Operating Systems

Start Lecture #12

4.2 Directories

Directories form the primary unit of organization for the filesystem.

4.2.1-4.2.3 Single-Level (Two-Level) and Hierarchical Directory Systems

dir sys levels

One often refers to the level structure of a directory system. It is easy to be fooled by the names given. A single level directory structure results in a file system tree with two levels: the single root directory and (all) the files in this directory. That is, there is one level of directories and another level of files so the full file system tree has two levels.


These possibilities are not as wildly different as they sound or as the pictures suggests.

4.2.4 Path Names

You can specify the location of a file in the file hierarchy by using either an absolute or a relative path to the file.

Homework: Give 8 different path names for the file /etc/passwd.

Homework: 7.

4.2.5 Directory Operations

  1. Create. Produces an empty directory. Normally the directory created actually contains . and .., so is not really empty

  2. Delete. The delete system call requires the directory to be empty (i.e., to contain just . and ..). Delete commands intended for users have options that cause the command to first empty the directory (except for . and ..) and then delete it. These user commands make use of both file and directory delete system calls.

  3. Opendir. As with the file open system call, opendir creates a handle for the directory that speeds future access by eliminating the need to process the name of the directory.

  4. Closedir. As with the file close system call, closedir is an optimization that enables the system to free resources prior to process termination.

  5. Readdir. In the old days (of unix) one could read directories as files so there was no special readdir (or opendir/closedir) system call. It was then believed that the uniform treatment would make programming (or at least system understanding) easier as there was less to learn.

    However, experience has taught that this was a poor idea since the structure of directories was exposed to users. Early unix had a simple directory structure and there was only one type of structure for all implementations. Modern systems have more sophisticated structures and more importantly they are not fixed across implementations. So if programs used read() to read directories, the programs would have to be changed whenever the structure of a directory changed. Now we have a readdir() system call that knows the structure of directories. Therefore if the structure is changed only readdir() need be changed.

    This is an example of the software principle of information hiding.

  6. Rename. Similar to the file rename system call. Again note that rename is atomic; whereas, creating a new directory, moving the contents, and then removing the old one is not.

  7. Link. Add another name for a file; discussed below.

  8. Unlink. Remove a directory entry. This is how a file is deleted. However, if there are many links and just one is unlinked, the file remains. Unlink is discussed in more detail below.

  9. There is no Writedir operation. Directories are written as a side effect of other operations.

4.3 File System Implementation

Now that we understand how the file system looks to a user, we turn our attention to how it is implemented.

4.3.1 File System Layout

We look at how the file systems are laid out on disk in modern PCs. Much of this is required by the bios so all PC operating systems have the same lowest level layout. I do not know the corresponding layout for mainframe systems or supercomputers.

A system often has more than one physical disk (3e forgot this). The first disk is the boot disk. How do we determine which is the first disk?

  1. Easiest case: only one disk.
  2. Only one disk controller. The disk with the lowest number is the boot disk. The numbering is system dependent, for SCSI (small computer system interconnect, now used on big computers as well) you set switches on the drive itself (normally jumpers).
  3. Multiple disk controllers. The controllers are ordered in a system dependent way.

The BIOS reads the first sector (smallest addressable unit of a disk) of the boot disk into memory and transfers control to it. A sector contains 512 bytes. The contents of this particular sector is called the MBR (master boot record).

The MBR contains two key components: the partition table and the first-level loader.

Contents of a Partition

The contents vary from one file system to another but there is some commonality.

4.3.2 Implementing Files

A fundamental property of disks is that they cannot read or write single bytes. The smallest unit that can be read or written is called a sector and is normally 512 bytes (plus error correction/detection bytes). This is a property of the hardware, not the operating system.

The operating system reads or writes disk blocks. The size of a block is a multiple (normally a power of 2) of the size of a sector. Since sectors are usually (always?) 512 bytes, the block size can be 512, 1024=1K, 2K, 4K, 8K, 16K, etc. The most common block sizes today are 4K and 8K.

So files will be composed of blocks.

When we studied memory management, we had to worry about fragmentation, processes growing and shrinking, compaction, etc.. Many of these same considerations apply to files; the difference is that instead of a memory region being composed of bytes, a file is composed of blocks.

Contiguous Allocation

Recall the simplest form of memory management beyond uniprogramming was OS/MFT where memory was divided into a very few regions and each process was given one of these regions. The analogue for disks would be to give each file an entire partition. This is too inflexible and is not used for files.

The next simplest memory management scheme was the one used in OS/MVT, where the memory for a process was contiguous.

Homework: 10. There is a typo: the first sentence should end at the first comma. Contiguous allocation of files leads to disk fragmentation.

Linked Allocation

A file is an ordered sequence of blocks. We just considered storing the blocks one right after the other (contiguous) the same way that one can store an in-memory list as an array. The other common method for in-memory lists is to link the elements together via pointers. This can also be done for files as follows.


As a result this implementation of linked allocation is not used.

