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qcow2 L2/refcount cache configuration
Copyright (C) 2015, 2018 Igalia, S.L.
Author: Alberto Garcia <>
This work is licensed under the terms of the GNU GPL, version 2 or
later. See the COPYING file in the top-level directory.
The QEMU qcow2 driver has two caches that can improve the I/O
performance significantly. However, setting the right cache sizes is
not a straightforward operation.
This document attempts to give an overview of the L2 and refcount
caches, and how to configure them.
Please refer to the docs/interop/qcow2.txt file for an in-depth
technical description of the qcow2 file format.
A qcow2 file is organized in units of constant size called clusters.
The cluster size is configurable, but it must be a power of two and
its value 512 bytes or higher. QEMU currently defaults to 64 KB
clusters, and it does not support sizes larger than 2MB.
The 'qemu-img create' command supports specifying the size using the
cluster_size option:
qemu-img create -f qcow2 -o cluster_size=128K hd.qcow2 4G
The L2 tables
The qcow2 format uses a two-level structure to map the virtual disk as
seen by the guest to the disk image in the host. These structures are
called the L1 and L2 tables.
There is one single L1 table per disk image. The table is small and is
always kept in memory.
There can be many L2 tables, depending on how much space has been
allocated in the image. Each table is one cluster in size. In order to
read or write data from the virtual disk, QEMU needs to read its
corresponding L2 table to find out where that data is located. Since
reading the table for each I/O operation can be expensive, QEMU keeps
an L2 cache in memory to speed up disk access.
The size of the L2 cache can be configured, and setting the right
value can improve the I/O performance significantly.
The refcount blocks
The qcow2 format also maintains a reference count for each cluster.
Reference counts are used for cluster allocation and internal
snapshots. The data is stored in a two-level structure similar to the
L1/L2 tables described above.
The second level structures are called refcount blocks, are also one
cluster in size and the number is also variable and dependent on the
amount of allocated space.
Each block contains a number of refcount entries. Their size (in bits)
is a power of two and must not be higher than 64. It defaults to 16
bits, but a different value can be set using the refcount_bits option:
qemu-img create -f qcow2 -o refcount_bits=8 hd.qcow2 4G
QEMU keeps a refcount cache to speed up I/O much like the
aforementioned L2 cache, and its size can also be configured.
Choosing the right cache sizes
In order to choose the cache sizes we need to know how they relate to
the amount of allocated space.
The part of the virtual disk that can be mapped by the L2 and refcount
caches (in bytes) is:
disk_size = l2_cache_size * cluster_size / 8
disk_size = refcount_cache_size * cluster_size * 8 / refcount_bits
With the default values for cluster_size (64KB) and refcount_bits
(16), this becomes:
disk_size = l2_cache_size * 8192
disk_size = refcount_cache_size * 32768
So in order to cover n GB of disk space with the default values we
l2_cache_size = disk_size_GB * 131072
refcount_cache_size = disk_size_GB * 32768
For example, 1MB of L2 cache is needed to cover every 8 GB of the virtual
image size (given that the default cluster size is used):
8 GB / 8192 = 1 MB
The refcount cache is 4 times the cluster size by default. With the default
cluster size of 64 KB, it is 256 KB (262144 bytes). This is sufficient for
8 GB of image size:
262144 * 32768 = 8 GB
How to configure the cache sizes
Cache sizes can be configured using the -drive option in the
command-line, or the 'blockdev-add' QMP command.
There are three options available, and all of them take bytes:
"l2-cache-size": maximum size of the L2 table cache
"refcount-cache-size": maximum size of the refcount block cache
"cache-size": maximum size of both caches combined
There are a few things that need to be taken into account:
- Both caches must have a size that is a multiple of the cluster size
(or the cache entry size: see "Using smaller cache sizes" below).
- The maximum L2 cache size is 32 MB by default on Linux platforms (enough
for full coverage of 256 GB images, with the default cluster size). This
value can be modified using the "l2-cache-size" option. QEMU will not use
more memory than needed to hold all of the image's L2 tables, regardless
of this max. value.
On non-Linux platforms the maximal value is smaller by default (8 MB) and
this difference stems from the fact that on Linux the cache can be cleared
periodically if needed, using the "cache-clean-interval" option (see below).
The minimal L2 cache size is 2 clusters (or 2 cache entries, see below).
- The default (and minimum) refcount cache size is 4 clusters.
- If only "cache-size" is specified then QEMU will assign as much
memory as possible to the L2 cache before increasing the refcount
cache size.
- At most two of "l2-cache-size", "refcount-cache-size", and "cache-size"
can be set simultaneously.
Unlike L2 tables, refcount blocks are not used during normal I/O but
only during allocations and internal snapshots. In most cases they are
accessed sequentially (even during random guest I/O) so increasing the
refcount cache size won't have any measurable effect in performance
(this can change if you are using internal snapshots, so you may want
to think about increasing the cache size if you use them heavily).
Before QEMU 2.12 the refcount cache had a default size of 1/4 of the
L2 cache size. This resulted in unnecessarily large caches, so now the
refcount cache is as small as possible unless overridden by the user.
Using smaller cache entries
The qcow2 L2 cache can store complete tables. This means that if QEMU
needs an entry from an L2 table then the whole table is read from disk
and is kept in the cache. If the cache is full then a complete table
needs to be evicted first.
This can be inefficient with large cluster sizes since it results in
more disk I/O and wastes more cache memory.
Since QEMU 2.12 you can change the size of the L2 cache entry and make
it smaller than the cluster size. This can be configured using the
"l2-cache-entry-size" parameter:
-drive file=hd.qcow2,l2-cache-size=2097152,l2-cache-entry-size=4096
Since QEMU 4.0 the value of l2-cache-entry-size defaults to 4KB (or
the cluster size if it's smaller).
Some things to take into account:
- The L2 cache entry size has the same restrictions as the cluster
size (power of two, at least 512 bytes).
- Smaller entry sizes generally improve the cache efficiency and make
disk I/O faster. This is particularly true with solid state drives
so it's a good idea to reduce the entry size in those cases. With
rotating hard drives the situation is a bit more complicated so you
should test it first and stay with the default size if unsure.
- Try different entry sizes to see which one gives faster performance
in your case. The block size of the host filesystem is generally a
good default (usually 4096 bytes in the case of ext4, hence the
- Only the L2 cache can be configured this way. The refcount cache
always uses the cluster size as the entry size.
- If the L2 cache is big enough to hold all of the image's L2 tables
(as explained in the "Choosing the right cache sizes" and "How to
configure the cache sizes" sections in this document) then none of
this is necessary and you can omit the "l2-cache-entry-size"
parameter altogether. In this case QEMU makes the entry size
equal to the cluster size by default.
Reducing the memory usage
It is possible to clean unused cache entries in order to reduce the
memory usage during periods of low I/O activity.
The parameter "cache-clean-interval" defines an interval (in seconds),
after which all the cache entries that haven't been accessed during the
interval are removed from memory. Setting this parameter to 0 disables this
The following example removes all unused cache entries every 15 minutes:
-drive file=hd.qcow2,cache-clean-interval=900
If unset, the default value for this parameter is 600 on platforms which
support this functionality, and is 0 (disabled) on other platforms.
This functionality currently relies on the MADV_DONTNEED argument for
madvise() to actually free the memory. This is a Linux-specific feature,
so cache-clean-interval is not supported on other systems.