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In Gentoo on Android, it is often preferable to install into SD card to prevent internal flash from wearing out, which is non-exchangeable. In addition, quite a lot of embedded systems, for example Raspberry Pi, use SD card as the default root filesystem.

Flash based storage (which SD card belongs to) is fundamentally different from magnetic-rotational counterparts (such as a hard disk), partitioning them under-optimized can result in severe I/O overhead which drains system performance and user experience.

Several studies and review articles are devoted on this topic, including Optimizing Linux with cheap flash drives, Solid-state revolution: in-depth on how SSDs really work and The SSD Anthology: Understanding SSDs and New Drives from OCZ. These provide the foundations to the strategies in this article.

SD card is similar to SSD, except its management layer is thiner and less smarter than those in SSD. In this survey, we document those which are not covered by SSD.

Find out basic parameters

There are some intrinsic parameters associated with each SD card, which determines the optimized units to do I/O operation. They are different kinds of access units, such as pages, erase blocks, allocation groups. A survey of such parameters from different SD card available in the market can be found in the Linaro wiki.

If your card is not listed, or you want to figure the parameters out by yourself, it is always possible to test and observe to time response of different access patterns by the flashbench tool. By following the README in the git repo, essentially you get a test result like this:

root #flashbench -a <device>
align 8589934592        pre 1.42ms      on 2.46ms       post 1.02ms     diff 1.24ms
align 4294967296        pre 1.34ms      on 2.38ms       post 1.06ms     diff 1.19ms
align 2147483648        pre 1.52ms      on 2.5ms        post 1.17ms     diff 1.16ms
align 1073741824        pre 1.27ms      on 2.04ms       post 1.09ms     diff 868µs
align 536870912 pre 1.35ms      on 2.18ms       post 1.16ms     diff 931µs
align 268435456 pre 1.43ms      on 2.31ms       post 1.15ms     diff 1.03ms
align 134217728 pre 1.51ms      on 2.48ms       post 1.2ms      diff 1.13ms
align 67108864  pre 1.5ms       on 2.47ms       post 1.2ms      diff 1.12ms
align 33554432  pre 1.51ms      on 2.45ms       post 1.15ms     diff 1.12ms
align 16777216  pre 1.51ms      on 2.43ms       post 1.2ms      diff 1.07ms
align 8388608   pre 1.54ms      on 2.46ms       post 1.19ms     diff 1.09ms
align 4194304   pre 1.55ms      on 2.45ms       post 1.2ms      diff 1.07ms
align 2097152   pre 1.71ms      on 2.26ms       post 1.18ms     diff 813µs
align 1048576   pre 1.71ms      on 2.29ms       post 1.19ms     diff 835µs
align 524288    pre 1.71ms      on 2.29ms       post 1.17ms     diff 848µs
align 262144    pre 1.69ms      on 2.25ms       post 1.19ms     diff 813µs
align 131072    pre 1.69ms      on 2.29ms       post 1.2ms      diff 850µs
align 65536     pre 1.71ms      on 2.29ms       post 1.19ms     diff 841µs
align 32768     pre 1.71ms      on 2.27ms       post 1.18ms     diff 822µs
align 16384     pre 1.7ms       on 2.29ms       post 1.17ms     diff 852µs
align 8192      pre 1.81ms      on 1.8ms        post 1.24ms     diff 277µs
align 4096      pre 1.86ms      on 1.85ms       post 1.25ms     diff 301µs
align 2048      pre 1.9ms       on 1.91ms       post 1.92ms     diff 2.18µs

That is a class 10 32GB micro SD card by PQI tested by the author. Attention should be paid on the large jumps in the last column. In the example, from 1G to 2G (allocation group), 2M to 4M (erase block), 8k to 16k (multi-plane access), 2k to 4k (page). Despite of being only a reasonable guess not perfectly reliable, it do give us a guideline in tuning the filesystem parameter which result in performance boost in I/O.

Partition alignment

Make sure the partition is aligned to and allocated by erase blocks (in the above example 4M). At the time of writing, fdisk is the only tool known to support fine tuning of the alignment. (Neither sfdisk nor parted supports this.)

As this is not intended to be yet another tutorial on fdisk, you are referred to the repartition section of the article Optimizing fs on sd-card for Linux/Fedora on Dreamplug.


There are candidates for the filesystem. The survey is not yet completed and the recommendation is by no means final. You are always encouraged to extend this study with more insights and tests.

Solution 1: Vendor default FAT

Most of the case an SD card is optimized to video streaming, in which large files are read/written continuously. Preformatted FAT partition is optimized for this purpose.

In order to support POSIX features required by Gentoo on FAT, posixovl can be used. However, the test by the author indicates this solution is suboptimal. A reasonable guess is that, FAT does not perform well with lots of small files, and the overhead of fuse by posixovl degrades performance notably on embedded systems where CPU power are bottlenecks. At the time of writing there is no such kind of overlay filesystem in kernel space yet.

Solution 2: Tuned ext4

This is the recommend solution. RAID feature of ext4 is exploited to match the I/O pattern of the SD card. As this tuning shares the same rationale with SSD.

The recommend recipe is,

filesystem block = page
stride = multi-plane access / page
stripe-width = erase block / page

In the case above,

filesystem block = 4k
stride = 4
stripe-width = 1024

Mount the tuned ext4 with noatime option.

At the time of writing, there are some inconsistency and confusion in the community for which parameter to choose and which definition to use, reflected partially by a survey of Magic soup: ext4 with SSD, stripes and strides. You are always encouraged to test out by yourself to find out the best parameters instead of following guides blindly.

Solution 3: Squashfs

Squashfs has been the best candidate filesystem for LiveCD/LiveUSB. However the Linux kernel of Android usually lacks squashfs and aufs. squashfuse or unionfs-fuse suffers from one of the same issue as posixovl, namely the impact of fuse overhead on embedded systems.

Appendix: Benchmarks

The recommendation of ext4 results from the following test. Its environment is Motorola Droid Razr XT910 with PQI class 10 32GB micro SD card, running Gentoo RAP. Squashfs mounted by squashfuse, overlayed with unionfs-fuse.

In the following table, block size is that of squashfs, comp is the compression algorithm of squashfs, overlay fs is the RW layer of unionfs-fuse on top of RO layer of the squashfs, host fs is the filesystem holding the squashfs image, emerge –help and lddtree `which mount.posixovl` are two commands used for benchmarking.

The filesystems used are, ext3 from internal flash of the XT910, ext4 aligned and tuned ext4, fat32 vendor preformatted fat32, fat32 reformatted and tuned fat32.

block size(k) comp overlay fs host fs emerge –help (s) lddtree `which mount.posixovl` (s)
4 xz - fat32 1.084 1.406
4 xz - fat32(r) 2.602 3.103
4 xz posixovl/fat32 fat32 4.406 4.789
4 xz ext3 fat32 3.592 4.271
4 xz ext4 fat32(r) 3.775 4.268
16 gz - fat32 1.068 1.389
16 gz - ext4 1.089 1.256
16 gz - fat32(r) 1.047 1.230
16 gz posixovl/fat32 fat32 4.435 4.974
16 gz ext3 fat32 1.800 2.132
16 gz ext4 fat32(r) 2.038 2.141
256 xz - 5.402 5.891
256 xz posixovl/fat32 8.340 9.375
256 xz ext3 5.713 6.220
- - posixovl/fat32 2.812 -
- - ext4 0.380 0.623

See also

  • SSD — provides guidelines for basic maintenance, such as enabling discard/trim support, for SSDs (Solid State Drives) on Linux.