accomplished through the use of Elastic Block Store (EBS) volumes. EBS is basically a storage area network (SAN) and can be thought of as an on-demand, virtual, redundant hard drive plugged in to the server with super-powers like snapshot/restore.

An EBS volume can be detached from one EC2 instance and attached to another. You can create a snapshot of an EBS volume and create new volumes from the snapshot to attach to other instances. Though this flexibility provides some useful abilities, it also presents some challenges.

In particular, the files stored on the EBS volume will be owned by specific numeric UIDs (users) and GIDs (groups). When you fire up and configure a new instance, the UIDs and GIDs on the EBS volume may not exactly match the numeric ids of the users and groups on the new instance, depending on how you set it up.

For example, when you install the MySQL software, the package will generally create a new “mysql” user with the next available UID. If you don’t create the various users in exactly the same order on new instances, you may end up with your database files owned by the “postfix” user instead of the “mysql” user. It’s happened to me and I’m not the only one.

There is a discussion about this topic on the ec2ubuntu Google Group and it has also been raised on Canonical’s EC2 beta mailing list.

Here are some of the different approaches to avoiding or fixing this problem:

  1. Bundle your own AMIs and always run instances of the same AMI when attaching EBS volumes with files. This works if you already have to bundle your AMIs for other reasons, but I often recommend against AMI rebundling because of the efforts involved, lack of reproducibility, and maintenance problems when the base image gets updated or has bugs fixed.

  2. Automate the creation of users and installation of packages in exactly the same order every time. This is likely to give you the same UID/GID values for each user, but it starts to get messy if you end up with an order mixing human users and software package users:

  3. Create all users/groups with hardcoded UIDs/GIDs before installing software packages. If you automate the creation of users and groups you can force the “mysql” and “postfix” users to have a specific UID value. Then you install the MySQL and Postfix packages and the software will use the users which already exist on the system. We ended up following this approach with our EC2 servers at CampusExplorer.com

  4. Correct the ownership of files after mounting the EBS volume. This feels a bit messy to me, but it might be the only option in some cases. I must admit that I’ve done this manually a number of times, but only after finding problems like MySQL not starting because the files aren’t owned by the correct user. For example, say you needed to change files currently owned by “postfix” to be correclty owned by “mysql”:

    find /vol -user postfix -print0 | xargs -0 chown mysql
    

    If you are changing ownership of files after mounting the EBS volume, make sure you do it in an order which does not lose information. For example, if you have to swap “postfix” and “mysql” users, you’ll need to use a temporary third UID as a placeholder.

  5. On the ec2ubuntu Google group it was suggested that a central authority might be a way to solve the problem. I’ve never used this approach on Linux and am not sure how much work it would be setting up a reliable service like this on EC2.

No matter what approach you use, it might be a good idea to add in some checks after you mount an EBS volume to make sure that the files are owned by the appropriate users. For example, you might verify that the mysql directory is owned by the mysql user

Solving this problem is something that I have only begun to work on, so I would appreciate any comments, pointers, and solutions that you may have.