NFS, or Network File System, is a distributed file system protocol that allows you to mount remote directories on your server. This allows you to manage storage space in a different location and write to that space from multiple clients. NFS provides a relatively standard and performant way to access remote systems over a network and works well in situations where the shared resources must be accessed regularly.
In this guide, you’ll go over how to install the software needed for NFS functionality on Debian 11, configure two NFS mounts on a server and client, and mount and unmount the remote shares.
You will use two servers in this tutorial, with one sharing part of its filesystem with the other. To follow along, you will need:
Two Debian 11 servers. Each of these should have a non-root user with
sudo privileges, a firewall set up with UFW, and private networking, if it’s available to you.
Throughout this tutorial, the server that shares its directories will be referred to as the host and the server that mounts these directories as the client. You will need to know the IP address for both. Be sure to use the private network address, if available.
Throughout this tutorial these IP addresses will be referred to by the placeholders
client_ip. Please substitute as needed.
You’ll begin by installing the necessary components on each server.
On the host server, install the
nfs-kernel-server package, which will allow you to share your directories. Since this is the first operation that you’re performing with
apt in this session, refresh your local package index before the installation:
- sudo apt update
- sudo apt install nfs-kernel-server
Once these packages are installed, switch to the client server.
On the client server, you need to install a package called
nfs-common, which provides NFS functionality without including any server components. Again, refresh the local package index prior to installation to ensure that you have up-to-date information:
- sudo apt update
- sudo apt install nfs-common
Now that both servers have the necessary packages, you can start configuring them.
You’re going to share two separate directories with different configuration settings, in order to illustrate two key ways that NFS mounts can be configured with respect to superuser access.
Superusers can do anything anywhere on their system. However, NFS-mounted directories are not part of the system on which they are mounted, so by default, the NFS server refuses to perform operations that require superuser privileges. This default restriction means that superusers on the client cannot write files as root, reassign ownership, or perform any other superuser tasks on the NFS mount.
Sometimes, however, there are trusted users on the client system who need to perform these actions on the mounted file system but who have no need for superuser access on the host. You can configure the NFS server to allow this, although it introduces an element of risk, as such a user could gain root access to the entire host system.
In the first example, you’ll create a general-purpose NFS mount that uses default NFS behavior to make it difficult for a user with root privileges on the client machine to interact with the host using those client superuser privileges. You might use something like this to store files which were uploaded using a content management system or to create space for users to easily share project files.
First, make the share directory on the host server:
- sudo mkdir /var/nfs/general -p
-p option for
mkdir creates the directory and, if required, all parent directories.
Since you’re creating it with
sudo, the directory is owned by the host’s root user:
- ls -dl /var/nfs/general
Outputdrwxr-xr-x 2 root root 4096 Apr 17 23:51 /var/nfs/general
NFS will translate any root operations on the client to the
nobody:nogroup credentials as a security measure. Therefore, you need to change the directory ownership to match those credentials.
- sudo chown nobody:nogroup /var/nfs/general
Outputdrwxr-xr-x 2 nobody nogroup 4096 Apr 17 23:51 /var/nfs/general
You’re now ready to export this directory.
In the second example, the goal is to make user home directories stored on the host available on client servers, while allowing trusted administrators of those client servers the access they need to conveniently manage users.
To do this, you’ll export the
/home directory. Since it already exists, you don’t need to create it. You won’t change the permissions, either. If you did, it could lead to a range of issues for anyone with a home directory on the host machine.
Next, you’ll dive into the NFS configuration file to set up the sharing of these resources.
On the host machine, open the
/etc/exports file in your text editor with root privileges:
- sudo nano /etc/exports
The file has comments showing the general structure of each configuration line. The syntax is as follows:
You’ll need to create a line for each of the directories that you plan to share. Be sure to change the
client_ip placeholder shown here to your actual client public IP address:
/var/nfs/general client_ip(rw,sync,no_subtree_check) /home client_ip(rw,sync,no_root_squash,no_subtree_check)
Here, you’re using the same configuration options for both directories with the exception of
no_root_squash. Take a look at what each of these options mean:
rw: This option gives the client computer both read and write access to the volume.
sync: This option forces NFS to write changes to disk before replying. This results in a more stable and consistent environment since the reply reflects the actual state of the remote volume. However, it also reduces the speed of file operations.
no_subtree_check: This option prevents subtree checking, which is a process where the host must check whether the file is actually still available in the exported tree for every request. This can cause many problems when a file is renamed while the client has it opened. In almost all cases, it is better to disable subtree checking.
no_root_squash: By default, NFS translates requests from a root user remotely into a non-privileged user on the server. This was intended as security feature to prevent a root account on the client from using the file system of the host as root.
no_root_squashdisables this behavior for certain shares.
When you are finished making your changes, save and close the file. Then, to make the shares available to the clients that you configured, restart the NFS server with the following command:
- sudo systemctl restart nfs-kernel-server
Before you can actually use the new shares, however, you’ll need to be sure that traffic to the shares is permitted by firewall rules.
First, check the firewall status to see if it’s enabled and, if so, to see what’s currently permitted:
- sudo ufw status
OutputStatus: active To Action From -- ------ ---- OpenSSH ALLOW Anywhere OpenSSH (v6) ALLOW Anywhere (v6)
On your system, only SSH traffic is being allowed through, so you’ll need to add a rule for NFS traffic.
With many applications, you can use
sudo ufw app list and enable them by name, but
nfs is not one of those. However, because
ufw also checks
/etc/services for the port and protocol of a service, you can still add NFS by name. Best practice recommends that you enable the most restrictive rule that will still allow the traffic you want to permit, so rather than enabling traffic from just anywhere, you’ll be specific.
