(updated 3/18/13 to fix disknaming error)
Oracle ASMlib on Linux has been a topic of discussion a number of times since it was released way back when in 2004. There is a lot of confusion around it and certainly a lot of misinformation out there for no good reason. Let me try to give a bit of history around Oracle ASMLib.
Oracle ASMLib was introduced at the time Oracle released Oracle Database 10g R1. 10gR1 introduced a very cool important new features called Oracle ASM (Automatic Storage Management). A very simplistic description would be that this is a very sophisticated volume manager for Oracle data. Give your devices directly to the ASM instance and we manage the storage for you, clustered, highly available, redundant, performance, etc, etc... We recommend using Oracle ASM for all database deployments, single instance or clustered (RAC).
The ASM instance manages the storage and every Oracle server process opens and operates on the storage devices like it would open and operate on regular datafiles or raw devices. So by default since 10gR1 up to today, we do not interact differently with ASM managed block devices than we did before with a datafile being mapped to a raw device. All of this is without ASMLib, so ignore that one for now. Standard Oracle on any platform that we support (Linux, Windows, Solaris, AIX, ...) does it the exact same way. You start an ASM instance, it handles storage management, all the database instances use and open that storage and read/write from/to it. There are no extra pieces of software needed, including on Linux. ASM is fully functional and selfcontained without any other components.
In order for the admin to provide a raw device to ASM or to the database, it has to have persistent device naming. If you booted up a server where a raw disk was named /dev/sdf and you give it to ASM (or even just creating a tablespace without asm on that device with datafile '/dev/sdf') and next time you boot up and that device is now /dev/sdg, you end up with an error. Just like you can't just change datafile names, you can't change device filenames without telling the database, or ASM. persistent device naming on Linux, especially back in those days ways to say it bluntly, a nightmare. In fact there were a number of issues (dating back to 2004) :
Correction to the above: ASM can handle device name changes across reboots with the correct ASM_DISKSTRING in the init.ora, it will be able to find the disks even if they changed, however part of device naming and device metadata on reboot is the correct ownership (oracle:dba ....). With ASMLib in place, this is not an issue and it will take care of ownership and permissions of the ASM disk devices.
Linux async IO wasn't pretty
persistent device naming including permissions (had to be owned by oracle and the dba group) was very, very difficult to manage
system resource usage in terms of open file descriptors
So given the above, we tried to find a way to make this easier on the admins, in many ways, similar to why we started working on OCFS a few years earlier -> how can we make life easier for the admins on Linux.
A feature of Oracle ASM is the ability for third parties to write an extension using what's called ASMLib. It is possible for any third party OS or storage vendor to write a library using a specific Oracle defined interface that gets used by the ASM instance and by the database instance when available. This interface offered 2 components :
Define an IO interface - allow any IO to the devices to go through ASMLib
Define device discovery - implement an external way of discovering, labeling devices to provide to ASM and the Oracle database instance
This is similar to a library that a number of companies have implemented over many years called libODM (Oracle Disk Manager). ODM was specified many years before we introduced ASM and allowed third party vendors to implement their own IO routines so that the database would use this library if installed and make use of the library open/read/write/close,.. routines instead of the standard OS interfaces. PolyServe back in the day used this to optimize their storage solution, Veritas used (and I believe still uses) this for their filesystem. It basically allowed, in particular, filesystem vendors to write libraries that could optimize access to their storage or filesystem.. so ASMLib was not something new, it was basically based on the same model. You have libodm for just database access, you have libasm for asm/database access.
Since this library interface existed, we decided to do a reference implementation on Linux. We wrote an ASMLib for Linux that could be used on any Linux platform and other vendors could see how this worked and potentially implement their own solution. As I mentioned earlier, ASMLib and ODMLib are libraries for third party extensions. ASMLib for Linux, since it was a reference implementation implemented both interfaces, the storage discovery part and the IO part. There are 2 components :
Oracle ASMLib - the userspace library with config tools (a shared object and some scripts)
oracleasm.ko - a kernel module that implements the asm device for /dev/oracleasm/*
The userspace library is a binary-only module since it links with and contains Oracle header files but is generic, we only have one asm library for the various Linux platforms. This library is opened by Oracle ASM and by Oracle database processes and this library interacts with the OS through the asm device (/dev/asm). It can install on Oracle Linux, on SuSE SLES, on Red Hat RHEL,.. The library itself doesn't actually care much about the OS version, the kernel module and device cares. The support tools are simple scripts that allow the admin to label devices and scan for disks and devices. This way you can say create an ASM disk label foo on, currently /dev/sdf... So if /dev/sdf disappears and next time is /dev/sdg, we just scan for the label foo and we discover it as /dev/sdg and life goes on without any worry. Also, when the database needs access to the device, we don't have to worry about file permissions or anything it will be taken care of. So it's a convenience thing.
