A file system (often also written as filesystem) is a method of storing and organizing computer files and their data. Essentially, it organizes these files into a database for the storage, organization, manipulation, and retrieval by the computer's operating system.
File systems are used on data storage devices such as a hard disks or CD-ROMs to maintain the physical location of the files. Beyond this, they might provide access to data on a file server by acting as clients for a network protocol (e.g., NFS, SMB, or 9P clients), or they may be virtual and exist only as an access method for virtual data (e.g., procfs). It is distinguished from a directory service and registry.
Aspects of file systems
Most file systems make use of an underlying data storage device that offers access to an array of fixed-size physical sectors, generally a power of 2 in size (512 bytes or 1, 2, or 4 KiB are most common). The file system is responsible for organizing these sectors into files and directories, and keeping track of which sectors belong to which file and which are not being used. Most file systems address data in fixed-sized units called "clusters" or "blocks" which contain a certain number of disk sectors (usually 1-64). This is the smallest amount of disk space that can be allocated to hold a file. However, file systems need not make use of a storage device at all. A file system can be used to organize and represent access to any data, whether it is stored or dynamically generated (e.g., procfs).
A file name is a name assigned to a file in order to secure storage location in the computer memory. By this file name a file can be further accessed. Whether the file system has an underlying storage device or not, file systems typically have directories which associate file names with files, usually by connecting the file name to an index in a file allocation table of some sort, such as the FAT in a DOS file system, or an inode in a Unix-like file system. Directory structures may be flat, or allow hierarchies where directories may contain subdirectories. In some file systems, file names are structured, with special syntax for filename extensions and version numbers. In others, file names are simple strings, and per-file metadata is stored elsewhere.
Other bookkeeping information is typically associated with each file within a file system. The length of the data contained in a file may be stored as the number of blocks allocated for the file or as an exact byte count. The time that the file was last modified may be stored as the file's timestamp. Some file systems also store the file creation time, the time it was last accessed, and the time that the file's meta-data was changed. (Note that many early PC operating systems did not keep track of file times.) Other information can include the file's device type (e.g., block, character, socket, subdirectory, etc.), its owner user-ID and group-ID, and its access permission settings (e.g., whether the file is read-only, executable, etc.).
Arbitrary attributes can be associated on advanced file systems, such as NTFS, XFS, ext2/ext3, some versions of UFS, and HFS+, using extended file attributes. This feature is implemented in the kernels of Linux, FreeBSD and Mac OS X operating systems, and allows metadata to be associated with the file at the file system level. This, for example, could be the author of a document, the character encoding of a plain-text document, or a checksum.
Hierarchical file systems
The hierarchical file system (not to be confused with Apple's HFS) was an early research interest of Dennis Ritchie of Unix fame; previous implementations were restricted to only a few levels, notably the IBM implementations, even of their early databases like IMS. After the success of Unix, Ritchie extended the file system concept to every object in his later operating system developments, such as Plan 9 and Inferno.
Traditional file systems offer facilities to create, move and delete both files and directories. They lack facilities to create additional links to a directory (hard links in Unix), rename parent links (".." in Unix-like OS), and create bidirectional links to files.
Traditional file systems also offer facilities to truncate, append to, create, move, delete and in-place modify files. They do not offer facilities to prepend to or truncate from the beginning of a file, let alone arbitrary insertion into or deletion from a file. The operations provided are highly asymmetric and lack the generality to be useful in unexpected contexts. For example, interprocess pipes in Unix have to be implemented outside of the file system because the pipes concept does not offer truncation from the beginning of files.
Secure access to basic file system operations can be based on a scheme of access control lists or capabilities. Research has shown access control lists to be difficult to secure properly, which is why research operating systems tend to use capabilities. Commercial file systems still use access control lists.
Types of file systems
File system types can be classified into disk file systems, network file systems and special purpose file systems.
Disk file systems
A disk file system is a file system designed for the storage of files on a data storage device, most commonly a disk drive, which might be directly or indirectly connected to the computer. Examples of disk file systems include FAT (FAT12, FAT16, FAT32, exFAT), NTFS, HFS and HFS+, HPFS, UFS, ext2, ext3, ext4, btrfs, ISO 9660, ODS-5, Veritas File System, ZFS, ReiserFS, Linux SWAP and UDF. Some disk file systems are journaling file systems or versioning file systems.
ISO 9660 and Universal Disk Format are the two most common formats that target Compact Discs and DVDs. Mount Rainier is a newer extension to UDF supported by Linux 2.6 series and Windows Vista that facilitates rewriting to DVDs in the same fashion as has been possible with floppy disks.
