A typical thing that was done was to set these values:
set zfs:zil_disable = 1
set zfs:zfs_nocacheflush = 1
These flags allowed a ZFS appliance to perform similarly to Linux or other systems when it came to NFS server performance. When you are writing a lot of large files, the ZFS Intent Log's additional latency doesn't affect NFS client performance. However, when these same clients expect their fsyncs to be honored on the back end with mixed file sizes that trend to a large volume of small writes, we start to see pathologically poor performance with the ZIL enabled. We can measure the performance at 400KB/sec in some of my basic synthetic tests. With the ZIL disabled, I generally got 3-5MB/sec or so, or 10x the performance. That's cheating and not so safe if the client thinks a write is complete but the backend server doesn't commit it before power loss or crash.
One ray of hope previously mentioned on this site was the Gigabyte i-RAM. This battery backed SATA-I solution held some promise, but at the time I used it I found a few difficulties. First, the state of the art at that time did not allow removal of log (ZIL-dedicated) devices from pools. One had to recreate a pool if the log device failed. That raised some problems with the i-RAM. First, I had it go offline twice requiring resetting the device, essentially blanking it out and requiring re-initializing it as a drive with ZFS. Second, the connection was SATA-I only, with it not playing well with certain SATA-II chipsets or mixed with SATA-II devices. Many users had to enable it in IDE mode versus the preferred AHCI mode.
Time has passed, and new solutions present themselves. First, log devices can be added or removed from a pool at any time, on the fly. Also new to the discussion is the DDRdrive X1 product. This mixed RAM and NAND device provides for a 4G drive image with extremely high IOPS and a solution to save to stable store (NAND SLC flash) if power is lost on the PCI bus. The device itself is connected to a PCI-Express bus, with drivers for OpenSolaris/Nexenta (among others) that make it visible as a SCSI device.
I tried different scenarios with this ZIL device, and all of them make it a sweet little device. I had mixed files that I pushed onto the appliance via NFS (linux client) and found that I could multiply the number of clients and linearly increase performance. Where I would hit 450KB/sec without the ZIL device but not improve that rate by much with additional writers of data, using the ZIL log device immediately resulted in a good 7MB/sec of performance, with 4 concurrent write jobs yielding 27MB/sec. During this test, my X1 showed only a 20% busy rate using iostat. It would appear that I should get up to 135MB/sec at this rate (5x the concurrent writers), but my network connection was just gig-e, so getting anywhere near 120+MB/sec would be phenomenal. Another sample of mixed files with 5 concurrent writers pushed the non-X1 config to 1.5MB/sec, but in this case, the X1 took my performance numbers to 45-50MB/sec.
So what is providing all this performance? As I mentioned above, the fsyncs on writes from the NFS client enforce synchronous transactions in ZFS when the ZIL is not disabled. My IOPS (I/O Operations per second) without a X1 log device were measured around 120 IOPS. With the dedicated RAM/NAND DDRdrive X1 solution, I easily approach 5000 IOPS. Those commits happen quickly, with the final stable store to your disk array laid out in your more typical 128K blocks per IOP. This dedicated ZIL device has been shown to do up to 200000 IOPS in synthetic benchmarks. Lets try the NFS case one more time, in a somewhat more practical test.
Commonly, in simulation, CAD applications, software development, or the like you will be conversing with the file server committing hundreds to thousands of small file writes. To test this out and make it the worse case scenario of disk block-sized files, I created a directory of 1000 512 byte files on the clients local disk. I did multiple runs to make sure this fit in memory so that we were measuring file server write performance. I then ran 400 concurrent jobs writing this to the file server into separate target directories. First, with the dedicated ZIL device enabled, I got 24MB/sec write rates averaging 6000 IOPS. I did spike up to 43K IOPS and 35MB/sec, likely when committing some of the metadata associated with all these files and directories. Still, the X1 was only averaging 20% busy during this test.
Next, I disabled the DDRdrive X1 and tried again, hitting the same old wall. This was the pathological case. With 400 concurrent writes I still just got 120 IOPS and 450KB/sec. My only thought at the time was "sad, very sad".
You can draw your own conclusions from this mostly not-too-scientific test. For me, I now know of an affordable device that has none of the drawbacks (4K block size, wear leveling) of SSD drives for use as a ZIL device. One can now put together a commodity storage solution with this and Nexenta, and have the same expected performance without compromise as one would expect from any first tier storage platform.
That leads me to the "one more thing" category. I decided to place some ESX NFS storage-pooled volumes on this box, and compare it to the performance of the NetApps we use to manage our ESX VMs (NFS). The file access modes of the VMs tend to be similar to mixed size file operations, but they do tend to be larger writes so the ZIL may not have as drastic of an effect. Anyway, I tried it without the X1 and I got 30-40MB/sec measured disk performance from operations within the VM (random tests, dd, etc). Enabling the ZIL device, I got 90-120MB/sec rates, so we still got a 3x improvement. I couldn't easily isolate all traffic away from my NetApps, but I averaged 65MB/sec on those tests.
Here, I think the conclusion I can draw is this: The dedicated ZIL device again improved performance up to matching what I theoretically can get from my network path. The comparison one can safely make with a NetApp is not that its faster, as my test ran under different loads, but that it likely can match the line rates of your hardware and remove from the equation any concern for filesystem and disk array performance. Perhaps in a 10G network environment or with some link aggregation we can start to stress the DDRdrive X1, but for now its obvious that it enables commodity storage solutions to meet typical NAS performance expectations.