14 March 2021

Removing a directory

Around the middle of January, my boss asked me if I could look into deleting a folder on our CI machines. To this day I have not been able to do it. Sounds interesting? Wondering how hard that can be? Read on.

Permission refused

On the face of it, this is not a difficult assignment: rm -r should do the trick. So I started there, and got:

$ rm -r folder
rm: Cannot remove 'folder/file': Permission denied

Right, fine. There's a flag for that: -f. Let's try again:

$ rm -rf folder
rm: Cannot remove 'folder/file': Permission denied

This is getting interesting. Let's take a closer look:

$ ls -l folder
total 0
-rw-rw-r-- 1 vagrant vagrant 0 Mar 14 14:21 file

Uh? The file is not even readonly? This took me a while to figure out. Here's a hint:

$ ls -la folder
total 8
dr-x------ 2 vagrant vagrant 4096 Mar 14 14:21 .
drwx------ 3 vagrant vagrant 4096 Mar 14 14:21 ..
-rw-rw-r-- 1 vagrant vagrant    0 Mar 14 14:21 file

Obviously this is not a screenshot from the actual issue in January. This is me reproducing the exact error that was there, because now I understand it well enough to do that. Local testing was indeed done on a Vagrant machine, but the actual folder had about a hundred gigabytes of data and lots of subdirectories like this one.

It turns out you can't delete files from a read-only directory, which I guess makes sense. What I would not have expected is rm -r to get stuck on that.

We all love legal fine print, right? I'm no lawyer, so I don't know if this is, strictly speaking, necessary, but just to be on the safe side I will mention here that all of the code snippets in this blog entry are © Digital Asset Switzerland GmbH.1 They are used here under the Apache 2 license.

If you too want to work on cool problems in an open-source-friendly company, we're hiring people for my team. Please reach out to me if you want an intro. Other teams are also hiring; see career opportunities for a full listing.

Some context

Let's take a step back from our specific need to delete a directory so that I can explain the actual problem we are trying to solve: our CI machines had recently started to fail, toward the end of the day, with various incarnations of no space left on device errors.

Our CI machines are completely rebuilt every night, so it is not too surprising that this would happen more towards the end of the day. It was an easy issue to ignore when the issue happened around 10pm, but when it started happening as early as 2pm it became a bit more pressing to solve.

Our inital solution was simply to manually kill affected machines. This is obviously an imperfect approach as we have no good way to detect when machines get into that state.

At this stage (early January, though that's actually still true as of this writing) our best way to detect that a machine has gotten into a state where we need to kill it is that someone notices and tells me (or another of the handful of people with permissions to kill CI machines).

I usually monitor main branch builds, but I can't monitor all builds across all PRs, and there are many other, unrelated reasons for PR builds to fail (like the actual code in the PR being broken).

We considered a few alternatives before arriving at the conclusion that we should just check current disk space before starting a build and do some cleanup if there is insufficient space:

  • Running only a single build per machine, i.e. killing the machine after each build and constantly create new ones, is not practical with our current setup because it takes about 20 minutes to create a machine, and even after that they get faster as they process more builds and warm up their local cache.
  • Emptying the cache after each build leads to the same issue of having to delete that folder, but also renders the cache meaningless. We do get a lot of mileage out of the cache being somewhat filled up, as long as it doesn't fill the hard drive to the point of failing builds.
  • Killing the machine once we reach this "disk full" state is not practical, because we have not found a good way to do that without leaving Azure Pipelines, our CI "manager", in a broken state if the machine disappears while processing a build.
  • Bazel, the process actually responsible for filling up our hard drives, does have a command specifically meant to clean its cache, bazel clean --expunge. However, this doesn't work in our case for a couple of reasons. First, Bazel has like four different kinds of cache and that command only cleans up one of them. Second, we have multiple Bazel workspaces on our CI machines (because they run multiple builds/projects), and that command only cleans up the cache for the current Bazel project. We want to clean all of it.

How did we know the disk was filled by the Bazel cache and not something else? Essentially connecting to the CI machines that had reached that state and recursively running:

sudo du -hs * 2>/dev/null | sort -h

starting at / and digging down until we found an identifiable directory (or handful of directories) that took up most of the space. du -hs * will print lines that look like

16k home
4g etc

meaning that the etc folder in the current directory takes up 4 GB and the home folder takes up 16 KB (that's obviously a made-up example), while sort -h is able to take lines that start with such "human-readable" numbers (using units like k, m, g, etc.) and sort them in ascending order, meaning the biggest folders end up at the end where they're visible even if du spit out a large number of lines.

find | xargs chmod

So back to deleting that Bazel cache folder. We now know that the issue is permissions on the subfolders, not the files themselves, so the immediate solution I came up with was to change permissions on all subfolders:

if [ -d "$local_cache" ]; then
    if [ $(du -ms "$local_cache" | awk '{print $1}') -gt 80000 ]; then
        echo "Deleting '$local_cache'..."
        find "$local_cache" -type d | xargs chmod +w
        rm -rf "$local_cache"
        echo "Local cache small enough:\n$(du -hs "$local_cache")"
    echo "No '$local_cache', moving on."

