What Is a File System?

March 6, 2024

A file system (sometimes also written filesystem) is a method of structuring data that an operating system uses to control how data is stored and retrieved. It organizes files and directories to ensure adequate allocation of space on the device.

A file system organizes data in a hierarchical structure and enables the creation, movement, modification, and deletion of files and directories. File systems are essential for optimizing performance, ensuring data integrity, and facilitating data management and backups.

How Do File Systems Work?

A file system manages the storage and retrieval of data on a storage device, such as a hard drive, SSD, or network storage. Here is how a file system works:

  1. Storage allocation. The file system divides the storage space available on a device into the smallest manageable units, called blocks or sectors.
  2. File storage. When a file is saved, the file system allocates these units to store the file’s data. Larger files are divided into smaller segments, which are spread across several non-contiguous units.
  3. Metadata management. The file system maintains metadata about each file and directory, including its name, size, creation and modification dates, permissions, etc.
  4. Directory structure. The file system organizes the files in a hierarchical directory structure, allowing users and applications to easily navigate and locate the files.
  5. Access control. File systems manage access and permissions for files and directories to control which users can read, write, and execute the files.
  6. File operations. The file system provides mechanisms for performing operations on files and directories. These operations entail updating the metadata as necessary.
  7. Consistency and integrity. Advanced file systems implement measures to ensure data consistency and integrity and error detection and correction in the event of system failure.
  8. Optimization. File systems use various mechanisms to improve performance. For example, they may perform caching to speed up access to frequently used data or organize data in a way that minimizes disk seek times.

Each file system type uniquely implements these principles, ensuring that performance and reliability requirements match various storage and hardware configurations.

File System Types

File systems are designed with specific storage needs and computing environments in mind. Here is a list of different types of file systems:

Disk File Systems

Disk file systems are designed for use on physical disk drives, such as hard disk drives (HDDs) or solid-state drives (SSDs). They manage the allocation of disk space, maintain file metadata, and ensure data integrity and security. Disk file systems are essential for the performance and reliability of computer systems since they directly influence data access speed, storage capacity utilization, and recovery mechanisms in case of errors or system failures.

Disk file systems meet various storage requirements, including the need for large file sizes, high storage capacities, and robust data recovery features. These file systems include features to manage disk space efficiently, such as support for large block sizes, which reduces overhead, and compression, which makes better use of available space.

Some examples of disk file systems are:

  • NTFS (New Technology File System) for Windows.
  • Ext4 (fourth extended file system) for Linux.
  • HFS+ (Hierarchical File System Plus) for macOS.
  • exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table) for cross-platform compatibility.

Flash File Systems

Flash file systems are designed for flash memory storage devices, such as solid-state drives (SSDs), USB flash drives, and memory cards. They are tailored to complement the specific features and limitations of flash memory, such as the absence of moving parts, faster access times, and a finite number of write cycles before the memory cells wear out.

Flash file systems are designed to maintain performance and efficiency during read/write operations by minimizing write amplification, i.e., the unnecessary writing and erasing of flash cells. These file systems also frequently incorporate built-in error correction codes (ECC), which detect and correct data corruption.

Examples of flash file systems include:

  • F2FS (Flash-Friendly File System)
  • JFFS (Journaling Flash File System)

Tape File Systems

Tape file systems are designed to manage data in magnetic tape storage. This technology is primarily used for backup, archiving, and data recovery purposes due to its cost-effectiveness. Tape file systems are optimized for large, sequential data transfers and incorporate robust error correction mechanisms to ensure data integrity over time.

Modern tape file systems, such as the Linear Tape File System (LTFS), allow users to interact with tape storage in a manner similar to other removable media, such as USB drives, by enabling the dragging and dropping of files. This feature significantly improves the usability of tape storage, making it suitable for a broad range of applications and users.

Database File Systems

Database file systems store files and their metadata in databases, allowing for more complex relationships between data and richer metadata attributes. This approach enables advanced querying capabilities, provides transactional support, and enhances data integrity and security. Database file systems incorporate efficient indexing, concurrency control, and recovery mechanisms, which are crucial for managing large volumes of files.

Database file systems allow complex searches and operations on files based on their metadata or content. This capability improves the efficiency of data retrieval and manipulation, especially in highly dynamic environments. These file systems also provide data integrity and consistency by ensuring that changes to files and metadata adhere to the ACID properties:

  • Atomicity. Each transaction is treated as a single unit, which either is either completed entirely or not at all.
  • Consistency. Every transaction brings the system from one valid state to another, maintaining the predefined rules of the database.
  • Isolation. Ensures that transactions occur independently, preventing concurrent transactions from interfering with one another.
  • Durability. Ensures that once a transaction is committed, it remains so, even in the event of a system failure.