Flash file systems
A flash file system is a file system designed for storing files on flash memory devices. These are becoming more prevalent as the number of mobile devices is increasing, and the capacity of flash memories increase.
While a disk file system can be used on a flash device, this is suboptimal for several reasons:
- Erasing blocks: Flash memory blocks have to be explicitly erased before they can be rewritten. The time taken to erase blocks can be significant, thus it is beneficial to erase unused blocks while the device is idle.
- Random access: Disk file systems are optimized to avoid disk seeks whenever possible, due to the high cost of seeking. Flash memory devices impose no seek latency.
- Wear levelling: Flash memory devices tend to wear out when a single block is repeatedly overwritten; flash file systems are designed to spread out writes evenly.
Tape file systems
A tape file system is a file system and tape format designed to store files on tape in a self-describing form. Magnetic tapes are sequential storage media, posing challenges to the creation and efficient management of a general-purpose file system. IBM has recently announced a new file system for tape called the Linear Tape File System. The IBM implementation of this file system has been released as the open-source IBM Long Term File System product.
Database file systems
A new concept for file management is the concept of a database-based file system. Instead of, or in addition to, hierarchical structured management, files are identified by their characteristics, like type of file, topic, author, or similar metadata.
Transactional file systems
Some programs need to update multiple files "all at once." For example, a software installation may write program binaries, libraries, and configuration files. If the software installation fails, the program may be unusable. If the installation is upgrading a key system utility, such as the command shell, the entire system may be left in an unusable state.
Transaction processing introduces the isolation guarantee, which states that operations within a transaction are hidden from other threads on the system until the transaction commits, and that interfering operations on the system will be properly serialized with the transaction. Transactions also provide the atomicity guarantee, that operations inside of a transaction are either all committed, or the transaction can be aborted and the system discards all of its partial results. This means that if there is a crash or power failure, after recovery, the stored state will be consistent. Either the software will be completely installed or the failed installation will be completely rolled back, but an unusable partial install will not be left on the system.
Windows, beginning with Vista, added transaction support to NTFS, abbreviated TxF. TxF is the only commercial implementation of a transactional file system, as transactional file systems are difficult to implement correctly in practice. There are a number of research prototypes of transactional file systems for UNIX systems, including the Valor file system, Amino, LFS , and a transactional ext3 file system on the TxOS kernel, as well as transactional file systems targeting embedded systems, such as TFFS .
Ensuring consistency across multiple file system operations is difficult, if not impossible, without file system transactions. File locking can be used as a concurrency control mechanism for individual files, but it typically does not protect the directory structure or file metadata. For instance, file locking cannot prevent TOCTTOU race conditions on symbolic links. File locking also cannot automatically roll back a failed operation, such as a software upgrade; this requires atomicity.
Journaling file systems are one technique used to introduce transaction-level consistency to file system structures. Journal transactions are not exposed to programs as part of the OS API; they are only used internally to ensure consistency at the granularity of a single system call.
Network file systems
A network file system is a file system that acts as a client for a remote file access protocol, providing access to files on a server. Examples of network file systems include clients for the NFS, AFS, SMB protocols, and file-system-like clients for FTP and WebDAV.
A shared disk file system is one in which a number of machines (usually servers) all have access to the same external disk subsystem (usually a SAN). The file system arbitrates access to that subsystem, preventing write collisions. Examples include GFS from Red Hat, GPFS from IBM, and SFS from DataPlow.
Special purpose file systems
A special purpose file system is basically any file system that is not a disk file system or network file system. This includes systems where the files are arranged dynamically by software, intended for such purposes as communication between computer processes or temporary file space.
Special purpose file systems are most commonly used by file-centric operating systems such as Unix. Examples include the procfs (/proc) file system used by some Unix variants, which grants access to information about processes and other operating system features.
Deep space science exploration craft, like Voyager I and II used digital tape-based special file systems. Most modern space exploration craft like Cassini-Huygens used Real-time operating system file systems or RTOS influenced file systems. The Mars Rovers are one such example of an RTOS file system, important in this case because they are implemented in flash memory.
File systems and operating systems
Most operating systems provide a file system, as a file system is an integral part of any modern operating system. Early microcomputer operating systems' only real task was file management — a fact reflected in their names (see DOS). Some early operating systems had a separate component for handling file systems which was called a disk operating system. On some microcomputers, the disk operating system was loaded separately from the rest of the operating system. On early operating systems, there was usually support for only one, native, unnamed file system; for example, CP/M supports only its own file system, which might be called "CP/M file system" if needed, but which didn't bear any official name at all.
