The Tahoe Upload Helper

  1. Overview
  2. Setting Up A Helper
  3. Using a Helper
  4. Other Helper Modes


As described in the “Swarming Download, Trickling Upload” section of Tahoe-LAFS Architecture, Tahoe uploads require more bandwidth than downloads: you must push the redundant shares during upload, but you do not need to retrieve them during download. With the default 3-of-10 encoding parameters, this means that an upload will require about 3.3x the traffic as a download of the same file.

Unfortunately, this “expansion penalty” occurs in the same upstream direction that most consumer DSL lines are slow anyways. Typical ADSL lines get 8 times as much download capacity as upload capacity. When the ADSL upstream penalty is combined with the expansion penalty, the result is uploads that can take up to 32 times longer than downloads.

The “Helper” is a service that can mitigate the expansion penalty by arranging for the client node to send data to a central Helper node instead of sending it directly to the storage servers. It sends ciphertext to the Helper, so the security properties remain the same as with non-Helper uploads. The Helper is responsible for applying the erasure encoding algorithm and placing the resulting shares on the storage servers.

Of course, the helper cannot mitigate the ADSL upstream penalty.

The second benefit of using an upload helper is that clients who lose their network connections while uploading a file (because of a network flap, or because they shut down their laptop while an upload was in progress) can resume their upload rather than needing to start again from scratch. The helper holds the partially-uploaded ciphertext on disk, and when the client tries to upload the same file a second time, it discovers that the partial ciphertext is already present. The client then only needs to upload the remaining ciphertext. This reduces the “interrupted upload penalty” to a minimum.

This also serves to reduce the number of active connections between the client and the outside world: most of their traffic flows over a single TCP connection to the helper. This can improve TCP fairness, and should allow other applications that are sharing the same uplink to compete more evenly for the limited bandwidth.

Setting Up A Helper

Who should consider running a helper?

  • Benevolent entities which wish to provide better upload speed for clients that have slow uplinks
  • Folks which have machines with upload bandwidth to spare.
  • Server grid operators who want clients to connect to a small number of helpers rather than a large number of storage servers (a “multi-tier” architecture)

What sorts of machines are good candidates for running a helper?

  • The Helper needs to have good bandwidth to the storage servers. In particular, it needs to have at least 3.3x better upload bandwidth than the client does, or the client might as well upload directly to the storage servers. In a commercial grid, the helper should be in the same colo (and preferably in the same rack) as the storage servers.
  • The Helper will take on most of the CPU load involved in uploading a file. So having a dedicated machine will give better results.
  • The Helper buffers ciphertext on disk, so the host will need at least as much free disk space as there will be simultaneous uploads. When an upload is interrupted, that space will be used for a longer period of time.

To turn a Tahoe-LAFS node into a helper (i.e. to run a helper service in addition to whatever else that node is doing), edit the tahoe.cfg file in your node’s base directory and set “enabled = true” in the section named “[helper]”.

Then restart the node. This will signal the node to create a Helper service and listen for incoming requests. Once the node has started, there will be a file named private/helper.furl which contains the contact information for the helper: you will need to give this FURL to any clients that wish to use your helper.

cat $BASEDIR/private/helper.furl | mail -s "helper furl"

You can tell if your node is running a helper by looking at its web status page. Assuming that you’ve set up the ‘webport’ to use port 3456, point your browser at http://localhost:3456/ . The welcome page will say “Helper: 0 active uploads” or “Not running helper” as appropriate. The http://localhost:3456/helper_status page will also provide details on what the helper is currently doing.

The helper will store the ciphertext that is is fetching from clients in $BASEDIR/helper/CHK_incoming/ . Once all the ciphertext has been fetched, it will be moved to $BASEDIR/helper/CHK_encoding/ and erasure-coding will commence. Once the file is fully encoded and the shares are pushed to the storage servers, the ciphertext file will be deleted.

If a client disconnects while the ciphertext is being fetched, the partial ciphertext will remain in CHK_incoming/ until they reconnect and finish sending it. If a client disconnects while the ciphertext is being encoded, the data will remain in CHK_encoding/ until they reconnect and encoding is finished. For long-running and busy helpers, it may be a good idea to delete files in these directories that have not been modified for a week or two. Future versions of tahoe will try to self-manage these files a bit better.

Using a Helper

Who should consider using a Helper?

  • clients with limited upstream bandwidth, such as a consumer ADSL line
  • clients who believe that the helper will give them faster uploads than they could achieve with a direct upload
  • clients who experience problems with TCP connection fairness: if other programs or machines in the same home are getting less than their fair share of upload bandwidth. If the connection is being shared fairly, then a Tahoe upload that is happening at the same time as a single FTP upload should get half the bandwidth.
  • clients who have been given the helper.furl by someone who is running a Helper and is willing to let them use it

To take advantage of somebody else’s Helper, take the helper furl that they give you, and edit your tahoe.cfg file. Enter the helper’s furl into the value of the key “helper.furl” in the “[client]” section of tahoe.cfg, as described in the “Client Configuration” section of Configuring a Tahoe-LAFS node.

Then restart the node. This will signal the client to try and connect to the helper. Subsequent uploads will use the helper rather than using direct connections to the storage server.

If the node has been configured to use a helper, that node’s HTTP welcome page (http://localhost:3456/) will say “Helper: $HELPERFURL” instead of “Helper: None”. If the helper is actually running and reachable, the bullet to the left of “Helper” will be green.

The helper is optional. If a helper is connected when an upload begins, the upload will use the helper. If there is no helper connection present when an upload begins, that upload will connect directly to the storage servers. The client will automatically attempt to reconnect to the helper if the connection is lost, using the same exponential-backoff algorithm as all other tahoe/foolscap connections.

The upload/download status page (http://localhost:3456/status) will announce the using-helper-or-not state of each upload, in the “Helper?” column.

Other Helper Modes

The Tahoe Helper only currently helps with one kind of operation: uploading immutable files. There are three other things it might be able to help with in the future:

  • downloading immutable files
  • uploading mutable files (such as directories)
  • downloading mutable files (like directories)

Since mutable files are currently limited in size, the ADSL upstream penalty is not so severe for them. There is no ADSL penalty to downloads, but there may still be benefit to extending the helper interface to assist with them: fewer connections to the storage servers, and better TCP fairness.

A future version of the Tahoe helper might provide assistance with these other modes. If it were to help with all four modes, then the clients would not need direct connections to the storage servers at all: clients would connect to helpers, and helpers would connect to servers. For a large grid with tens of thousands of clients, this might make the grid more scalable.