CS 111 - More on File Systems

Authors: Andre Encarnacao, Ignacio Zendejas, and Jordan Saxonberg

Date: November 22, 2005

File System Organization
File System Consistency

File System Organization

Naming Schemes

Disk setup
Fig. 1 - Disk setup

How do applications name all of these resources?

By using a naming scheme. Operating systems have different approaches on how these naming schemes are defined. Here are two examples:

1. DOS uses a very familiar naming scheme. It uses letters to name drives, where each one of these drives is associated with a particular device and can possibly have its own file system. This sort of naming scheme is the equivalent of a forest structure of different file systems, as seen in figure 2 below.

The advantage, of course, is that the hardware is named, making the different devices distinguishable. However, it has some disadvantages:
  • The names are only for the system's benefit, and not the user's benefit
  • There is limited space (up to 26 drives - one per letter)

DOS Naming Scheme
Fig. 2 - DOS Naming Scheme

2. LINUX uses a different naming scheme in which it mounts devices by mounting a file system. The Linux operating system has a single root directory with its own file system and therefore gives it a tree structure (as opposed to the forest structure of DOS). Please see figure 3 below for a visualization of this. File systems can be mounted anywhere in this tree and all mounted file systems are accessible from the root of the tree. A file system is mounted by using the mount command, which essentially overrides a portion of the already existing Linux directory hierarchy (i.e., namespace) by attaching the whole file system onto a specified directory inode (the mount point). Typically, the mount point is an empty directory but this is not required. If one were to mount a file system onto a non-empty directory, all the data previously in that directory WILL STILL be on disk, just NO LONGER visible to the user. Figure 4 below shows how we have been mounting our file system for Lab 3.

Advantages of mounting:
  • It's a user-oriented naming scheme
  • It makes sense to be able to mount at any level (i.e., replace inodes at any level) and that's exactly what a mount enables one to do.
Disadvantages of mounting:
  • The hardware is less obvious since devices can be located anywhere in the tree structure

Linux Naming Scheme
Fig. 3 - Linux Naming Scheme

Even though it's possible to have many file systems mounted in this tree structure, each individual file system only knows about itself and doesn't have to keep any information about other file systems on the machine. It should also be noted that these mounted file systems are not persistent, meaning that a reboot will lose all previously mounted file systems (except for the base file system). This isn't too bad though because the machine can be configured to mount file systems on startup.

Here's how we mounted OSPFS (our lab 3 file system):

OSPFS (Lab 3 File System) Mounting
Fig. 4 - OSPFS (Lab 3 File System) Mounting

Open-File Guarantee

When can a kernel throw (i.e., garbage collect) a kernel structure (for example, a kernel inode)?

A kernel can garbage collect an inode when it is unreferenced. That is, when the following conditions are met:
  • No files associated with the inode are open
  • None of its subdirectories are open
  • None of the file components are open
This is part of the open-file guarantee that both Windows and Unix systems provide. When you open a file, the system checks for the file's existence and its permission settings. Moreover, every program has a current working directory, and that is an opened file, in itself. Consider the case below:
test -> subdir -> Netscape

(You can't throw away subdir or test if Netscape is running.)

Now consider the case when you're updating Firefox on your Linux machine. When you update, /usr/bin/firefox gets overwritten with a newer version of /usr/bin/firefox. Imagine if there was no preservation of open files (i.e., open files can be modified when they are currently open or running) and we are updating Firefox while an instance of the program is currently running. In order to understand what may happen, we must first understand that when we run a program, we load the binary code into main memory. For programs that are huge like Firefox, we demand page them in the buffer cache. As we learned a few lectures ago, demand paging is when pages are loaded into memory only when needed. Figure 5 below shows this scenario.

Firefox screwed up
Fig.5 - Firefox references modified binary

As we can see in the figure immediately above, Firefox is updated on disk as we are still running an instance of the old version of Firefox. Since we are using demand paging, it could occur that we reference a page that is not currently in memory and that we need to bring that page into memory from the disk. Here's the problem! The Firefox binary has been modified since we just updated it so we will most likely be referencing an incorrect part of the code since we are using address references from the old version of the binary. This will surely result in the program crashing. The only way to prevent this is to either keep the old binary code around until the program is closed (allowing us to correctly reference the old binary even though Firefox has been updated) or we can just make sure that Firefox has been closed prior to updating. The latter is a much better idea and this is ensured through the open-file guarantee.

Symbolic versus Hard Links

A hard link is when a directory entry refers to a particular file inode. Each file inode has at least one hard link or it wouldn't make sense. We usually say that a particular file is hard-linked if multiple directory entries in the file system refer to that file's inode. This means that the file is referenced by more than one directory (and therefore by more than one name). The problem here is that we cannot allow hard links to directories since this could create circular links and would violate the tree structure design of the file hierarchy, as discussed earlier. These circular links would also complicate garbage collection.

How, then, is it possible for two directories to refer to just one directory as in the example below?

cd /home/kohler
cd /u/idiots/kohler

We need to add a layer of indirection to permit the situation above and create a different type of link that does not change file system semantics. This new type of link is a symbolic link. A symbolic link is a special file type whose data contains a filename. This filename is essentially a "soft link" to another file. Whenever the kernel encounters a symbolic link file type, it reads the filename in the data part of the file and goes to that filename. It's as if the Kernel traverses the namespace for the user. Symbolic links are nice in that they are links at the namespace level rather than at the block level (like hard links). Figure 6 below shows what the symbolic link would look like for the example above.

Symbolic Links
Fig. 6 - Symbolic Links

Overview: Hard links link file system OBJECTS, whereas symbolic links link file NAMES.

