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Hello, and welcome to this unit on file systems. We'll talk about what a file system is, about how application developers interact with it, and then see what an OS is doing behind the scenes and discuss some common optimizations that make file systems faster. I hope you enjoy.

File System Concept

Most any time that you use a computer, you're going to interact with a file system. Here you see me navigating the file system on my computer to find this presentation. There it is. I started off at my Home folder, inside of there I went to Pictures. And then the filesystems, and there I found this image that I was looking for. This is really convenient. In my case, the data I was looking for was on the hard disk of my local machine. But I didn't have to remember physically where the data was, i.e., the platter, the track, the sector number, et cetera. Instead, I was able to access the data through a very intuitive interface provided by a file system module of the operating system. There are at least three key abstractions at work here. The first is the notion of the file itself. In reality, the data may not be placed next to each other on a disk orl in the right order. But an application developer, the author of the sketchbook program I'm using for instance, gets to create the data of a file as one big, long contiguous string of bytes. Second is the filename. I don't have to remember any of the physical information about how my file is stored, the sector number where it starts, for instance. Instead, I get to assign my file an intuitive name, in my case, Image001.tif. Third is the notion of folders, or directories, as we will call them. These are containers for other files or directories that help keep things organized. The idea is that we have an electronic version of what was once the more common physical filing system. We put folders withing folders to help us keep things organized. So in this machine then, I don't just have a pictures folder but also a documents folder. And within there I have a folder for advanced operating systems. And maybe there's another one for software development process, etc. And even this home directory sits inside a larger directory for all users, which then sits inside of a directory called root. Which then contains folders for the operating systems and other things. This directory is called the root because if we think of this directory structure as an upside down tree, then this all encompassing directory would be the root or the base of the tree. Indeed, the structure will always be a tree, just by the nature of directories or the nature of physical file folders for that matter. We call the directory immediately above another directory its parent. File systems, for instancce, is the parent directory of image001.tif. Pictures is the parent director of File Systems, et cetera. Together, these three abstractions provide a convenient and almost universal interface for storing and retrieving data from mass storage. In this lecture, we'll talk about how this interface is implemented and some of the common optimizations. We'll focus on the disk medium, but many of the ideas we discuss apply to other media as well.

Access Rights

As soon as one thinks about letting multiple users access a file system, it becomes clear that we will need some notion of access rights. Looking at our directory tree here again, it should be clear that Alice should not be able to see guest's or Bob's file unless they say it's okay. And we certainly don't want to let just any user access the operating systems files. Ultimately, for each user file pair, we need to know what permissions that user has. That is, which of the basic actions of reading, writing, and executing the file is he allowed to do? Conceptually, we can think of this as a giant matrix with users for the columns and files as the rows, for instance. And we could store the information that way, but it would be pretty inefficient. Think about how many files would have the exact same set of values. UNIX like operating systems, achieve efficiency by assigning an owner and a group to each file. Here I'm displaying this information as the OS command would show in the terminal. The owner, or user of the file, is typically the creator of the file, and the group might be faculty, or staff, or students or something like that in a university setting. We have separate read, write and execute bits for the owner or user, the group, and then another set for everybody else. This gives us a total of nine bits instead of 3 times the number of users on the system. Permissions on directories make the system even more complicated. The basic rule is that reading affects your ability to see what's in the directory. Running affects your ability to create, delete and rename files in the directory. Both of these are intuitive if you think about a directory as a file itself, containing the names of the files and subject directories in it. Execute permissions are a little more confusing, as they control whether you can pass through the directory and access it's contents in ways other than just manipulating the file names. For cases where more detailed permissions are needed, access control lists are sometimes used on various operating systems. These make it possible to create arbitrary row values in our permissions matrix by granting permissions to individual users or other groups defined in the file system. I encourage you to explore some more on your own. Some good places to start are provided in the instructor notes.

Permissions Error

Let's suppose that when I list the current directory, I see the following - a directory dir, owned by me with these permissions and a file foo.txt owned by some other user with these permissions. And if I look inside this dir. director, I see that there's a file bar, owned by me, and having these permissions. Notice that I used the super user privileges to list the files in this directory. Access to this metadata requires passing through the directory in a way that is only allowed if we have execute permissions on. So my question to you is, which of the follwing Unix commands will result in a permissions error. Cat I should say is just reading the file and printing it to a standard app. And touch is trying to create a new, empty file. Check all that apply.