The relevant part is this line, which follows very naturally from our conclusions so far: find all the directories and make them writable.

find "$local_cache" -type d | xargs chmod +w

If you've ever tried to use find and xargs together, you should immediately spot the mistake here: what if we have spaces? Surely Bazel is well-behaved enough not to use spaces in its internal cache structure? It is, but only most of the time. So sometimes this script crashes. So this script is an improvement, as when it does work we can keep using the machine a bit longer, but it does end up failing and then Bazel refuses to run as it considers its cache corrupted. So we're back to manually killing machines, albeit a little bit less often.

I've played with various ways to try and unquote arguments on the xargs side properly. I've learned quite a bit about how xargs can construct commands using {} and the like. Somehow, I realized a bit later that I had completely forgotten about the 0 option:

find . -print0 | xargs -0 cmd

instructs find to separate files using an actual zero character (i.e. ASCII code 0, not the character for 0 which is ASCII 48), and xargs to use that same zero character as the field delimiter, so that would have taken care of the parsing. Ultimately, though, before I remembered the -print0 option, I realized that I don't actually need to use find at all in this case and replaced that line with:

chmod -R +w "$local_cache"

This technically does a little bit more work as it will also make the files writeable, but that's really not an issue here as we're going to delete them anyway.

This succeeded most of the time2, but it had one big drawback: it took about an hour and a half to run. Given that our typical CI run takes between 20 and 30 minutes, most people would actually prefer the build to fail so they can reschedule it on another machine rather than wait for that long.

Need for speed

So I added a couple echo $(date -Is) commands to the script in order to figure out where all that time went. It turns out computing the size of the cache took about twenty minutes already, so that was a good first place to improve. Thinking about it, it's not that surprising that it would take time for du to traverse hundreds of thousands of files, get their size from the file system, and then sum that to get a total.

Surprisingly, ncdu was able to give me the total size of that folder in a very small fraction of the time. I did not dig into why du was so much slower.

So I replaced the "cache size" check with a "free space" check:

if [ $(df -m . | sed 1d | awk '{print $4}') -lt 30000 ]; then

which is practically instant.

This is a lot better, but it still leaves us with about an hour of runtime. Googling around for ways to delete a large directory quickly did not bring up much at first. I eventually found a suggestion to use rsync instead of rm -rf. When I tried that locally, however, I ended up with timings along the line of 30 seconds for the chmod call, about one minute for the rm -rf call, and about 5 minutes for an equivalent rsync call (which, interestingly enough, doesn't need the chmod step). That did not look very promising.

(Obviously my local runs were done with a much smaller cache.)

Mounting files

More googling eventually led me to an interesting suggestion: why not mount a separate file system on the cache folder? That way, when we want to clean up, we can just unmount it and mount a new one. No need to spend any time at all looking at the existing files in that old file system. Even more googling lead me to discover that you can create a file system within a normal file and then mount that. On the face of it:

#/usr/bin/env bash

set -euo pipefail


if [ -d "$mount_point/lost+found" ]; then
    umount $mount_point
    rm -f $file

mkdir -p $mount_point
truncate $file -s 200g
mkfs.ext2 -N 6000000 $file
mount $file $mount_point
chown -R vsts:vsts $mount_point

should solve our problem. It took a lot of googling to stumble on the different pieces used in this script, so I'll walk through the interesting lines.

First, the lost+found folder will only3 exist if the file system has already been mounted, so the if conditional is a guard that lets this script succeed both when run for the first time and when run subsequently to reset the cache.

The truncate command is really cool: if the given path does not exist, it will create a sparse file at the given path with the given size. In this case, we create a 200GB file that takes up no size at all on the parent file system (which incidentally has a total size of 200GB) and will grow as needed when we start writing on it. This is perfect for our purposes as we actually have more than one cache folder and this will allow us to create a separate file system for each one without needing to guess how to preallocate space. As these virtual file systems grow, total free space on the host partition will gradually go down, and our existing test relying on that remains valid.

