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The Cap File System

The Cap Filing System
R. M. Needham and A.D. Birrell, Symposium on Operating Systems Principles, 1977, Association for Computing Machinery.

I’ve fallen behind this past ten days, working towards a deadline.  My own conference paper is now submitted and I’m working on recovering.  What that means is this week is going to be a busy one as I work on catching up.  Adding to the fun, FAST is going on this week (February 13-16, 2008).  I hope to add some bonus discussions on the current work being presented there.

Let’s get to discussing this paper.

CAP is a capabilities based system.  The capability systems are a parallel idea that has been explored from time to time versus the access control system for Multics/UNIX inspired operating systems.  The latest contender in this space would be Fuschia, an experimental operating system that Google is developing (though it is an open source project under a mixture of licenses).  Interestingly, there are reports it runs on the Pixelbook in addition to the previous hardware it had supported.

At any rate, the idea behind a capability is to use identifiers that encapsulate the access rights within the capability itself.  Thus, it is a name and the virtue of having the name is that it means you have the access inherent in that name.

These capabilities all represent to a program the right to have or do something: the preservation of information from one run of a program to another (a universal operating system requirement) is thus seen by the CAP programmer as the preservation of a capability rather than of an object itself.

The paper describes how capabilities are managed, which interacts with the “filing system” of course, since it has to store persistent information.  They describe the “system internal name” (SIN), which is combined with a disk address to map memory segments to actual storage.  The capability (in a “directory”) then becomes a repository of these persistent objects.  This also creates a reference to the disk block that is in use, ensuring those storage regions are not reused.

One interesting characteristic of their system is that they do not guarantee free disk space will be recycled quickly (“[T]here is no guarantee that inaccessible disk space will be relinquished at the earliest possible moment.”)  Indeed they note that space reclamation is only done when the system reboots and “[T]he filing system is not designed to run forever.”

They discuss how CAP differs from prior work (e.g., OS/360) where only the name matters; there is no concept of a directory for use as part of the capability system.  The directory actually provides them an additional level of control as well, and they use directory capabilities as well as segment capabilities.  Directories may be persistent (so they have a SIN and disk block location) or ephemeral (so they disappear when the program exits) – a sort of “built in” temporary storage concept for ephemeral memory management.

Sharing objects is now trivial – you simply tell someone the correct name; that embeds the capability within it.  They do not describe the mechanisms used for transfer (“[B]y mechanisms which do not concern us in detail here.”)

They also describe how this name space is similar to other systems (UNIX and CAL-TSS) but different:

  • Access is associated with the name which in turn references information in the directory.  It is not an attribute of the file itself.
  • The name space need not be a “strict hierarchy”.  This means that portions could become disconnected, or even be private to a single application.
  • Their use of directories behaves similar to the model of “current directory” (presumably in UNIX) even though CAP expressly does not have a concept of current directory.
  • Directories are not even directed acyclic graphs!

The paper describes how capabilities work, since they are a fine-grained control mechanism.  They explain that the holder of an existing capability (a program) may generate a more restrictive capability to provide to another program.  Since capabilities apply to both individual files as well as directories, it is possible for a program to transfer a set of capabilities by creating a new directory and storing the relevant capabilities to the target program.

The names themselves can be quite ugly, as they incorporate capabilities within them.  They describe some conventions they employ in terms of name management and directory placement, but point out these are conventions and not a hard requirement of the system.

CAP certainly presents a rather different model of a file system than we see in other systems.  The idea of disconnected name spaces that are only visible to particular programs is an intriguing one.  They use the example of the password database, which requires the program have the password file capability.

They discuss security.  The directory manager is a separate module that programs use to interact with the directories to which they have access.  To invoke the directory manager, the caller must have the ENTER capability.

I find this to be exactly the type of thought provoking paper I had hoped to find as I comb through these old papers.  The idea that a file system name space need not be connected, that it could be private to a particular program or set of programs, and embedding access rights (“capabilities”) into the name will give me plenty to think about.

If you would like to know more about CAP there is a paper about it in the prior Symposium on Operating Systems Principles: The Cambridge CAP Computer and its Operating System.  It is not too surprising that this is available from Microsoft Research, as they also built a capability based operating system (or two): Singularity and Midori.