Transactional File Systems

Transactional file systems ensure data integrity and consistency by applying principles similar to those found in transactional databases. They group a series of file operations into a single transaction. Operations succeed or fail as a whole, bringing the system from one consistent state to another. This atomicity prevents partial updates and ensures the file system remains consistent even in case of outages or system failures. These features make transactional file systems especially valuable for critical applications, such as financial or real-time data processing systems.

Transactional file systems use journaling, write-ahead logging, and snapshotting to track changes and allow rollback or redo if the transaction is not completed successfully. By automating consistency management via these mechanisms, transactional file systems reduce the complexity of developing applications. Developers can focus on their tasks without worrying about partially completed operations or data corruption. Transactional file systems also improve system recovery and help organizations quickly revert to normal operations without manual intervention or extensive checks.

Network File Systems

Network file systems allow multiple users and systems to share files over a computer network rather than local storage. By abstracting the complexities of the network, these systems provide a seamless interface for reading, writing, and executing files. These types of file systems are essential in collaborative environments as they facilitate efficient resource sharing and management across diverse systems and platforms.

Common protocols for network file systems include:

  • Network File System (NFS) for Unix and Linux.
  • Server Message Block (SMB) for Windows.
  • Apple Filling Protocol (AFP) for macOS.

Network file systems rely on robust security measures, such as authentication and encryption. These protocols protect sensitive data during transmission and ensure that only authorized individuals can access them. To improve network latency and bandwidth, network file systems apply techniques such as caching and file compression, which improve responsiveness and reduces data transfer times. In addition, mechanisms such as file locking and version control help prevent data corruption due to multiple users accessing and changing files.

Shared Disk File Systems

Shared disk file systems, also known as cluster file systems, provide simultaneous access to a portion of disk storage from multiple servers or nodes. They enable a high level of data sharing and collaboration among clustered systems, which is suitable for environments that require high availability, scalability, and performance, such as database clusters and enterprise storage systems.

Shared disk file systems rely on a networked storage infrastructure, such as SAN (Storage Area Network). SANs provide a high-speed network that connects multiple servers, effectively enabling workload distribution and enhancing system redundancy. Features such as journaling, snapshotting, and replication support data integrity, backup, and recovery, making shard disk file systems a robust solution for managing critical data in complex computing environments.

Minimal File Systems

Minimal file systems are designed to occupy a minimal amount of storage space and require minimal processing resources. This design approach makes them suitable for embedded systems, bootloaders, and low-power IoT (Internet of Things) devices, which have well-defined operational requirements and limited computing capabilities.

Minimal file systems typically offer a basic structure for storing files without advanced features, such as NTFS, ext4, or HFS+. Instead, their primary focus is to provide sufficient functionality to manage files efficiently within the constraints of the device’s resources.

Flat File Systems

Flat file systems are a simplistic approach to file storage that does not use directories or folders for storing files. Instead, all files are stored on the same level or in a single directory, simplifying file management and access. Flat file systems are well-suited for systems with limited storage or applications that cannot afford the overhead of a hierarchical structure.

However, without directories, flat file systems cannot efficiently manage a large or growing number of files. For this reason, they are best suited for specialized or embedded systems with a narrow scope.

File System Examples

Here are the most common file system examples:

  • File Allocation Table (FAT). FAT is compatible with many operating systems, such as DOS, Windows, Mac OS, and Unix-based systems. It is most commonly used for removable media like USB flash drives or SD cards. The FAT32 variant is limited to the maximum file size of 4GB and volume of 2TB.
  • Extended File Allocation Table (exFAT). This is an updated version of the FAT system that expands its size up to 16EB and volume up to 128PB.
  • Fourth Extended File System (Ext4). This file system is used by Linux and supports larger files and volumes (up to 1EB for files and 16TB to 1EB for volumes).
  • Global File System (GFS). GFS is a shared-disk file system for Linux computer clusters. It allows concurrent access to the same shared block storage to all nodes.
  • Hierarchical File System (HFS). HFS is a file system developed by Apple for use on Macintosh computers. It has been superseded by HFS+, which offers better performance and supports larger files and volumes.
  • Universal Disk Format (UDF). UDF is a file system standard for optical media, such as CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray Discs. It supports larger files and volumes than its predecessor, ISO9660.
  • New Technology File System (NTFS). NTFS is a file system developed by Microsoft for the Windows operating system. Starting with Windows NT, NTFS offers support for large files and volumes, advanced data protection and recovery capabilities, and file-level security.
  • Apple File System (APFS). APFS is a file system developed by Apple as a replacement for HFS+. It improves efficiency, reliability, and security for flash/SSD storage. It also features strong encryption, space sharing, and fast directory resizing.

Anastazija is an experienced content writer with knowledge and passion for cloud computing, information technology, and online security. At phoenixNAP, she focuses on answering burning questions about ensuring data robustness and security for all participants in the digital landscape.