Figure 7 below illustrates the differences between hard links and symbolic links. For the hard link part, we assume that filenames a and c are hard linked to the same inode: A. When we delete filename a, inode A and file A do not get deleted since all we do is decrease the hard link count in that inode from 2 to 1. If we were to create a new file for filename a, then both the filenames (a and c) would reference two different file inodes (and therefore two different files). For the symbolic link part, we assume that filename c contains a symbolic link to filename a. When we delete filename a, inode A and file A get deleted as well and now the symbolic link is no longer valid and any reference to filename c will cause an error. This is the so-called dangling-link problem, where a symbolic link doesn't have any control over what happens with the file it's referencing. The file it points to can be deleted or its filename can change without the symbolic link file knowing what has happened. If we were to create a new file for filename a, then both the filenames (a and c) would still reference the same file inode and file (the one that was just created).

Hard links vs. Symbolic links
Fig. 7 - Hard Links vs. Symbolic Links

Advantages of Symbolic Links:
  • Can link to directories without creating circular links (unlike hard links)
  • Can link across file systems (unlike hard links)
Disadvantages of Symbolic Links
  • The dangling-link problem can occur

File System Correctness/Consistency

File System Correctness Problem

File System
Fig. 8 - File system

In the file system displayed in figure 8 above, imagine unlinking file /a. Here is the process we go through:
  1. mark data blocks as free
  2. mark inode as free
  3. clear inode
  4. mark directory entry as unused
If the power shuts off after the first item above, then we have failed to completely unlink file /a. The file still exists, but it's data blocks 10 and 11 are now marked as free, meaning that the file system is able to use these data blocks for storing data for a newly created file (for example, file B). This is a problem! This same problem can occur if file /a had an indirect block that was marked as free prior to the power shutting off. This indirect block could be used as a data block for a newly created file in the file system, therefore creating a problem even worse than the previously described one. We have just made our file system inconsistent and we have to find a way to prevent this.


Objective: A set of invariants that will ensure that the file system is in a consistent state.

These are the invariants:
  • No object is used for more than one purpose (No block belongs to more than one file as in the case described above).
  • Every referenced block is marked allocated (No block is marked both free and used as in the case described above).
  • Every unreferenced block is marked free (Otherwise, we get a disk leak, though less serious than the previous two invariants)
  • Every referenced object (inode, block, et al) has been initialized (For example, if you point to an indirect block without having written to it, you may follow garbage pointers and encounter the case described above)
If we maintain all of these invariants, we guarantee that file system is in a consistent state.

There are various ways for a file system to ensure consistency and, therefore, achieve robustness.

Here's how:
  1. File System Check (fsck in Unix) - works by verifying invariants listed above
    • Runs after an unclean shutdown
    • Traverses every directory and inode to cross-check against other inodes and directories, as well as the freemap block.
    • When it finds a problem, it fixes it. For example, for problems with files A and B in figure 8, we could fix the problem by performing any one of these actions:
      • Delete file A
      • Delete file B
      • Copy double-used block so we have 2 separate copies (but keep in mind that we can't preserve the data for both files A and B)
    • Disadvantage: File System Check is just a "band-aid" to place the file system in a consistent state. It has to guess the correct state of the file system and it often guesses wrong. This is problematic.
    • Disadvantage: VERY SLOW!!!
  2. Careful Ordering (Synchronous Metadata)
    • Order all updates to file system structure in such a manner that only the third invariant may be violated (the invariant that states that every unreferenced block is marked free). This invariant is not as serious as the others since it can only cause disk leaks, but it cannot cause corruption. For example, for unlinking a file, if we follow the steps listed earlier in the notes in the opposite order (starting at step 4 and going up to step 1), then we can ensure that only the 3rd invariant can be violated.
    • Disadvantage: This method requires synchronous writes to disk so we cannot take advantage of many of the nice efficiency-increasing techniques we've previously discussed. This includes use of the buffer cache (for page swapping), page pre-fetching and the disk scheduling algorithms. This is all because writes to the disk NEED to occur in a certain order so that we can ensure that only the 3rd invariant may be violated.
  3. Journaling - File System Transactions
    • The main idea is to keep a log of all the disk transactions (consisting of a few disk operations), and to only write to the file system structures when that particular transaction commits (commit - the atomic point when the transaction becomes persistent). Then, whenever the system reboots, we can just replay the log to make sure that every committed transaction was actually performed. If a certain recorded log transaction was not completed because of a system crash, then we can go ahead and complete the transaction.
    • This log/journal is usually kept in a special section of the file system (see figure 8 above) and is available for viewing on Linux machines at /.journal. Note: typical journals are about 2 MB in size.
    • Here are the steps taken when a file system is performing some operations that constitute a "transaction":
      • Write the transaction contents to the journal (see figure 9 below for a sample journal transaction for deleting a file)
      • Perform the operations of the transaction to the actual file system
      • Mark the transaction as done by writing commit to the journal (this means that the transaction has been committed to the file system)
    • When the system reboots, we run through the journal and make sure that every committed transaction was actually performed and is on disk. Once a transaction has been checked, it can be marked as "released"
    • This method is slow because we need to write both the journal and the disk, but the advantage is that we have a contiguous arrangement of journal transactions and this means that there are fewer seeks when we are verifying that transactions were actually performed.
    • We have two options for what sort of data to store in the journal:
      • Write just the operation name (this is just a handful of bytes per operation)
      • Write the entire block that was modified. This is actually necessary since writing blocks is not an atomic operation in the hardware. What if the system crashes while the hardware is midway through writing a block into disk? We need to be able to recover from this and storing the entire block in our journal is a way to do this. This approach makes non-atomic hardware appear atomic! The ext3 file system in Linux uses this approach.

Journaling Transaction
Fig.9 - Journaling Transaction