Because of this, there needs to be an interface provided by the operating system software between the user and the file system. This interface can be textual (such as provided by a command line interface, such as the Unix shell, or OpenVMS DCL) or graphical (such as provided by a graphical user interface, such as file browsers). If graphical, the metaphor of the folder, containing documents, other files, and nested folders is often used (see also: directory and folder).
Flat file systems
In a flat file system, there are no subdirectories—everything is stored at the same (root) level on the media, be it a hard disk, floppy disk, etc. While simple, this system rapidly becomes inefficient as the number of files grows, and makes it difficult for users to organize data into related groups.
Like many small systems before it, the original Apple Macintosh featured a flat file system, called Macintosh File System. Its version of Mac OS was unusual in that the file management software (Macintosh Finder) created the illusion of a partially hierarchical filing system on top of EMFS. This structure meant that every file on a disk had to have a unique name, even if it appeared to be in a separate folder. MFS was quickly replaced with Hierarchical File System, which supported real directories.
A recent addition to the flat file system family is Amazon's S3, a remote storage service, which is intentionally simplistic to allow users the ability to customize how their data is stored. The only constructs are buckets (imagine a disk drive of unlimited size) and objects (similar, but not identical to the standard concept of a file). Advanced file management is allowed by being able to use nearly any character (including '/') in the object's name, and the ability to select subsets of the bucket's content based on identical prefixes.
File systems under Unix-like operating systems
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Unix-like operating systems create a virtual file system, which makes all the files on all the devices appear to exist in a single hierarchy. This means, in those systems, there is one root directory, and every file existing on the system is located under it somewhere. Unix-like systems can use a RAM disk or network shared resource as its root directory.
Unix-like systems assign a device name to each device, but this is not how the files on that device are accessed. Instead, to gain access to files on another device, the operating system must first be informed where in the directory tree those files should appear. This process is called mounting a file system. For example, to access the files on a CD-ROM, one must tell the operating system "Take the file system from this CD-ROM and make it appear under such-and-such directory". The directory given to the operating system is called the mount point – it might, for example, be /media. The /media directory exists on many Unix systems (as specified in the Filesystem Hierarchy Standard) and is intended specifically for use as a mount point for removable media such as CDs, DVDs, USB drives or floppy disks. It may be empty, or it may contain subdirectories for mounting individual devices. Generally, only the administrator (i.e. root user) may authorize the mounting of file systems.
Unix-like operating systems often include software and tools that assist in the mounting process and provide it new functionality. Some of these strategies have been coined "auto-mounting" as a reflection of their purpose.
File systems under Linux
File systems under Solaris
The Sun Microsystems Solaris operating system in earlier releases defaulted to (non-journaled or non-logging) UFS for bootable and supplementary file systems. Solaris defaulted to, supported, and extended UFS.
Support for other file systems and significant enhancements were added over time, including Veritas Software Corp. (Journaling) VxFS, Sun Microsystems (Clustering) QFS, Sun Microsystems (Journaling) UFS, and Sun Microsystems (open source, poolable, 128 bit compressible, and error-correcting) ZFS.
Kernel extensions were added to Solaris to allow for bootable Veritas VxFS operation. Logging or Journaling was added to UFS in Sun's Solaris 7. Releases of Solaris 10, Solaris Express, OpenSolaris, and other open source variants of the Solaris operating system later supported bootable ZFS.
Logical Volume Management allows for spanning a file system across multiple devices for the purpose of adding redundancy, capacity, and/or throughput. Legacy environments in Solaris may use Solaris Volume Manager (formerly known as Solstice DiskSuite.) Multiple operating systems (including Solaris) may use Veritas Volume Manager. Modern Solaris based operating systems eclipse the need for Volume Management through leveraging virtual storage pools in ZFS.
File systems under Mac OS X
Mac OS X uses a file system that it inherited from classic Mac OS called HFS Plus, sometimes called Mac OS Extended. HFS Plus is a metadata-rich and case preserving file system. Due to the Unix roots of Mac OS X, Unix permissions were added to HFS Plus. Later versions of HFS Plus added journaling to prevent corruption of the file system structure and introduced a number of optimizations to the allocation algorithms in an attempt to defragment files automatically without requiring an external defragmenter.
HFS Plus has three kinds of links: Unix-style hard links, Unix-style symbolic links and aliases. Aliases are designed to maintain a link to their original file even if they are moved or renamed; they are not interpreted by the file system itself, but by the File Manager code in userland.