Permissions Error

The answer is these last two. We'll go through these one by one. In the first case, the owner of the file is another user, and I'm not in the group either, so I fall into the other category. The other category has read permissions, so I can read the file, and the command succeeds. Now let's see what happens when I try to read dir/bar.txt. I am the owner of bar, and the owner has read permissions, but to get there I have to pass through the directory dir, and since I don't have execute permissions on dir, this generates an error. The same thing happens for touch. Writing to the directory file is okay, but actually creating a new file in the directory requires the ability to pass through. It is interesting to note what would have happened if I had reversed the permissions on dir. Then cat dir/bar.txt would have worked, since I just need to pass through the directory. The touch command would not have worked however, as I would need to add the new file name to the directory, and I don't have write permissions.

Developers Interface

To have a good understanding of a file systems, we need to know how application developers interact with it. There are two main ways of doing this. One way, keeps track of a position or cursor in the file, and as we read or write to the file, we move the cursor around. The other way allows us to treat a file, as though just a block of memory. Let's cover the position-based strategy first. We begin by opening the file, with the open procedure, specifying how we intend to use it, with some flags. Notice that I'm using the lower-level system calls, rather than C's built-in procedures like fopen, which sometimes use an extra layer of buffering. It's not that the extra layer's a bad idea, I just want to interact more directly with the operating system. Having opened the file, we can then call read or write as we wish. Write, I should say, overwrites instead of inserting, as the cursor does by default in most editors. And as we read and write, we move the cursor through the file. If we want to move the cursor without reading or writing, we use the lseek command. Which repositions the cursor in the file. And finally when we're done with the file we should close it, so that the file system knows we're done. Now I've skipped over most of the details here, because I thought it would be a lot more fun for you to learn them on your own, with a little programming exercise.


Here's the scenario. We've obtained access to a file belonging to some enemy, and we want to do some sabotage. The files stores a table of key value pairs, both of them ints, and the whole file is in binary. It just goes key, value, key, value, key, value, all the way through. Your task is to write a program that will change the value associated with a particular key. So the perimeters to your program will be file name, the key who's value we want to change, and the new value we want to associate with that key. Now our enemies engineers weren't very clever. So the keys in the file are in no particular order. You just have to search there. Consult the man pages for open, read, write, Lseek, and close. And Good luck.


Here's my solution. I begin by opening the file, with read and write permissions, and then I read from the file. Remember, it goes key value, key value. So, this first read, will represent a key. I check to make sure that I read in as much as I intended, and assuming that that goes okay, I enter this loop here. I first check the key to see if it's the value that I'm looking for. If it's not, then I simply move the cursor past the associated value and then read in the next key. If it does match, however, then I want to overwrite the value with the new one, close the file descriptor, and exit with success. If I ever reach the end of the file or if a read fails for any reason, I can simply print that the key is not found and then exit with failure.


So far, we've seen how a developer might interact with the file system to the positioned based or cursor based aisle. It's also possible, however, to interact with a file in a way that lets us treat it just like memory. As before, we begin by opening a file with the open procedure. Instead of using read and write on the file, however, we call mmap. This returns a pointer to a region of memory that we can manipulate in our code. And eventually, whatever changes we make to the memory, get reflected in the file. When we're done with the file, we call munmap, which syncs the contents of memory with the file and then frees up the memory. And lastly, we can close the file as before. Again, I'm skipping over most of the details here so that you can learn them through a little programming exercise.


The scenario here is that you're given a binary file, with arbitrary contents. And the goal, is to break it up into pieces of some fixed size, and then shuffle those pieces around, in some random order. So the parameters will just be the file name and the size of the pieces. The code to do the shuffling in memory is provided. You just need to open, close, map and unmap the file in order to use it. Consult the bin pages and good luck.


Here's my solution to the shuffle program. I begin by opening the file with read and write permissions, and then to figure out how long the file is, I call lseek, putting the cursor at the end. This then will return how much the cursor was moved, which I store in this variable len. Then I put the cursor back to the beginning. Knowing how long the array needs to be, I can now end that with these flags here. And then check to make sure that, that succeeded. If it failed, we'll just exit. So now that I have the contents of the file in memory, I can call memshuffle on it, that'll rearrange it as desired. And then I can unmap it, close it, it'll get written to the disk, and I can exit with success.