A Principle for Resilient Sharing of Distributed Resources

A Principle for Resilient Sharing of Distributed Resources
Peter A. Alsberg and John D. Day, In Proceedings of the 2nd international conference on Software engineering, pp. 562-570. IEEE Computer Society Press, 1976.

Today I turn my attention to a paper that begins to explore the issues surrounding distributed systems.  This paper sets forth some basic principles that should be considered as part of distributed systems that are worth capturing and pointing out.

They state that a “resilient server” must have four attributes:

  1. It must be able to detect and recover from some finite number of errors.
  2. It must be reliable enough that a user doesn’t need to worry about the possibility of service failure.
  3. Failure just beyond the finite limit are not catastrophic.
  4. One user’s abuse should not have material impact on any other user.

These all seem somewhat reasonable, though I must admit that I found (3) a bit surprising, as it is not uncommon for some classes of failures to cause catastrophic failure.  For example, when using erasure coding it is common for some number of failures to lead to catastrophic failure.  Upon reflection, I realized that one could achieve this goal by simply setting the finite limit a bit lower, though I suspect this is not entirely what the original author had in mind.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Still, the general concept of resiliency is a good one to capture and consider.  The authors point out some of the challenges inherent in this over a network, notably latency.  “[A] major consideration when choosing a resource sharing strategy is to reduce, as much as possible, the number of message delays required to effect the sharing of resources.”

In other words, keep the messages to a minimum, try not to make them synchronous.  Asynchronous messaging systems will turn out to be rather complex, however, and sometimes there are just operations that require synchronous behavior.

Of course, there has to be a file system tie-in here (however tenuous) and there is!  Under examples they list “Network Virtual File Systems which provide directory services and data access services…”  Thus, it is clear that the authors are considering network file systems as part of their work.

In 1976 the authors indicate that the cost to send a message is on the order of 100ms, while the cost to acquire a lock on the CPU is 100 microseconds to 1 millisecond.  While things are faster now, there is still a large difference between these two paths on modern systems.  Thus, we will still be dealing with issues on the same scale.

The bulk of the paper then walks through the description of their model for providing resilient network services – an application host, sends a request to a primary server host; that server host then communicates with a secondary server host.  That secondary server host can send backup requests to a tertiary server, and so forth.  The secondary host confirms with the primary host, and ultimately it is the secondary host that confirms the operation with the application host.

They cover a variety of important concepts, such as the idea that a host may need to record state about the operations, that operations cannot be applied until the other servers have received their messages, etc.  This is, in essence, an early consensus protocol. While not efficient, the authors have laid groundwork in helping us think about how we construct such services.

I have included Figure 3 from the paper above.  It shows the message flow through the system.  The paper also discusses how to handle a number of failure situations and how messages flowing through the system keep track of which nodes are current.

It also touches on one of the most complex issues in distributed systems: network partition.  Intriguingly, the authors do not assert that one partition must remain alive as they describe the decision being related to the specific requirements of the environment.  Thus, in their model it would be possible to end up with partitions that continue forward but can no longer be easily re-joined after the network partition is resolved.  Of course, they don’t require that both sides of a partition progress, though they do not discuss ways to handle this, either.

They assert that the primary/secondary/backup model is optimal in terms of the number of messages that it sends and in how it ensures the messages are strictly ordered.  Then they briefly describe a few other possible arrangements that have multiple primaries and/or secondaries.  Their final conclusion is that their original strategy is at least as good as the alternatives though this is not demonstrated in any formal way.

Now that they have their replication system, they view how it will work for the network virtual file system.  They conclude that the highest levels of the hierarchy need to be stored on all nodes (which makes them the most expensive to maintain).  They partition the names space below that and record location information within the nodes of the name space where the storage has been split out across hosts.  Thus, we see a description of a global name space.

Their system is simple, but they identify a number of the important issues.  Their suggestion about sharding the file systems name space is one that we shall see again in the future.

They have laid the groundwork for thinking about how to build distributed file systems.

The UNIX Time-Sharing Operating System

The UNIX Time-Sharing Operating System
Dennis M. Ritchie and Ken Thompson, Bell Labs, Communications of the ACM, July 1974, Volume 17, Number 7, pp. 365-375.

