File Systems

Author: Michael J. Leaver (2BrightSparks Pte. Ltd.) and ChatGPT (OpenAI)

File systems are essential components of any operating system, providing the means to organize, store, and manage data on storage devices like hard drives, SSDs, and external storage media. They define how files are named, stored, and retrieved, and they often include features for data integrity, security, and performance optimization. A file system controls how data is stored and retrieved on a storage medium. It provides a way to organize files into directories and subdirectories, manage metadata, and handle access permissions. File systems can be found in various forms, from simple ones used in USB flash drives to complex ones designed for enterprise storage solutions.

The key functions of file systems are:

  • Data Organization: File systems organize data into files and folders, making it easier to locate and manage information.
  • Data Integrity: Many modern file systems include features like journaling to protect against data corruption.
  • Security: Features like encryption and access control lists (ACLs) help secure sensitive data.
  • Performance: File systems are optimized for quick data access and efficient use of storage space.

The development of file systems has evolved alongside computing technology, adapting to the needs of users and advancements in hardware. In the early days of computing, file systems were rudimentary, often custom-designed for specific applications. They lacked many of the features we take for granted today, such as hierarchical directories and user permissions.

The concept of hierarchical file systems, which allow files to be organized into nested directories, became popular in the 1970s and 1980s with the advent of operating systems like UNIX. Modern file systems like NTFS, ext4, ZFS, and APFS offer a range of features including data integrity checks, encryption, and large file support. They are designed to meet the demands of both consumer and enterprise users, providing robust, secure, and efficient data management.

File systems are a crucial part of any computing environment, providing the framework for data storage and management. Over the years, they have evolved from simple structures to complex systems with advanced features designed to meet a variety of needs. As technology continues to advance, file systems are likely to see further innovations to address new challenges and opportunities.

NTFS (New Technology File System)

The New Technology File System (NTFS) is a proprietary file system developed by Microsoft, initially released with Windows NT 3.1 in 1993. Over the years, NTFS has become the default file system for Windows operating systems, largely replacing the older FAT32 system.

NTFS was developed as a part of Microsoft's Windows NT family of operating systems. It was designed to overcome the limitations of FAT (File Allocation Table) and HPFS (High Performance File System), which were used in earlier versions of Windows and OS/2 respectively. NTFS was aimed at providing a robust, secure, and high-performance file system that could meet the demands of enterprise-level applications and data storage solutions.

NTFS introduced several security features, including file-level security using Access Control Lists (ACLs). This allows administrators to set permissions on individual files and folders, providing a granular level of control.

NTFS uses a journaling feature to keep track of changes to files and directories. This ensures that the file system can recover from crashes or power failures without losing data integrity.

NTFS supports large files up to 16 exabytes, far exceeding the 4GB limit of FAT32.

Administrators can set disk quotas to limit the amount of disk space that each user can consume, making it easier to manage resources on shared systems.

NTFS supports file compression and encryption natively, allowing users to save disk space and secure sensitive data.

NTFS (New Technology File System) has seen several versions since its inception, each bringing various improvements, optimizations, and new features. Here's a brief rundown of the major NTFS versions and their differences:

NTFS 1.0

  • Introduced With: Windows NT 3.1
  • Features: Introduced the basic NTFS architecture, including file-level security, recoverability, and support for larger file sizes compared to FAT.

NTFS 1.1

  • Introduced With: Windows NT 3.51
  • Features: Minor updates and optimizations over NTFS 1.0.

NTFS 1.2

  • Introduced With: Windows NT 4.0
  • Features: Added improvements like better disk space utilization and the introduction of the $LogFile for better recoverability.

NTFS 3.0

  • Introduced With: Windows 2000
  • Features: Introduced several new features like disk quotas, Encrypting File System (EFS), reparse points, sparse file support, and the Distributed Link Tracking Service.

NTFS 3.1

  • Introduced With: Windows XP
  • Features: Brought improvements like better performance, security enhancements, and Volume Shadow Copy for backups. This version is also used in Windows Server 2003, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, and Windows 10.