Allocation Strategies

Next, we will discuss strategies for allocating space on mass storage devices to a file. Just like caches work in terms of units of cache lines or cache blocks and virtual memory works in terms of pages, file systems work in terms of blocks also sometimes called clusters. In the case of a disk, a block address would need to identify the physical location. There are different vocabularies here. We'll refer to platter, track and most specifically, sector. The block address identifies the starting sector and the block itself might cover several more sectors, all blocks are of the same size. There are several strategies for keeping track of which blocks are free and which are used, one easy way is to keep a list of free blocks. Another is to use a bit vector where each bit indicates whether a block is free or not. There are more complex strategies as well. Which is more appropriate will depend on the strategies for assigning new blocks to a file as it grows. We won't go into those details here. Instead, we will focus on how a file system keeps track of which blocks belong to which files and of the ordering of these blocks within the file. Ideally, we would want a file system that allows for simple and fast creation and deletion of files. The simplicity here will help maintain consistency in the face of crashes. We want flexibility on size, that is, we ant to be able to handle file sizes large as well as small, and of course we want an efficient use of disc space, and we want fast access. Sequential refers to reading a file in sequence, from start to finish, and random access refers to jumping around in a file. Specifically, we'll look at the file allocation table strategy, which was widely used in the DOS era, and is still used on many USB devices. And we'll also look at the extended file format, which is the long time Linux standard.

File Allocation Table

The File Allocation Table format was originally used in the late 1970's on floppy disks, and became the standard in DOS and early Windows machines. It is still commonly used on solid state and flash memory devices like this one. As these storage technologies have evolved, it has gone through many iterations, but the two key ideas have remained the same. The first is that each filed is represented as a linked list of blocks. Normally when we think of a link list we think of the links as being part of the nodes in the list. May the last part of the block would give the ID of the next block. Here however the links in this list are represented in the final allocation table, which is indexed by block number. Given the starting block number of the file, I can find the next block with a constant time access to the file allocation table. A special value, negative one in this example, indicates that a block is the last in the chain. This file allocation table also contains a bit to say whether a block is free or not. In this example, our file starts with block two. Looking at the table, I see that the next block is six. Looking at six in the table, I see that the next block is three. Again going back to the table, I see that the next block is five. And when I look at five in the table, I see that its next has the special value indicating that we've reached the end of the file. It's important to realize that the file allocation table, or FAT for short, stores all the links for all the files. For instance, there appears to be another file occupying block four and only block four, since that's the end. And also one occupying block one. So the file allocation table tells us how to glue the blocks of a file together. But it doesn't tell us where to start these chains of blocks. That is the function of the directory tables. Directories as I should say are indeed treated as files. And they use something called a Directory Table Format. Entries in the table all have the same width and contain the essential information, including the file name, the starting block, and any other metadata associated with the file, such as permissions. The root file directory has a fixed address on the disk. So we always know how to get started. Let's say that I wanted the content of a file / foo / file.txt. I would first consult this root directory table. It would tell me that there is indeed a directory named foo, and give me the starting block of that file. I would then access that file on the disc and since it's a directory, I would look through there for the file name .txt. And it would tell me that the starting block is two. I can then chain together the blocks on disk as we did earlier using the file allocation table. To summarize then, the FAT or file allocation table serves as the glue that chains the blocks of a file together. The directory files capture the hierarchy and the starting blocks for the files and all the metadata.

Values in the FAT

Here's a question to help solidify our understanding of the file allocation table. Given the values in the table, which blocks are the starting blocks of some file? You should assume that this is the whole table. Check all that apply.

Values in the FAT

The answer is that the starting blocks are the busy blocks that don't have any other blocks pointing to them. Right away then, we can eliminate the blocks that aren't busy. And then I'll just read these next pointers, and eliminate those blocks as well. So this eliminates 6. This is an ending block, so he's not eliminated. This eliminates 1. And this eliminates 2. So, we are left with 3, 5 and 1 as starting blocks. Just for good measure, let's go ahead and build the chains as well. We'll start with 3 and he then would seem to point to 1 who then points to 6, when he then is done. 5 just sits there all by himself, and 7, would seem to point to 2, who then is the last one. So there are the 3 files captured by this fact.

File Allocation Table (cont)

So now that we understand how the FAT format works, let's consider its strengths and weaknesses. It is easy to create a new file, so we just need to adjust the directory table of the parent directory and set the busy bit in the FAT for the starting block. Growing a file is as easy as adjusting the next field of the FAT. Space usage is efficient too. If a block is free, then it can be used and it doesn't matter whether the adjacent blocks are being used or not. This means that the system won't suffer from what is called external fragmentation. As for access, it will behave much like a linked list. It will be great for sequential access, as we quickly find and follow the links. But poor for random access, since we have to walk through half the links to get to the middle of the file and all of the links to get to the end. This isn't as bad as it might seem at first, because we keep the FAT in memory. But it's still not ideal. Overall then, FAT is a poor choice for situations where random access to large files is necessary. Hence, it has fallen out of favor. It's still a good choice for removable storage, however, where one is mostly just copying data from one machine to another, and hence, only using sequential access. And its space efficiency makes it especially attractive.