Correction: the extra advantage with ASMLib here being the fact that it will take care of the file permissions and ownership of the device.
The kernel module oracleasm.ko is a Linux kernel module/device driver. It implements a device /dev/oracleasm/* and any and all IO goes through ASMLib -> /dev/oracleasm. This kernel module is obviously a very specific Oracle related device driver but it was released under the GPL v2 so anyone could easily build it for their Linux distribution kernels.
Advantages for using ASMLib :
A good async IO interface for the database, the entire IO interface is based on an optimal ASYNC model for performance
A single file descriptor per Oracle process, not one per device or datafile per process reducing # of open filehandles overhead
Device scanning and labeling built-in so you do not have to worry about messing with udev or devlabel, permissions or the likes which can be very complex and error prone.
Just like with OCFS and OCFS2, each kernel version (major or minor) has to get a new version of the device drivers. We started out building the oracleasm kernel module rpms for many distributions, SLES (in fact in the early days still even for this thing called United Linux) and RHEL. The driver didn't make sense to get pushed into upstream Linux because it's unique and specific to the Oracle database.
As it takes a huge effort in terms of build infrastructure and QA and release management to build kernel modules for every architecture, every linux distribution and every major and minor version we worked with the vendors to get them to add this tiny kernel module to their infrastructure. (60k source code file). The folks at SuSE understood this was good for them and their customers and us and added it to SLES. So every build coming from SuSE for SLES contains the oracleasm.ko module. We weren't as successful with other vendors so for quite some time we continued to build it for RHEL and of course as we introduced Oracle Linux end of 2006 also for Oracle Linux. With Oracle Linux it became easy for us because we just added the code to our build system and as we churned out Oracle Linux kernels whether it was for a public release or for customers that needed a one off fix where they also used asmlib, we didn't have to do any extra work it was just all nicely integrated.
With the introduction of Oracle Linux's Unbreakable Enterprise Kernel and our interest in being able to exploit ASMLib more, we started working on a very exciting project called Data Integrity. Oracle (Martin Petersen in particular) worked for many years with the T10 standards committee and storage vendors and implemented Linux kernel support for DIF/DIX, data protection in the Linux kernel, note to those that wonder, yes it's all in mainline Linux and under the GPL. This basically gave us all the features in the Linux kernel to checksum a data block, send it to the storage adapter, which can then validate that block and checksum in firmware before it sends it over the wire to the storage array, which can then do another checksum and to the actual DISK which does a final validation before writing the block to the physical media. So what was missing was the ability for a userspace application (read: Oracle RDBMS) to write a block which then has a checksum and validation all the way down to the disk. application to disk.
Because we have ASMLib we had an entry into the Linux kernel and Martin added support in ASMLib (kernel driver + userspace) for this functionality. Now, this is all based on relatively current Linux kernels, the oracleasm kernel module depends on the main kernel to have support for it so we can make use of it. Thanks to UEK and us having the ability to ship a more modern, current version of the Linux kernel we were able to introduce this feature into ASMLib for Linux from Oracle. This combined with the fact that we build the asm kernel module when we build every single UEK kernel allowed us to continue improving ASMLib and provide it to our customers.
So today, we (Oracle) provide Oracle ASMLib for Oracle Linux and in particular on the Unbreakable Enterprise Kernel. We did the build/testing/delivery of ASMLib for RHEL until RHEL5 but since RHEL6 decided that it was too much effort for us to also maintain all the build and test environments for RHEL and we did not have the ability to use the latest kernel features to introduce the Data Integrity features and we didn't want to end up with multiple versions of asmlib as maintained by us. SuSE SLES still builds and comes with the oracleasm module and they do all the work and RHAT it certainly welcome to do the same. They don't have to rebuild the userspace library, it's really about the kernel module.
And finally to re-iterate a few important things :
Oracle ASM does not in any way require ASMLib to function completely. ASMlib is a small set of extensions, in particular to make device management easier but there are no extra features exposed through Oracle ASM with ASMLib enabled or disabled. Often customers confuse ASMLib with ASM. again, ASM exists on every Oracle supported OS and on every supported Linux OS, SLES, RHEL, OL withoutASMLib
Oracle ASMLib userspace is available for OTN and the kernel module is shipped along with OL/UEK for every build and by SuSE for SLES for every of their builds
ASMLib kernel module was built by us for RHEL4 and RHEL5 but we do not build it for RHEL6, nor for the OL6 RHCK kernel. Only for UEK
ASMLib for Linux is/was a reference implementation for any third party vendor to be able to offer, if they want to, their own version for their own OS or storage
ASMLib as provided by Oracle for Linux continues to be enhanced and evolve and for the kernel module we use UEK as the base OS kernel
hope this helps.