This paper describes Version 3 of UNIX.  It was Version 6 that became the basis of the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) version of UNIX.  The only other operating system in CS history to date that has had so much impact on operating systems development is MULTICS, and UNIX is a direct descendant.  Developed by several Bell Labs researchers that had been involved in MULTICS, its goal was to try and build a smaller operating system that retained what they viewed as the key benefits of MULTICS.

Much of UNIX Version 3 was written in the C programming language, itself derived from BCPL, a language that had been used on the MULTICS project.

The most important job of UNIX is to provide a file system.

These words leave little doubt about the role of file systems in UNIX and the importance assigned to them.  The paper then goes on to describe files, in similar terms to MULTICS: files, directories, and special files (devices).  We see the hierarchical file system of MULTICS reflected back in the description of the system.  They talk about file names being 14 characters or less, the formation of paths, and the iterative walk of names through the file system name space to find other directories, as well as the terminal file nodes.

The directory structure is constrained to have the form of a rooted tree.

This is what I am looking for – the why of hierarchical file systems.  I found the answer here, unsurprising yet ironically disappointing:

The reason for this is to simplify the writing of programs which visit subtrees of the directory structure, and more important, to avoid the separation of portions of the hierarchy.

Not surprising, yet not precisely what I had expected.  I had expected the reason to be for the simplicity of the operating system (though they do allude to this by discussing the difficulty of knowing when it is safe to delete a directory.  They describe links to files, however, so their file system is not really a tree.  Rather, it is more like a directed acyclic graph (DAG).  Files do not have pointers back to their directories, but directories have pointers back to their parent.  Thus we have the distinction.  The namespace is a DAG.  Files don’t really live in the name space directly, they are referenced from the namespace, but have a reference count.

Oddly, with that, I found what I came for, at least in terms of insight for my own research area.  There is a certain satisfaction in being able to point to this seminal document and say “this is why we got to where we are now.”

But if I stopped at this point, I would be leaving out the bits I had not expected to find.

First, the mundane: they discuss removable file systems, the fact that this is in fact a collection of name spaces, combining persistent name spaces with one another using a non-persistent mechanism (mounting),  There is a simple description of how the file system is itself implemented.  They describe the i-number (now the inode number) as an index into the file table.  Thus, a directory entry is where the name lives, it merely refers to the file using its i-number.  These entries are then called i-nodes.  The i-node contains information about the owner of the file, the protection bits governing the file, the location information for where logical data is physically stored on the medium, the size of the file, its timestamps, it’s attribute bits, and the number of directory entries referencing the given i-node.

Surprisingly, not all that different than it is now, 45 years later.  Implementation details have changed, as we no longer limit files to 10MB in size.

They describe bufering, they describe sector sized I/O and how it is more efficient for a program to do sector-sized I/O operations.

Much of the paper has nothing to do with file systems.  I leave that to the interested reader to explore beyond that.

There are two interesting tid-bits remaining:

  • They lost data once, on a hard disk that failed.  The backup was 3 days old.
  • They considered the permuted index application as one of the “major programs available”.

The fact they considered the permuted index important at this early stage was an interesting insight to me.  Clearly, the ability to “find our stuff” is one that’s been around since the dawn of time.  Maybe this research direction of mine does make sense.


Tenex, a Paged Time Sharing System for the PDP-10
Communications of the ACM, March 1972, Volume 15, Number 3
Daniel G. Bobrow, Jerry D. Burchfiel, Daniel L. Murphy, and Raymond S. Tomlinson, Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc.

TENEX is a new time sharing system implemented on a DEC PDP-10 augmented by special paging hardware developed at BBN. This report specifies a set of goals which are important for any time sharing system. It describes how the TENEX design and implementation achieve these goals. These include specifications for a powerful multiprocess large memory virtual machine, intimate terminal interaction, comprehensive uniform file and I/O capabilities, and clean flexible system structure. Although the implementation described here required some compromise to achieve a system operational within six months of hardware checkout, TENEX has met its major goals and provided reliable service at several sites and through the ARPA network.