Inode Structure

Another popular system file format is the extended format, commonly used in Linux. Each file on the disk has a data structure called an Inode associated with it. The Inode is fixed length. It contains the metadata for the file, and it serves as the glue linking the data blocks together in the right order. It is this gluing function that is the most interesting. The inode stores 15 data block addresses or pointers. The first 12 of these point directly to the first 12 data blocks of the file. This makes the strategy efficient for small files. The thirteenth of these addresses points to a block that consists of a table of addresses for the next blocks in the file. This vastly increases the number of blocks that we can use in a file. The downside is that we've introduced a layer of indirection. If this doesn't give the file enough space, then we use this fourteenth pointer and not one but two layers of indirection, giving us even more space. And if this isn't enough, we have a fifteenth pointer, which uses triple indirection for more space still. Juts like in FAT, directories are treated as files. Only instead of mapping a file name to the first file block, they map a file name to its inode. That path for accessing slash foo, slash file.txt, would look something like this. We'd start at the inode for the root directory and then following its data pointers we find the data for the root directory. There we find that foo maps to another inode, following that address we consult that inode and find that address for its data block. Looking in there, we find the contents of slash foo. That's a directory. So it's going to map the file name file.txt to the appropriate inode. And then using that inode structure, we're able to peace together the data that we need.

Data Blocks

Now for a question to test your understanding of inodes. Suppose that the disk blocks are of size 4 kilobytes, and that an indirection block can store 1024 entries. What is the maximum file size that does not use the double-indirect pointer in the inode? Give your answer in kilobytes.

Inode Structure

Having understood inodes and the basic characteristics of the extended file system, let's now consider its merits and compare it with FAT system. File creating means grabbing an inode and updating the parent directory. This is not substantially different from FAT. File growth, just means grabbing a new data block and updating the inode, no big deal. We are still efficient in terms of space. There's a little waste in potentially unused fields in the inodes, and the indirection tables are space that would not be used if the file were stored in a FAT system, but this is usually going to be small compared to the whole size of a file. As for access time, it is true that the inodes add an extra layer of indirection as we go through the directory tree. A directory points to the inode for a file, rather than to the first state of the block. Because inodes are cached in memory, however, this performance cost is minimal. Much more important is that the inodes link the data blocks together in a treelike structure, with a high branching factor, as many as an indirection table can hold. This makes for much better random access than one gets from the linked list chaining of the FAT format, at least for large files.

Buffer Cache

Now that we've seen how file systems work, we turn to several optimizations that help make it fast, since most storage devices tend to be slow. We'll first discuss some software optimizations and then turn to hardware. If you're first reaction is, let's use a cache, then you're on the right track. Indeed most operating systems do use free portions of main memory as a cache for the much slower mass storage device. Statistics vary on this sort of thing over time as technologies changes, but by most measurements, memory is as much as 100,000 times faster than disk for random access. Would use the portion of memory used as a cache for disc, the unified buffer cache, a name it earned for some obscure historical reasons. The terminology here can be a little confusing. So I'm going to emphasize that we're talking about in memory caching of the contents of the disc, not the RAM on the disc controller that the device controller here might use. When data is read from disc, is stored in this unified buffer cache so that subsequent reads can find it there. Instead of having to bother the disk again, because disk access is often sequential. It is common also to read ahead in a file, loading up subsequent blocks to main memory so that is there when the application needs it. Writing to disk is usually done with the write back policy. The change is made only in the unified buffer cache at first. And the page is marked as dirty. The slower operation of writing the data to the disk is postponed until some more opportune time. New files can also be created and stored in the unified buffer cache. If a file has a very short life span, writing to the disk might not be necessary at all. The existence of the end memory cache. Means that a call to write isn't a guarantee that the data is changed on the disk and will persist. The changes are only reflected in memory. The advantage is that the program gets to resume faster and get on with its work. The downside is that if the system crashes before the write has been made to disk then changes will be lost. If you really do want to make sure that changes are reflected on disk, need to call fsync or msync to flush out the unified buffer cache. The write-back policy of the buffer cache is also the reason that operating systems will warn you not to move storage devices without ejecting it first. It needs a chance to flush the buffer cache and any dirty pages so that changes will be reflected on the device.