NTFS 3.1+ (Unofficial)

  • Introduced With: Windows 8.1, Windows 10
  • Features: While the NTFS version number hasn't officially changed, these newer operating systems have brought incremental improvements to NTFS, such as optimizations for SSDs.

It's worth noting that each version of NTFS is backward-compatible with previous versions, but using an older version may mean you can't take advantage of newer features.

The benefits of NTFS are:

  • Robustness: The journaling feature ensures that the file system remains consistent even after a system crash.
  • Security: Advanced security features like ACLs and encryption make NTFS suitable for enterprise environments.
  • Scalability: NTFS can handle large volumes and files, making it ideal for modern storage needs.

The drawbacks of NTFS are:

  • Proprietary Nature: Being a proprietary file system, NTFS is not fully supported on non-Windows platforms.
  • Fragmentation: Over time, NTFS volumes can become fragmented, affecting performance.
  • Complexity: The rich feature set makes NTFS more complex to manage and troubleshoot compared to simpler file systems.

While NTFS continues to be updated and improved, newer file systems like ReFS (Resilient File System) are being developed by Microsoft for specialized storage solutions. However, NTFS remains the default choice for general-purpose storage on Windows systems.

  • Simplicity: FAT32 is simpler but lacks the advanced features of NTFS like security and journaling.
  • Compatibility: FAT32 has broader compatibility with older and non-Windows systems.
  • File Size Limit: FAT32 is limited to a maximum file size of 4GB, making it unsuitable for storing large files.
  • Data Integrity: ZFS offers superior data integrity features like checksums and auto-repair.
  • Pooled Storage: ZFS allows for more complex storage configurations, including pooling of multiple disks.
  • Cross-Platform: ZFS is available on various Unix-based systems, including FreeBSD and Linux, making it more versatile than NTFS.

NTFS has been a cornerstone in the evolution of file systems, offering a blend of performance, security, and robustness. While it has its drawbacks, such as its proprietary nature and complexity, it remains a popular choice for Windows-based systems.

ReFS (Resilient File System)

Resilient File System, or ReFS, was introduced with Windows Server 2012 as a file system designed to maximize data availability, scale efficiently to large data sets, and provide data integrity through resiliency to corruption. It was developed to address the limitations of NTFS, particularly in enterprise environments that require handling large volumes of data.

The key features of ReFS are:

  • Data Integrity: ReFS uses integrity streams to automatically detect and correct data corruption.
  • Scalability: Designed to work well with large data sets and storage capacities.
  • Storage Spaces Integration: ReFS is optimized to work with Storage Spaces, Microsoft's storage virtualization technology.
  • Copy on Write: ReFS employs a 'copy on write' strategy for metadata, which helps in quick recovery and ensures metadata integrity.

ReFS offers built-in checksums and integrity streams for automatic data verification and repair. NTFS provides journaling for data integrity but lacks the auto-repair features of ReFS.

ReFS was designed for large-scale enterprise storage solutions, capable of handling large volumes and files. While capable of handling large files, NTFS is not as scalable as ReFS for extremely large data sets.

ReFS is optimized for high-speed data transactions, particularly useful for virtualization and data-intensive tasks. NTFS provides good performance but is not specifically optimized for high-speed data transactions like ReFS.

ReFS lacks some of the advanced security features of NTFS, such as file-level encryption. Also, it is not as widely supported as NTFS and is mainly used in enterprise environments.

Both ReFS and NTFS have their own sets of advantages and disadvantages. ReFS shines in scenarios that require high data integrity and scalability, making it ideal for enterprise-level storage solutions. On the other hand, NTFS offers robust security features and is more widely compatible, making it suitable for a broader range of applications.

File Allocation Table 32 (FAT32)

The File Allocation Table 32 (FAT32) is one of the most enduring file systems in the history of computing. Introduced in 1996 as an extension of the original FAT file system, FAT32 has been widely used for its simplicity and broad compatibility. Despite being more than two decades old, it continues to be relevant for specific use-cases.

FAT32 is a derivative of the File Allocation Table (FAT) file system, which dates back to the late 1970s. The "32" in FAT32 refers to the 32-bit table entries, an upgrade from the 16-bit entries of its predecessor, FAT16. FAT32 was introduced to overcome the limitations of FAT16, primarily its maximum volume size of 2GB.