Storage organization and management in TENEX
Daniel L. Murphy
AFIPS ’72 (Fall, part I) Proceedings of the December 5-7, 1972, fall joint computer conference, part I
Pages 23-32, Anaheim, California — December 05 – 07, 1972

The first of these two papers discusses TENEX; much of the paper is not about file systems, but there are about a page and a half about the TENEX file system.  The second paper goes into greater detail about storage – including the file system – for TENEX.  I have picked these papers for several reasons:

  • They demonstrate the impact of the MULTICS work on the systems that follow (certainly beyond the obvious UNIX work).
  • They introduce the concept of virtual integration with the file system
  • They introduce the concept of copy-on-write
  • They show the fundamental drive to maintain backwards compatibility
  • They introduce the concept of a suffix (or extension) as a means of identifying the purpose of a file
  • They delve into the details of open file state management

A TENEX file has a compound name structure:

A powerful and versatile directory and file naming facility is provided in which a particular file is identified by a fixed-depth path which includes device, directory name, file name, extension, and version.

The fixed-depth path is a limitation the TENEX developers chose to implement for backwards compatibility with existing PDP-10 programs, an early example of how application compatibility is often a critical concern for operating systems development.  The authors do note they are considering expanding upon this to make it arbitrary depth – a feature of MULTICS.

Both papers also discuss the Job concept, the idea of a set of related processes.  The implication is that processes within a single job can share resources, thus providing more of that “balance between sharing and isolation” that operating systems have to handle.  When a file is opened successfully, a Job File Number is created in a table.  That encapsulates the information about how to find the given file and instead uses an index value – in other words, a file descriptor or file handle.  “Once the initial association of JFN and file has been established, the JFN is used for all ensuing operations on the file, including sequential reading and writing, opening, closing, etc.

TENEX then allows random access to the file by combining the JFN with an index identifying the desired element.  The authors point out that this is more flexible than previous systems in which the file was not random access.

TENEX File to Process MappingThis becomes flexible when describing the page map for a given process.  The Process Map points from an entry in the virtual address space to a corresponding JFN and index (offset).  Thus, the contents of that page can be retrieved on demand from the underlying file system.

None of this should look particularly surprising to anyone familiar with modern operating systems, of course.  This just happens to be part of the path to get to where we are today.  The papers actually go into greater detail about the details here, including access control, but that isn’t germane to my file systems focus.

Since the file path names identify files over the domain of all jobs in the system, it is evident that our naming and mapping procedures readily provide a means for sharing storage. Using the appropriate path names (including legality checks), processes in two or more different jobs can identify the same file, and each can obtain a JFN for it. Nothing in the mapping procedures specified above requires that either process be aware of the other’s access, and so each process constructs an identifier and places it in its process map (Figure 4).

In other words, the contents of regions of a file can be shared across processes.  This is, in fact, transparent to the processes.

Sharing at this level would be particularly important because of the limited address space and desire to share code – the papers discuss this, and point out the benefits of this form of sharing.

This leads to their inclusion of copy-on-write.  “One other important TENEX feature which facilitates sharing is a type of page access called copy-on-write. To our knowledge, this facility was first developed and used on the BBN-LISP system for the
XDS-9407.”  Thus, while not original to TENEX, this is a logical extension beyond what MULTICS had described.  Copy-on-write is a mainstay of both modern operating systems and some file systems.

Interestingly, TENEX seems to implement a rudimentary page cache as well:

To implement the file sequential monitor calls (e.g., byte-in, byte-out) the monitor maintains a number of “window” pages in a separate map invisible to the user process. For each file with sequential operations in progress, the monitor maps the file page which is to receive or provide the next byte. Each call from the user causes one or more bytes to be loaded from or stored into this page, and a count updated to determine if a new page should be mapped. Movement through the file is accomplished by mapping successive pages, and the sequential access module does not have to be aware of the physical device on which the page resides nor interface with I/O driver modules to read or write it. This modularity is very satisfying from an operating system design point of view.

Thus, byte level access to block level devices is managed via this window page mechanism.  The files are not strictly memory mapped, though, so this is more like a buffer cache than a page cache.

They also use the file system to implement inter-process communications – a form of file-backed shared memory.

Page management is tightly tied to this implementation as well, though the description involves what we would likely consider the memory management unit and page fault handling logic as well as the page to file/offset mapping necessary to provide the system’s demand paging.