Use the following command to open port
2049 on the host, being sure to substitute your client public IP address:
- sudo ufw allow from client_ip to any port nfs
You can verify the change by typing:
- sudo ufw status
You should see traffic allowed from port
2049 in the output:
OutputStatus: active To Action From -- ------ ---- OpenSSH ALLOW Anywhere 2049 ALLOW client_ip OpenSSH (v6) ALLOW Anywhere (v6)
This confirms that UFW will only allow NFS traffic on port
2049 from your client machine.
Now that the host server is configured and serving its shares, you’ll prepare your client.
In order to make the remote shares available on the client, you need to mount the directories on the host that you want to share to empty directories on the client.
Note: If there are files and directories in your mount point, they will become hidden as soon as you mount the NFS share. To avoid the loss of important files, be sure that if you mount in a directory that already exists that the directory is empty.
You’ll create two directories for your mounts on the client machine:
- sudo mkdir -p /nfs/general
- sudo mkdir -p /nfs/home
Now that you have a location to put the remote shares and you’ve opened the firewall, you can mount the shares using the IP address of your host server:
- sudo mount host_ip:/var/nfs/general /nfs/general
- sudo mount host_ip:/home /nfs/home
These commands will mount the shares from the host computer onto the client machine. You can double-check that they mounted successfully in several ways. You can check this with a
findmnt command, but the
df -h command, which lists available disk space, provides a more readable output:
- df -h
OutputFilesystem Size Used Avail Use% Mounted on tmpfs 198M 972K 197M 1% /run /dev/vda1 50G 3.5G 47G 7% / tmpfs 989M 0 989M 0% /dev/shm tmpfs 5.0M 0 5.0M 0% /run/lock /dev/vda15 105M 5.3M 100M 5% /boot/efi tmpfs 198M 4.0K 198M 1% /run/user/1000 10.124.0.3:/var/nfs/general 25G 5.9G 19G 24% /nfs/general 10.124.0.3:/home 25G 5.9G 19G 24% /nfs/home
Both of the shares you mounted appear at the bottom. Because they were mounted from the same file system, they show the same disk usage. To see how much space is actually being used under each mount point, use the disk usage command
du and the path of the mount. The
-s flag provides a summary of usage rather than displaying the usage for every file. The
-h prints human-readable output.
- du -sh /nfs/home
This shows us that the contents of the entire home directory is using only 36K of the available space.
Next, test access to the shares by writing something to each of them.
First, write a test file to the
- sudo touch /nfs/general/general.test
Then, check its ownership:
- ls -l /nfs/general/general.test
Output-rw-r--r-- 1 nobody nogroup 0 Apr 18 00:02 /nfs/general/general.test
Because you mounted this volume without changing NFS’s default behavior and created the file as the client machine’s root user via the
sudo command, ownership of the file defaults to
nobody:nogroup. client superusers won’t be able to perform typical administrative actions, like changing the owner of a file or creating a new directory for a group of users, on this NFS-mounted share.
To compare the permissions of the General Purpose share with the Home Directory share, create a file in
/nfs/home the same way:
- sudo touch /nfs/home/home.test
Then look at the ownership of the file:
- ls -l /nfs/home/home.test
Output-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 0 Apr 18 00:03 /nfs/home/home.test
home.test as root using the
sudo command, exactly the same way you created the
general.test file. However, in this case it is owned by root because you overrode the default behavior when you specified the
no_root_squash option on this mount. This allows your root users on the client machine to act as root and makes the administration of user accounts much more convenient. At the same time, it means you don’t have to give these users root access on the host.
You can mount the remote NFS shares automatically at boot by adding them to
/etc/fstab file on the client.
Open this file with root privileges in your text editor:
- sudo nano /etc/fstab
At the bottom of the file, add a line for each of your shares. They will look like this:
. . . host_ip:/var/nfs/general /nfs/general nfs auto,nofail,noatime,nolock,intr,tcp,actimeo=1800 0 0 host_ip:/home /nfs/home nfs auto,nofail,noatime,nolock,intr,tcp,actimeo=1800 0 0
Make sure you save and close this file so that your changes take effect.
Note: You can find more information about the options you are specifying here in the NFS man page. You can access this by running the following command:
- man nfs
The client will automatically mount the remote partitions at boot, although it may take a few moments to establish the connection and for the shares to be available.
If you no longer want the remote directory to be mounted on your system, you can unmount it by moving out of the share’s directory structure and unmounting, like this:
- cd ~
- sudo umount /nfs/home
- sudo umount /nfs/general
Take note that the command is named
unmount as you may expect.
This will remove the remote shares, leaving only your local storage accessible:
- df -h
OutputFilesystem Size Used Avail Use% Mounted on tmpfs 198M 972K 197M 1% /run /dev/vda1 50G 3.5G 47G 7% / tmpfs 989M 0 989M 0% /dev/shm tmpfs 5.0M 0 5.0M 0% /run/lock /dev/vda15 105M 5.3M 100M 5% /boot/efi tmpfs 198M 4.0K 198M 1% /run/user/1000
If you also want to prevent them from being remounted on the next reboot, edit
/etc/fstab and either delete the line or comment it out by placing a
# character at the beginning of the line. You can also prevent auto-mounting by removing the
auto option, which will allow you to still mount it manually.
In this tutorial, you created an NFS host and illustrated some key NFS behaviors by creating two different NFS mounts, which you shared with a NFS client.
If you’re looking to implement NFS in production, it’s important to note that the protocol itself is not encrypted. In cases where you’re sharing over a private network, this may not be a problem. In other cases, a VPN or some other type of encrypted tunnel will be necessary to protect your data.
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