Consider the following two code segments that store the same data but in a different order. The first is analogous to the horrible linked list file organization above and the second is analogous to the ms-dos FAT file system we study next.

    struct node_type {
       float data;                  float node_data[100];
       int   next;                  int   node_next[100];
    } node[100]

With the second arrangement the data can be stored far away from the next pointers. In FAT this idea is taken to an extreme: The data, which is large (a disk block), is stored on disk; whereas, the next pointers, which are small (each is an integer) are stored in memory in a File Allocation Table or FAT. (When the system is shut down the FAT is copied to disk and when the system is booted, the FAT is copied to memory.)

The FAT (File Allocation Table) File System

The FAT file system stores each file as a linked list of disk blocks. The blocks, which contain file data only (not the linked list structure) are stored on disk. The pointers implementing the linked list are stored in memory.

The Unix Inode-based Filesystem

Continuing the idea of adapting storage schemes from other regimes to file storage, why don't we mimic the idea of (non-demand) paging and have a table giving, for each block of the file, where on the disk that file block is stored? In other words a ``file block table'' mapping each file block to its corresponding disk block. This is the idea of (the first part of) the unix i-node solution, which we study next.

Although Linux and other Unix and Unix-like operating systems have a variety of file systems, the most widely used Unix file systems are i-node based as was the original Unix file system from Bell Labs.

There is some question of what the i stands for. The consensus seems to be index. Now, however, people often write inode (not i-node) and don't view the i as standing for anything. Inode based systems have the following properties.

  1. Each file and directory has an associated inode, which enables the system to find the blocks of the file or directory.

  2. The inode associated with the root (called the root inode) is at a known location on the disk. In particular, the root inode can be found by the system.

  3. The directory entry for a file contains a pointer to the file's i-node.

  4. The directory entry for a subdirectory contains a pointer to the subdirectory's i-node.

  5. The metadata for a file or directory is stored in the corresponding inode.

  6. The inode itself points to the first few data blocks, often called direct blocks. (As of June 2006, the main Linux file system organization used twelve direct blocks.) In the diagram on the right, the inode contains pointers to six direct blocks and all data blocks are colored blue.

  7. The inode also points to an indirect block, which then points to a number of disk blocks. The number is K=(blocksize)/(pointersize). In the diagram, the indirect blocks (also called single indirect blocks) are colored green.

  8. The inode also points to a double indirect block, which points to a K single indirect blocks. each of which points to N data blocks. In the diagram, double indirect blocks are colored magenta.

  9. For some implementations there is a triple indirect block as well. A triple indirect block points to K double indirect blocks, which point ... . In the diagram, the triple indirect block is colored yellow.

  10. The i-node is in memory for open files. So references to direct blocks require just one I/O.

  11. For big files most references require two I/Os (indirect + data).

  12. For huge files most references require three I/Os (double indirect, indirect, and data).

  13. For humongous files most references require four I/Os.

  14. Actually, fewer I/Os are normally required due to caching.

Retrieving a Block in an Inode-Based File System

Given a block number (byte number / block size), how do you find the block?

Specifically assume

  1. The file system does not have a triple indirect block.
  2. We desire block number N, where N=0 is the first block.
  3. There are D direct pointers in the inode. These pointers are numbered 0..(D-1).
  4. There are K pointers in each indirect block. These pointers are numbered 0..(K-1).
    If N < D           // This is a direct block in the i-node
       use direct pointer N in the i-node
    else if N < D + K  // The single indirect block has a pointer to this block
       use pointer D in the inode to get the indirect block
       the use pointer N-D in the indirect block to get block N
    else   // This is one of the K*K blocks obtained via the double indirect block
       use pointer D+1 in the inode to get the double indirect block
       let P = (N-(D+K)) DIV K      // Which single indirect block to use
       use pointer P to get the indirect block B
       let Q = (N-(D+K)) MOD K      // Which pointer in B to use
       use pointer Q in B to get block N

For example, let D=12, assume all blocks are 1000B, assume all pointers are 4B. Retrieve the block containing byte 1,000,000.

With a triple indirect block, the ideas are the same, but there is more work.

Homework: Consider an inode-based system with the same parameters as just above, D=12, K=250, etc.

  1. What is the largest file that can be stored.
  2. How much space is used to store this largest possible file (assume the attributes require 64B)?
  3. What percentage of the space used actually holds file data?
  4. Repeat all the above, now assuming the file system supports a triple indirect block.
End of Problem

4.3.3 Implementing Directories

Recall that the primary function of a directory is to map the file name (in ASCII, Unicode, or some other text-based encoding) to whatever is needed to retrieve the data of the file itself.

There are several ways to do this depending on how files are stored.

Another important function is to enable the retrieval of the various attributes (e.g., length, owner, size, permissions, etc.) associated with a given file.

Homework: 25

Long File Names

It is convenient to view the directory as an array of entries, one per file. This view tacitly assumes that all entries are the same size and, in early operating systems, they were. Most of the contents of a directory are inherently of a fixed size. The primary exception is the file name.