Two other interesting aspects of their file systems model includes a pair of extra mapping layers: one for mapping from logical storage address to physical storage location, and the other mapping from multiple distinct page references to a single storage block.

The underlying rationale here is that this permits relocating the storage to different locations, typically from higher speed storage (when warm/hot) to slower speed storage (when cold).

This mechanism doesn’t involve changing the actual description of the storage and instead moves to a logical storage addressing model.  It was interesting to me to see this level of indirection added in such an early system, but clearly the mismatch in speeds between various types of storage dictated the importance of this scheme.  Once again, it is interesting to see how little the problems we face have actually changed.

The data sharing model also uses an extra level of indirection.  I’m familiar with this model from my own work in Windows, where shared memory is indirectly mapped in a similar fashion.  That this mechanism was around in the early 1970s is once again a reminder of how little operating systems have fundamentally changed.

There are many aspects of this paper that I have glossed over, in no small part because they don’t really apply to modern systems – we don’t have to worry about drum memories, for example, no more than we need to worry about punch card readers.  These two papers, however, clearly lay out a deeper realization of the file system than I have seen in prior work.

TENEX differed from MULTICS in a number of ways and the two systems remained competitors for many years.  TENEX ultimately would become TOPS-20 and in turn be supported by Digital Equipment Corporation.  It was an important part of the early (pre-VAX) ARPANET and survived for many years as a viable system.

If you would like to read more about this, I’d recommend Dan Murphy’s Origins and Development of TOPS-20 post.  It provides further fascinating background on how TENEX evolved and how systems evolved.  I leave you with the final words from that post:

Although this book is about DEC’s 36-bit architecture, it is clear now that hardware CPU architectures are of declining importance in shaping software. For a long time, instruction set architectures drove the creation of new software. A new architecture would be introduced, and new software systems would be written for it. The 36-bit architecture was large in comparison to most other systems which permitted interactive use. It was also lower in cost than most other systems of that size. These factors were important in the creation of the kind of software for which the architecture is known.

Now, new architectures are coming along with increasing frequency, but they are simply “slid in” under the software. The software systems are far too large to be rewritten each time, and a system which cannot adapt to new architectures will eventually suffer declining interest and loss of competitive hardware platforms. TOPS-20 didn’t pass that test, although it did contribute a number of ideas to the technology of interactive systems. How far these ideas ultimately spread is a story yet to be told.

There is considerable insight in this for me, particularly the admonishment “software systems are far too large to be rewritten each time” as it resonates with (one of) my own research directions.




A General-Purpose File System For Secondary Storage
R. C. Daley and P.G. Neumann
Published in the Proceedings of the American Federation of Information Processing Societies 1965, Fall Joint Computer Conference, vol. 27, pp. 213-229.

This is the seminal paper discussing how file systems were envisioned within the MULTICS operating system. While you can still run MULTICS, it is a curiosity at this point.  However, virtually all operating systems we now use today descended from MULTICS and thus, its design profoundly influenced their development.

This paper is a delightfully easy read, written at the dawn of this new field of multi-programming. Prior to this time computers were essentially single user.  The introduction of the idea of sharing a computer with other users was nascent.  Thus, the experts working in the field at the time had to begin thinking about things like organization, security, and sharing.

Indeed, a common tension in operating systems literature in general is between isolation and sharing.  Isolation is great from a security perspective, but is inefficient.  Each user of the system often uses the same programs, for example, but we do not want to keep a distinct copy of the same thing for each user as that would be wasteful.   This profoundly impacts the file systems work because the file system is the point of persistence, the level at which shared resources become manifest.

But I’m jumping ahead at this point.  Let’s start with the simple question: What is a file system?  As we will find during this journey, its meaning and usage is far richer than one might think upon first reading.  While this paper is not the first paper to discuss storage and file systems, it is a good example of the state of the art in 1965.

This paper offers us some useful definitions:

file is simply an ordered sequence of elements, where an element could be a machine word, a character, or a bit, depending upon the implementation.

That seems to be a rather broad definition, but it is a reasonable place for us to start.  This does not impose structure on the content itself, which proves to be one reason why this abstraction ultimately turns out to be a powerful one.  “At the level of the file system, a file is formatless.