Mac OS X also supports the UFS file system, derived from the BSD Unix Fast File System via NeXTSTEP. However, as of Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard), Mac OS X can no longer be installed on a UFS volume, nor can a pre-Leopard system installed on a UFS volume be upgraded to Leopard.
File systems under Plan 9 from Bell Labs
Plan 9 from Bell Labs was originally designed to extend some of Unix's good points, and to introduce some new ideas of its own while fixing the shortcomings of Unix.
With respect to file systems, the Unix system of treating things as files was continued, but in Plan 9, everything is treated as a file, and accessed as a file would be (i.e., no ioctl or mmap). Perhaps surprisingly, while the file interface is made universal it is also simplified considerably: symlinks, hard links and suid are made obsolete, and an atomic create/open operation is introduced. More importantly the set of file operations becomes well defined and subversions of this like ioctl are eliminated.
Secondly, the underlying 9P protocol was used to remove the difference between local and remote files (except for a possible difference in latency or in throughput). This has the advantage that a device or devices, represented by files, on a remote computer could be used as though it were the local computer's own device(s). This means that under Plan 9, multiple file servers provide access to devices, classing them as file systems. Servers for "synthetic" file systems can also run in user space bringing many of the advantages of micro kernel systems while maintaining the simplicity of the system.
Everything on a Plan 9 system has an abstraction as a file; networking, graphics, debugging, authentication, capabilities, encryption, and other services are accessed via I-O operations on file descriptors. For example, this allows the use of the IP stack of a gateway machine without need of NAT, or provides a network-transparent window system without the need of any extra code.
Another example: a Plan-9 application receives FTP service by opening an FTP site. The ftpfs server handles the open by essentially mounting the remote FTP site as part of the local file system. With ftpfs as an intermediary, the application can now use the usual file-system operations to access the FTP site as if it were part of the local file system. A further example is the mail system which uses file servers that synthesize virtual files and directories to represent a user mailbox as /mail/fs/mbox. The wikifs provides a file system interface to a wiki.
These file systems are organized with the help of private, per-process namespaces, allowing each process to have a different view of the many file systems that provide resources in a distributed system.
The Inferno operating system shares these concepts with Plan 9.
File systems under Microsoft Windows
The File Allocation Table (FAT) filing system, supported by all versions of Microsoft Windows, was an evolution of that used in Microsoft's earlier operating system (MS-DOS which in turn was based on 86-DOS). FAT ultimately traces its roots back to the short-lived M-DOS project and Standalone disk BASIC before it. Over the years various features have been added to it, inspired by similar features found on file systems used by operating systems such as Unix.
Older versions of the FAT file system (FAT12 and FAT16) had file name length limits, a limit on the number of entries in the root directory of the file system and had restrictions on the maximum size of FAT-formatted disks or partitions. Specifically, FAT12 and FAT16 had a limit of 8 characters for the file name, and 3 characters for the extension (such as .exe). This is commonly referred to as the 8.3 filename limit. VFAT, which was an extension to FAT12 and FAT16 introduced in Windows NT 3.5 and subsequently included in Windows 95, allowed long file names (LFN).
FAT32 also addressed many of the limits in FAT12 and FAT16, but remains limited compared to NTFS.
exFAT (also known as FAT64) is the newest iteration of FAT, with certain advantages over NTFS with regards to file system overhead. exFAT is only compatible with newer Windows systems, such as Windows 2003, Windows Vista, Windows 2008, Windows 7 and more recently, support has been added for WinXP.
NTFS, introduced with the Windows NT operating system, allowed ACL-based permission control. Hard links, multiple file streams, attribute indexing, quota tracking, sparse files, encryption, compression, reparse points (directories working as mount-points for other file systems, symlinks, junctions, remote storage links) are also supported, though not all these features are well-documented.
Unlike many other operating systems, Windows uses a drive letter abstraction at the user level to distinguish one disk or partition from another. For example, the path C:\WINDOWS represents a directory WINDOWS on the partition represented by the letter C. The C drive is most commonly used for the primary hard disk partition, on which Windows is usually installed and from which it boots. This "tradition" has become so firmly ingrained that bugs came about in older applications which made assumptions that the drive that the operating system was installed on was C. The tradition of using "C" for the drive letter can be traced to MS-DOS, where the letters A and B were reserved for up to two floppy disk drives. This in turn derived from CP/M in the 1970s, which however used A: and B: for hard drives, and C: for floppy disks, and ultimately from IBM's CP/CMS of 1967.
Network drives may also be mapped to drive letters.
File systems under OpenVMS
File systems under MVS [IBM Mainframe]
Other file systems