28 June 2015

I recently finished Practical File System Design by Dominic Giampaolo - a great read on filesystem implementation. Some aspects of the book are dated (initially published in 1999), but it does (lightly) discuss multithreading issues, which are absent from much of the classic UNIX literature. The three topic covered I felt were especially notable are journaling, indexing, and the comparison with other filesystems.


This book was written in 1999, and as a result there are a number of statements and context that seem quaint today. Testing was done on systems with 32 MB RAM and 3.2 GB hard drives (HDs), and dual-processor CPUs at or under 200 MHz. In fact - all IO that happened in 64Kb chunks or larger bypassed the kernel’s cache altogether. The capacity of RAM and HDs common today has increased by two to three orders of magnitude. Similarly - SSDs change the nature of storage, eliminating multi-millisecond seeks. Throughput is still faster for sequential operations than it is for random IO, but there is limited performance to be gained by complicated disk IO schedulers attempting to minimize seek time. Additionally, disk performance has increased faster than single-CPU performance, with this closing gap potentially leaving less room for expensive algorithms to run while waiting for disk seeks.


Filesystem journaling is a way to improve the reliability of filesystems while decreasing the amount of time required to recover from a power loss or other dirty-unmount event. Journaling originates from ACID relational DBs, as a way of ensuring consistency. Because of this lineage, before this book I assumed that journaling covered both file-system data structures (like inodes and directories) as well as data, but this isn’t necessarily the case. The goal of journaling in BeFS is to ensure the consistency of the FS’s on-disk data structures - data writes are not journaled. The first journaling filesystem for Linux was Reiser3, which initially only supported journaling metadata (data journaling was added years later in 2.6.8). Modern ext4 filesystems support journaling data writes, but it is disabled by default for performance reasons. This is important - while journaling protects the integrity of on-disk kernel data structures, it is still possible for an application’s file to lose data in a catastrophic event (like a power failure). Applications must still take care that their files are sane even when backed by a journaled filesystem.


A unique feature of BeFS is support for queries on indexed extended attributes (xattrs). Extended attributes are a per-file collection of key/value pairs. A major difference between Linux and BeFS xattrs is that BeFS xattrs are typed. In addition to strings, xattrs can directly represent floats, doubles and ints. For example - the BeOS’s mail program stores the content of each email individually as unique files in the filesystem. Email headers (like from/to/subject/reply-to) are stored as xattrs on the content file. An email from Rob Pike in 1999 would have an xattr key MAIL:from with the string value pike@research.att.com. Extended attribute indexes are FS-global per-attribute B+trees, along with a query interface and in-kernel parser. A significant disadvantage seems to be that (at least as of the time of writing) indexes are only updated for attributes created or modified after the time of index creation. The first time the email program is opened, it creates the indexes on ensures the indexes are created - with a fresh BeOS install this isn’t practically a problem, but if the index is mistakenly deleted, there isn’t a generic way to re-index your email. I’m happy to assume this was solved/worked around in the last 15 years.

Additionally, the logarithmic-time search of the B+tree is only useful for a subset of queries. Many (most?) of the interesting BeFS queries expressed in the book included wildcards or other regex-like features that forced a full walk of the B+tree’s leaves. To be fair, the data locality of this walk is certainly faster than visiting every inode on the FS.

Another disadvantage is that indexes are global to the filesystem. This makes sense as BeOS was designed for single-user workstations, but it is interesting to think about how this could be adapted for modern use on Linux or BSD servers. However, with the rise of SQLite, applications that desire indexing can statically build in a DB by adding 2 files to their source directory, sidestepping portability issues arising from depending on a particular filesystem.

Finally - the same B+trees are used for directory listings (just without allowing duplicate names.

Other filesystems

The exposition of other filesystems and performance comparisons were interesting. Ext2 is portrayed as a fast but reckless filesystem, with XFS as an advanced but slow filesystem. Since the time of publication ext2 has mutated into ext4, grown many of the features of XFS (such as journaling, b-tree-like directory indexes, and extents), and the two filesystems now perform similarly in benchmarks.

Random niceties

I particularly liked that in BeFS inode numbers are directly translatable into disk blocks. Starting with FFS, many traditional Unix filesystems allocate chunks of inodes at a time in fixed positions on disk. BeFS’s break from this enables them to store inodes referenced in a directory directly after the blocks used to store that directory’s B+tree index, enabling the directory index + contents to often be accessed as a single sequential IO operation with read-ahead.

In order to support returning absolute paths of files from the results of index queries, each inode stores an identifier that points to the directory it resides in. This enables easy absolute path creation, but means that BeFS doesn’t support hardlinks, the ability for directory entries in 2 distinct directories to point directly to a single inode. An alternative would be for the indexes to store paths to the files (effectively symlinks), however this would have a whole range of negative consequences. Every time a file was moved or renamed, every index would have to be updated, with a performance decrease linear to the number of indexes defined. It would additionally mean that the B+tree implementation couldn’t share as much code between directories and indexes, or that a ton of spare symlink inodes would have to be created. In short, it would probably be a disaster. I suppose its comforting in a way that I can’t see a clearly better solution from my armchair.


A very readable tome. I feel I now have a much better grasp on the high-level concepts of journaling, along with how B+trees are used to implement directories.

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28 June 2015