This paper also establishes the name space abstractions as well:

As far as a particular user is concerned, a file has one name, and that name is symbolic.  (Symbolic names may be arbitrarily long, and may have syntax of their own.  For example, they may consist of several parts, some of which are relevant to the nature of the file, e.g., ALPHA FAP DEBUG.)

This again paints a rather broad abstraction.  The name has meaning to the user, but otherwise is just symbolic data for the file system.  The paper goes on to define the now classic name space specific abstraction:

directory is a special file which is maintained by the file system, and which contains a list of entries.  To a user, an entry appears to be a file and is accessed in terms of its symbolic entry name, which is the user’s file name.  An entry name need be unique only within the directory in which it occurs.


Thus, this paper lays out the quintessential aspect of modern file system name spaces: they are hierarchically organized.  The paper describes this in greater detail and refers to links and branches.

The authors describe how users might work in different parts of the hierarchical name space.  They observe that this then creates a situation in which sharing of files might be an issue, and thus they introduce the concept of links to resolve this.

link in this context is an entry in a directory that refers to an existing file within the file system.  Thus, we see the genesis of links, though the paper does not clearly delineate symbolic links from hard links.  This does help motivate why these features show up in UNIX a number of years later, however.

The paper goes into greater detail about how they envision this hierarchical name space functioning, including traversal, working directory, and links.

From there the authors then turn their attention to a problem inherent in having a single shared file system name space with data contents belonging to different users, namely managing access to the individual files.  Thus, they introduce access controls.  They note that a file system could default to either permissive or restrictive access within this model.  From this point they incorporate the access control list, the access mode for a given file, and the concept of access attributes.  Of the five attributes listed, four of them are familiar: read, execute, write, and append access have analogs in modern file systems.  The fifth, trap is interesting, in that it defines an explicit exception mechanism for access control that requires external validation for access – an interesting generality that is not typically present in modern file systems.

They also describe file sharing, introducing the concept of explicit operations to lock access to a given file, or to unlock the file.  They suggest that a locked file would require the user provide a designated key to permit accessing the file; I have seen this approach in some file systems, actually, though it is fairly uncommon.

The paper describes access control at length with no real surprises otherwise, other than perhaps the fact that many of these features disappeared from later operating systems, only to be resurrected and added many years later.

There is quite a bit in the paper about backup and restore processing.  Much of the detail here is interesting historically but does not really add much to my exploration of file systems.  If you are looking for more information about the history of backup, I do encourage you to read those sections.  Having done magnetic tape backups in the past, I’m content with leaving them be.

There is one observation I will point out from this section, however.  The authors actually discuss a recurring theme in file systems – the fact that storage itself ends up being a multi-level media management challenge.

In most cases a user does not need to know how or where a file is stored by the file system.  A user’s primary concern is that the file be readily available to him when he needs it.  In general, only the file system knows on which device a file resides.

The file system is designed to accommodate any configuration of secondary storage devices.  These devices may cover a wide range of speeds and capacities.  All considerations of speed and efficiency of storage devices are left to the file system.  Thus all user programs and all other system programs are independent of the particular configuration of secondary storage.

They go on to describe migration of data from hot to cold storage as needed and point out these are functions of the file system.  I found this an interesting insight since even today we routinely deal with these sorts of situations, such as the Strata paper from SOSP 2017 (“Strata: a Cross Media File System“).

The remainder of the paper focuses on how the file system is implemented in MULTICS

I must admit, I found this section of the paper both detailed and yet fascinating because of the broad sweeping nature in which the authors lay down fundamental ideas that we see in modern operating systems.  Some of it is not really in the scope of file systems (“segment management” which appears to equate to shared executables, such as programs and shared libraries in modern systems,) the concept of demand segment loading (which presages demand paging,) the concept of file system search, mechanisms for managing file systems, memory recycling (reminiscent of page reclamation in modern virtual memory systems based upon its description,) device management, and I/O queueing.  They finish up by describing their “multilevel storage management module”, backup system, and utility functions.  The latter has (now) amusing functions like “file to cards” and “tape to file”.