The mkfs.ext2 command creates a file system; it is generally used against a block device (/dev/sdx1), but it turns out it works just as well against a file. The -N argument here ensures we get enough inodes, as Bazel is very hungry for those (remember, the main reason we need to do all this in the first place is that Bazel creates lots of small files).

We use ext2 here because, according to my research at least, we don't need the features added in later versions:

  • ext3 adds journaling, which we explicitly don't want here: our CI machines are never rebooted (if they shut down we consider them dead and create new ones), so the recovery use-case doesn't exist, and we're specifically looking for speed manipulating large numbers of small files.
  • ext4 adds support for "very large" files, which is completely the opposite of what we plan to use this file system for.

Finally, mount is just as happy mounting a file as it would be mounting a block device, so that works out very well for us.

There's just one problem with this script: it only works if you run it as root. We don't want our CI jobs to have root access on the machines, for very many security reasons. The usual answer to "I just need to run that one command as root" is sudo, specifically with a restricted entry in the /etc/sudoers file. However, this doesn't really work here as that command would need to be mount, and if you can run mount as root you're bascially root on the host system.

The solution I came up with was to use the setuid permission bit. You can set it by running set 4xxx file, and what it does is allow the file to be run as the owner of the file (rather than the user running the command). So, for example, if we have the above script as remount.sh, and it had the correct permissions:

# chown root remount.sh
# chmod 4775 remount.sh

we could run it as a normal user:

$ ./remount.sh

and it would execute as root. Except it doesn't.

Let's write some C

The obvious reaction to that setuid idea is "that sounds dangerous". It really is: lots of privilege escalation issues have relied on setuid in the past. For that reason, modern unices forbid (or rather ignore) the setuid bit on scripts. It only works on "proper" executables. So, let's convert that Bash script into C:

#include <stdlib.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <sys/stat.h>
#include <sys/types.h>
#include <sys/wait.h>
#include <unistd.h>

int exists(const char* path) {
    struct stat s;
    return stat(path, &s) == 0 && S_ISDIR(s.st_mode);

int execute_f(char** args) {
    int status;
    char** child_env = { NULL };
    pid_t pid = fork();
    if (0 == pid) {
        // child process
        if (-1 == execve(args[0], args, child_env)) {
            printf("Failed to start child process calling %s.",
        // unreachable: if execve succeeded, we're off to another
        // executable
    // parent
    if (-1 == pid) {
        printf("Failed to fork.");
    if (-1 == waitpid(pid, &status, 0)) {
        printf("Failed to wait for child process '%s'.", args[0]);
    if (1 != WIFEXITED(status)) {
        printf("Child not terminated: '%s', aborting.", args[0]);
    if (0 != WEXITSTATUS(status)) {
        printf("Child '%s' exited with status %d",
    return 0;

#define execute(...) execute_f((char*[]) { __VA_ARGS__, NULL })

int main() {
    char* mount_point = "/home/vsts/.cache/bazel";
    char* lost = "/home/vsts/.cache/bazel/lost+found";
    char* file = "/root/cache_file";
    if (exists(lost)) {
        printf("Removing existing cache...");
        // This will fail if there are dangling processes, say Bazel
        // servers, with open fds on the cache.
        execute("/bin/umount", mount_point);
    execute("/bin/rm", "-f", file);
    // truncate creates a sparse file. In my testing, for this use-case,
    // there does not seem to be a significant overhead.
    execute("/usr/bin/truncate", "-s", "200g", file);
    execute("/sbin/mkfs.ext3", file);
    execute("/bin/mount", file, mount_point);
    execute("/bin/chown", "-R", "vagrant:vagrant", mount_point);
    return 0;

This script is a lot simpler than it may seem at first. We literally try to do what Bash does, i.e. all the work is done in subprocesses. The exists function uses direct system calls to check if a file exists, but everything else is done through execute. This is a macro because that was the nicest syntax I could come up with to automatically ensure that all my calls ended in a 0 (NULL), so the arglist is properly terminated as per the execve(2) man page. Apart from that, the execute_f function is mostly error handling, and in our case all we want to do is make sure we detect if an error happened and crash.

So my bright idea is to write C code to make things more secure. That obviously sounds counter-intuitive. I believe the above C code is safe because it does not take any input at all: there is no file reading, no argument parsing, and every single string is defined at compile time. In short, there is no opportunity for any kind of overflow. The execve form used specifically resets the environoment, so there is also no opportunity to trick any of the subprocesses through that channel. It seems to me that the only way you could subvert this code is by having taken over one of the executables it calls. As all those executables are owned by root, that would mean you're already root so you don't really need another vector for privilege escalation.