Early systems placed a severe limit on the maximum length of a file name and allocated this much space for all names. DOS used an 8+3 naming scheme (8 characters before the dot and 3 after). Unix version 7 limited names to 14 characters.

Later systems raised the limit considerably (255, 1023, etc) and thus allocating the maximum amount for each entry was inefficient and other schemes were used. Since we are storing variable size quantities, a number of the consideration that we saw for non-paged memory management arise here as well.

Searching Directories for a File

The simple scheme is to search the list of directory entries linearly, when looking for an entry with a specific file name. This scheme becomes inefficient for very large directories containing hundreds or thousands of files. In this situation a more sophisticated technique (such as hashing or B-trees) is used.

We often think of the files and directories in a file system as forming a tree (or forest). However in most modern systems this is not necessarily the case, the same file can appear in two different directories (not two copies of the file, but the same file). It can also appear multiple times in the same directory, having different names each time.

I like to say that the same file has two different names. One can also think of the file as being shared by the two directories (but those words don't work so well for a file with two names in the same directory).

Hard Links

With unix hard links there are multiple names for the same file and each name has equal status. The directory entries for both names point to the same inode.

For example, the diagram on the right illustrates the result that occurs when, starting with an empty file system (i.e., just the root directory) one executes

    cd /
    mkdir /A; mkdir /B
    touch /A/X; touch /B/Y

The diagrams in this section use the following conventions

Now we execute

    ln /B/Y /A/New
which leads to the next diagram on the right.

At this point there are two equally valid name for the right hand yellow file, /B/Y and /A/New. The fact that /B/Y was created first is NOT detectable.

Assume Bob created /B and /B/Y and Alice created /A, /A/X, and /A/New. Later Bob tires of /B/Y and removes it by executing

    rm /B/Y

The file /A/New is still fine (see third diagram on the right). But it is owned by Bob, who can't find it! If the system enforces quotas Bob will likely be charged (as the owner), but he can neither find nor delete the file (since Bob cannot unlink, i.e. remove, files from /A).

If, prior to removing /B/Y, Bob had examined its link count (an attribute of the file), he would have noticed that there is another (hard) link to the file, but would not have been able to determine in which directory (/A in this case) the hard link was located or what is the name of the file in that directory (New in this case).

Since hard links are only permitted to files (not directories) the resulting file system is a dag (directed acyclic graph). That is, there are no directed cycles. We will now proceed to give away this useful property by studying symlinks, which can point to directories.

As just noted, hard links do NOT create a new file, just another name for an existing file. Once the hard link is created the two names have equal status.

Symlinks, on the other hand DO create another file, a non-regular file, that itself serves as another name for the original file. Specifically

Again start with an empty file system and this time execute the following code sequence (the only difference from the above is the addition of a -s).

    cd /
    mkdir /A; mkdir /B
    touch /A/X; touch /B/Y
    ln -s /B/Y /A/New

We now have an additional file /A/New, which is a symlink to /B/Y.

The bottom line is that, with a hard link, a new name is created for the file. This new name has equal status with the original name. This can cause some surprises (e.g., you create a link but I own the file). With a symbolic link a new file is created (owned by the creator naturally) that contains the name of the original file. We often say the new file points to the original file.

Question: Consider the hard link setup above. If Bob removes /B/Y and then creates another /B/Y, what happens to /A/New?
Answer: Nothing. /A/New is still a file owned by Bob having the same contents, creation time, etc. as the original /B/Y.

Question: What about with a symlink?
Answer: /A/New becomes invalid and then valid again, this time pointing to the new /B/Y. (It can't point to the old /B/Y as that is completely gone.)

Shortcuts in windows contain more than symlinks contain in unix. In addition to the file name of the original file, they can contain arguments to pass to the file if it is executable. So a shortcut to

can specify
    firefox.exe //cs.nyu.edu/~gottlieb/courses/os/class-notes.html

Moreover, as was pointed out by students in my 2006-07 fall class, the shortcuts are not a feature of the windows FAT file system itself, but simply the actions of the command interpreter when encountering a file named *.lnk
End of Note.

Symlinking a Directory

What happens if the target of the symlink is an existing directory? For example, consider the code below, which gives rise to the diagram on the right.

    cd /
    mkdir /A; mkdir /B
    touch /A/X; touch /B/Y
    ln -s /B /A/New
  1. Is there a file named /A/New/Y ?
    Answer: Yes.

  2. What happens if you execute cd /A/New; dir ?
    Answer: You see a listing of the files in /B, in this case the single file Y.

  3. What happens if you execute cd /A/New/.. ?
    Answer: Not clear!
    Clearly you are changing directory to the parent directory of /A/New. But is that /A or /?
    The command interpreter I use offers both possibilities.
  4. What did I mean when I said the pictures made it all clear?
    Answer: From the file system perspective it is clear. It is not always so clear what programs will do.