So these give us asynchronous operation, paging, backup, hierarchical storage management, security, file sharing, and directory sharing.  Most of these concepts survive to this day.  Indeed, what I found most surprising after reading this paper is how few of these ideas disappeared: traps and file system search are the two that spring to my mind.

Thus the lesson of today’s paper: in 1965 the MULTICS team more or less laid down a model for how file systems were to work in virtually all modern operating systems.   The subsequent work will provide us with greater insight into the details, but the basic shape of our file systems has not strayed far from this early vision.


On the history of File Systems

I have made it a goal for 2018 to answer a question several people have asked me: what papers should I read to learn more about file systems. So I’ve decided to attempt to copy a format that I’ve found useful – The Morning Paper. I admit, I am not sure I’ll be able to keep up the frenetic pace of a paper each day that he maintains, but I do know there are plenty of papers to read.

My motivation for doing this is simple: there are quite a few papers on this topic, I certainly haven’t read them all (or even the majority of them) and reading through them, along with my own interpretation of why the paper matters to File Systems will be useful for me.  It also gives me a set of information that I can point out to people that ask me “so what should I read to learn more about this topic.”

Why File Systems?  For me it’s been largely a quirk of fate.  I’ve been working on operating systems for many years now, and file systems happens to be the area in which I’ve spent more time than any other.  For something that is conceptually so simple – after all, it just maps files to blocks on your disk, it has considerable complexity.  File systems are also the gateway to one of the more challenging parts of the operating system: the bit that stores persistent state.  Errors in file systems are often not transient.  That makes them challenging.  The bar is set high because we don’t want to lose anyone’s data.

File systems are part of the plumbing of the operating system.  They are essential to proper operation but when everything is working properly, nobody really notices they are there.  Only when things go wrong does anyone notice.  So it is within this world that I will delve.

The place to start is to even attempt to define file systems.  While you might think this is simple, it turns out to be surprisingly challenging.  So I’ll approach it by providing some examples and then delving into what means to be a file system.

Media File Systems

The easiest place to start is in the concept of the media file system.  “Media” in this context means any tangible medium on which we can systematically record and/or read persistent information.  Examples would include disks, tapes, non-volatile memory, or optical media. Whether or not RAM file systems fall into this category is an interesting question – and it helps demonstrate my point that pinning down this concept is more challenging than one might otherwise think.

Disk drives are typically what most people think of first for this category, though we now often view solid-state disk drives in the same category.  File systems reside on top of media devices and keep track of the organization of the data itself.  Some file systems can span multiple disk, or use transactional journals, or provide resilience against errors in the media itself.  The continuum here is surprisingly broad, but in the end the purpose of the file system is to map from the vagaries of the media to a (mostly) uniform model of behavior so application programs “just work”.

Network File Systems

As we added computers to networks, we found it useful to be able to transfer information stored on one computer to another.  This permitted applications to access data, regardless of where it was actually stored.  By constructing a file system that uses a remote access protocol, we can present the remote storage device to the local system as if it were just a local file system – or rather, almost the same.

Good examples of this include the Network File System (NFS) originally developed by SUN Microsystems in the 1980s and the Andrew File System (AFS) originally developed by Carnegie-Mellon University in the same time period.  These days many people also use the Server Message Block (SMB) based network file systems; the roots of this are also back in the 1980s.  All three of these remain in use today, in fact, though they have evolved from the earliest versions.

Key-Value Stores

There is considerable overlap between the world of file systems and databases.  Several early file systems were really just single level lookup mechanisms, rather than the hierarchical name space that is so common these days.  It is actually common to implement file systems so that hierarchy is added to a flat indexed name space (a “flat” file system).  These are in essence one form of key-value store.  Some file systems permit addressing by using keys, whether explicitly assigned or implicitly generated.  A subsection of the literature focus more on this type of file system and I will make sure to cover several of these.

Name Spaces

Sometimes a file system is more about the namespace than anything else.  For example the proc file system does not actually reside on top of any sort of storage.  The name space provides a convenient way to find information that is generated on demand.  In these cases, it is the name space that really matters, not how the information is stored.

This conflation of storage, presentation, and name-space add to the richness and complexity of work being done in file systems.  My goal is to explore these issues, by reviewing the literature.