My colleagues, however, were not impressed. While nobody could point to a specific issue in this code, everyone was a bit uneasy about running my C code as root on sensitive machines, especially given that this is quite literally the very first C program I have written professionally. While I would have liked to be able to say I wrote C code that runs as root in production, I really can't blame them here.


A colleague suggested using FUSE instead. Simply put, FUSE is exactly what I want here: it's a way for normal, unprivileged users to mount file systems. It was mainly developed for the pluggable media use-case (cd-roms, USB sticks, etc.), but does have a file-backed implementation.

So I tried that. Using FUSE let me keep pretty much the same Bash script, but with fuse2fs instead of mount. Unfortunately, whenever I tried to run our Bazel build on a FUSE-mounted file system, the build failed with some weird permission errors. This seems to indicate some sort of error in the underlying file system, but debugging that was definitely going to take way more time than this problem was worth investing in.

At that point, it looked like a dead end. We eventually came to the following conclusions:

  1. This issue is ultimately not all that big of a deal. We've been living with it for the past two months now and it has arguably not caused any issue, so that seems like it was the right call.
  2. I had already spent about two weeks on it, and that's more than we were willing to pay to fix what is, after all, an annoyance, not a blocking bug.
  3. As the only two cheap options left at that point were to either use the C code or live with the issue, we decided to just live with the issue.

And that's how I failed to delete a folder for more than two months.

What about user mount?

When I started writing this post, I was fully intending to write more C code. My boss had mentioned in one of our conversations that he would be willing to reconsider if the C code were making system calls directly rather than going through subprocesses. So I spent a good chunk of the day reading man pages for system calls. While I was looking at the mount(2) man page, I was scratching my head about how to tell the system call I wanted the mounted file system to belong to a given user (vsts, in this case, as that's our CI user). I could not find that information on that page, so I followed the link to mount(8), hoping to find more information there. Instead, I discovered that there is such a thing as a "user mount".

I'm not quite sure how that escaped me for so long, or why none of my colleagues suggested it. Now that I've read about it I suddenly remember that I used to know about it, many years ago when I was working as a sysadmin.

I kind of regret not having a reason to write that C code anymore, after having done all this research for it. I had gotten as far as being able to write the code to create the file, truncate the file, delete the file and mount it, and was about to move on to making the file system.

However, now that I remember user mounts, I can say this is definitely a much better solution. Maybe you've been screaming at your screen since you started reading this blog, and you already know all about user mounts. If not, here's how this works. Anyone can run the mount executable; it is, itself, able to setuid, but as it's a very old, battle-hardened binary it is pretty trustworthy (unlike my own C code). In the general case, if it detects the user running it is not root, it will exit with an error message. However, before doing that, it checks the /etc/fstab file, and it is possible for that file to instruct the mount program to let users mount some file systems.

I'm not going to reproduce the entire mount(8) page here (it does describe all the options you can put in /etc/fstab); for our purposes, we can add this line to the end of /etc/fstab:

/tmp/cache_file /home/vsts/.cache/bazel auto rw,user,exec

What does that mean? The first two fields are obviously the device being mounted and the mount point. The third field is the file system, and here I am using a value of auto to let mount auto-detect it. If I wanted to be more restrictive I could use ext2 here. The last field is a list of options.

  • rw, as expected, means that the file system is mounted in read-write mode.
  • user means that this can be mounted by a normal user, and then unmounted by the same user. user normally implies noexec, which prevents the execution of any file from this file system, nosuid, which disables the entire setuid (and setgid) mechanism for any executable on this file system, and nodev, which means that this file system cannot represent block devices (i.e. we can only put "regular" files in there).
  • exec is there to undo the noexec implied by user and allow executing binaries from the file system. This is necessary in our case as Bazel does copy binaries in its cache and run them from there.

With setuid turned off at the file system level, this seems safe enough for me. Time will tell if that also seems safe enough to my colleague for them to accept my pull request.

  1. The blog is written in the first person because I actually did the work, but the nature of my contract with Digital Asset is such that this code belongs to them.

    Because that work also happens to be open-source, I can still use it as a reference for my personal blog (this one right here), which is not affiliated with, nor endorsed by, Digital Asset in any way. See digital-asset/daml on GitHub for the full code in which these snippets appeared.

  2. Occasionally this will fail with an error message along the lines of "chmod: cannot read directory /some/path: Permission denied". We are still not quite sure what causes this.

  3. Obviously someone could deliberately create it to foil our script. What I mean here is that Bazel will not create it, so under normal circumstances this is a valid check. If someone does manually create it to foil the script, it will just crash on the umount line (thanks to set -e) without doing any harm or, as far as I can tell, opening up any opportunity for attack.

Tags: bash