There are some dangers that come with the write-back policy of the buffer cache, a sudden system rash or power failure would mean that all the changes made in memory only would be lost. If the storage device is removal, it could just be that the user unplugged it before ejecting. It would be a nice idea if we could periodically copy all the changes reflected in memory to the disk. Maybe we could do this when some fixed number of dirty blocks is reached. The trouble is that the dirty blocks will likely be scattered all over the disks and we have to spend an inordinate amount of seek time just putting the right head of the disk in their correct place. Indeed it's the seek time, that makes random access to a disk so slow in general. Sequetial access can be thousands of times faster than random access. It'd be so much easier if we could just write everything to one contiguous block. This is the idea behind journalling file systems. They reserve a contiguous portion of the disk for this express purpose. We write the changes to the journal quickly, and mark the dirty box in memory as clean. Then, at a more opportune time, we apply all these changes stored in the journal to the appropriate files on the disk. The name journal comes from the analogy to a diary that one might write in every day to record the changes in one's life, in time sequential order. Here we are recording the changes to the file system. Of course, this does complicate reading from the disk somewhat. Any time we read from the disk, we need to check the journal to see if there are any changes to apply. Total time spent on writing is slower. After all, we are doing two writes, instead of just one. The key is, that the write to the journal is faster, and that is the one we're doing at the critical time when we found that we found we had too many dirty pages, or blocks, in memory. Journalling also has the advantage that it helps with crashes. Problems typically occur when the right to summon important data structure, like an inode, is interrupted by some system crash or power failure. Let's consider what happens, when a write from the journal to the rest of the disk is interrupted first. Well, in that case, the change that we need to apply will still be in a journal and so we can just reapply it on restart. No problem. The other write to worry about is the write to the journal itself. A failed write to the journal, however, can be detected by a checksum. And then the change can simply be ignored, again, leaving the important data structure on disk in a consistent state.

Direct Memory Access

There's one last optimization that I want to mention, and this is a hardware one. One might expect that the CPU had to execute all of the store instructions, needed to move data along the bus from memory to disk, and vice versa. This would work, but it would be very slow. Instead, streaming devices, like a disk, have their own controller that is capable of sending along the bus itself. Through the bus, the CPU tells it the length of the chunk it's supposed to copy, the device address on the disk, the memory address, the command, whether it's a read or a write, and then tells it to go. The CPU then goes on about its business while the device controller uses the memory bus to either read or write the data. Now the CPU and the device controller are in competition for the use of the bus here. But because the CPU is going to find most of its data in the cache, it's not using the memory bus all that often, leaving it for the device controller. This phenomenon is sometimes called cycle stealing as the device controller is able to steal cycles on the memory bus away from the CPU.

Fill in the Table

Now let's do a question, to help summarize the optimizations we just talked about. Check the box if you think the optimization given, has the merit provided in the column. Most of these should be pretty clear. The tricky one is whether journaling helps improve overall performance. And it really depends on what one considers the alternative to be. If the alternative is leaving changes in memory for longer. Then no, it doesn't improve performance. But if the alternative is spending lots of seek time trying to backup in memory changes to the disk, then obviously it does help. Let's assume the latter, so that this one is true.

Fill in the Table

Let's first consider which of these optimizations reduces the number of writes to disk. The use of the buffer cache does because short lived files, which are common in when compiling code, for instance, need never be written to disk. Journaling actually increases the number of writes to disk. So this is false. And direct memory access only gets involved when there is a write, so it doesn't change anything. Next we ask, which of these improve overall performance. And the answer is that they all do. The basic caching principle was the main motivation for the buffer cache since main memory is so much faster than disk and other mass storage. The advantage of journaling, we already went over. If the data must be written to disk quickly, better to do it sequentially. And lastly, we saw how DMA sped up performance through the cycle stealing phenomenon, giving more time for the CPU to do other work. Lastly, we have the improvement for recovery. And the only optimization that had any effect here was the journal. Which reduced the recovery problem to just applying the changes from the journal to the rest of the disk, something done routinely anyway.


We've covered a lot in this lesson, from a high level view of why a file system is useful, down to implementation details and optimizations used in today's sophisticated systems. If you keep these ideas in mind, you've become a better programmer, and appreciate the complexity behind the systems we use every day. So long for now.