The key features of FAT32 are:

  • Simplicity: FAT32 has a straightforward architecture, making it easy to implement and understand.
  • Compatibility: One of the most widely supported file systems, FAT32 works with almost all operating systems and devices.
  • Disk Space: More efficient use of disk space compared to FAT16, thanks to smaller cluster sizes.
  • File Size Limit: Supports individual files up to 4GB in size.

FAT32's most significant advantage is its broad compatibility. It is supported by nearly all operating systems, including Windows, macOS, and Linux, as well as various embedded systems and devices like cameras, game consoles, and more.

The simplicity of FAT32 makes it easy to set up and use. It's often the default file system for flash drives and SD cards, where complex features like file permissions and encryption are generally not required.

The drawbacks of FAT32 are:

  • File and Volume Size: FAT32 has a maximum file size limit of 4GB and a maximum volume size of 8TB, which can be a significant drawback for users who need to store larger files.
  • Lack of Security Features: FAT32 lacks advanced security features like file encryption and permissions. This makes it unsuitable for storing sensitive information.
  • No Journaling: Unlike more modern file systems like NTFS and ext4, FAT32 does not support journaling. This means it is more susceptible to data corruption in cases of improper shutdowns or sudden power losses.

While FAT32 may seem outdated compared to modern file systems like NTFS or ext4, it still has its place. It's commonly used in flash drives, memory cards, and other devices where high compatibility and simplicity are more important than advanced features. FAT32 is a testament to the longevity of well-designed technology. While it lacks the advanced features of modern file systems, its simplicity and broad compatibility make it relevant even today.

ext4 (Fourth Extended File System)

The ext4 (Fourth Extended File System) is the default file system for most Linux distributions and has been widely adopted in various applications, from desktops to servers and data centers. Introduced in 2008, ext4 is an evolution of its predecessor, ext3, and offers several improvements in performance, reliability, and disk space utilization.

The ext4 file system is a journaling file system, meaning it keeps a "journal" of changes that are about to be made to the file system, providing a way to recover corrupted data. It was designed to address the limitations of ext3 while maintaining backward compatibility.

The key features of ext4 are:

  • Journaling: Like ext3, ext4 uses journaling to improve reliability and facilitate quicker data recovery in case of a system crash.
  • Large File System Support: Ext4 can theoretically support volumes up to 1 exabyte and file sizes up to 16 terabytes.
  • Extents: This feature helps in improving the file system's performance and its management of storage space.
  • Delayed Allocation: Ext4 uses a "delayed allocation" strategy to improve disk allocation policies, thereby reducing fragmentation.
  • Inode Scalability: Ext4 dynamically allocates inodes, improving performance and scalability.

The advantages of ext4 are:

  • Improved Performance: Ext4 offers better performance than its predecessors thanks to features like extents and delayed allocation, which help in efficient disk space management and reduced fragmentation.
  • High Reliability: The journaling feature of ext4 ensures that the file system remains consistent even after a sudden shutdown or system crash, making it highly reliable for data storage.
  • Scalability: With support for large volumes and file sizes, along with dynamic inode allocation, ext4 is highly scalable, making it suitable for both small and large storage solutions.
  • Backward Compatibility: Ext4 maintains backward compatibility with ext3, which means you can mount an ext3 file system as ext4 without having to convert it.

The limitations of ext4 are:

  • Lack of Native Compression and Encryption: Unlike some modern file systems like ZFS and Btrfs, ext4 does not natively support features like data compression and encryption.
  • Not Ideal for Flash Storage: While ext4 can be used on SSDs, it is not specifically optimized for flash storage, unlike file systems like F2FS.

Ext4 continues to be the go-to file system for many Linux distributions. Its robustness, scalability, and performance make it a suitable choice for a variety of applications, from personal computing to enterprise-level servers and data centers. While it may lack some of the advanced features of newer file systems, its proven track record makes it a reliable choice for most use-cases.

Apple File System (APFS)

The Apple File System (APFS) is a modern file system introduced by Apple in 2016, replacing the older Hierarchical File System Plus (HFS+). Designed to improve upon the limitations of HFS+, APFS brings a host of new features aimed at enhancing performance, security, and reliability.

APFS is a proprietary file system developed by Apple for macOS, iOS, watchOS, and tvOS. It was engineered to address the challenges posed by modern computing needs, such as solid-state drive (SSD) support, better encryption, and data integrity. APFS was rolled out as the default file system starting with macOS High Sierra in 2017.

The key features of APFS are:

  • Cloning: APFS can create file or directory clones instantaneously, which are essentially pointers to the same data blocks, saving both time and disk space.
  • Snapshots: The file system can create read-only instances of the file system's state, useful for backups.
  • Space Sharing: Multiple APFS volumes can share the same underlying free space on a drive, improving storage efficiency.
  • Encryption: APFS supports strong encryption with options for no encryption, single-key encryption, or multi-key encryption with per-file keys for metadata.
  • Improved File Metadata: APFS stores additional metadata for each file, allowing for more accurate data representation and retrieval.

APFS is optimized for flash and SSD storage, offering a significant performance boost for file copy/transfer operations and general system responsiveness.

APFS includes a number of features aimed at improving data integrity, including copy-on-write metadata, crash protection, and snapshots. These features help protect against data loss and make data recovery easier.

APFS offers robust encryption options, allowing users to encrypt their entire disk or use file-level encryption. This adds an extra layer of security, making it more difficult for unauthorized users to access data.

The space sharing feature of APFS allows for more flexible disk management. Multiple volumes can share the same storage space, and the file system can allocate or deallocate space as needed, making it highly efficient.

Being a newer file system, APFS is not compatible with older versions of macOS and cannot be used on mechanical hard drives as efficiently as on SSDs. APFS is primarily designed for the Apple ecosystem and lacks native support on Windows and Linux, which can be a limitation for those who work across multiple platforms.

Today, APFS is the default file system for all new Apple devices and has been retroactively applied to older devices through software updates where applicable. It represents a significant step forward in the evolution of file systems for the Apple ecosystem. With its focus on performance, security, and reliability, it addresses many of the limitations of its predecessor, HFS+. While it may have some drawbacks in terms of compatibility and cross-platform support, its advantages make it a strong choice for the modern computing needs of Apple users.

ZFS (Zettabyte File System)

ZFS, or Zettabyte File System, is an advanced file system initially developed by Sun Microsystems, which is now owned by Oracle Corporation. It was introduced in 2005 and has been open-sourced, making it available on various Unix-based systems like FreeBSD, Linux, and macOS through third-party implementations. ZFS is known for its focus on data integrity, scalability, and performance. Here are some key aspects of ZFS:

ZFS was designed with the following primary objectives:

  • Data Integrity: ZFS uses checksums to ensure data integrity and can automatically repair corrupted data when possible.
  • Scalability: Designed to handle large volumes of data, up to a theoretical limit of 256 quadrillion zettabytes.
  • Performance: Optimized for high-speed data transactions with features like caching and dynamic striping.

The key features of ZFS are:

  • Copy-on-Write: ZFS employs a copy-on-write mechanism that ensures data consistency and allows for features like snapshots and clones.
  • Storage Pools: ZFS allows for the creation of storage pools, aggregating multiple disks into a single logical unit.
  • Data Deduplication: Optional feature to remove duplicate data blocks to save space.
  • Compression: Native support for data compression to save storage space.
  • Snapshots and Clones: ZFS makes it easy to create snapshots and clones of file systems, useful for backups and testing.

The benefits of ZFS are:

  1. Robust Data Integrity: Advanced checksum and repair features make ZFS highly reliable.
  2. High Scalability: Capable of managing large amounts of data, suitable for enterprise-level storage solutions.
  3. Flexibility: The ability to create complex storage configurations like RAID-Z and storage pools.

The drawbacks of ZFS are:

  1. Resource Intensive: ZFS can be demanding on system resources, particularly RAM.
  2. Complexity: The rich feature set can make ZFS more complex to set up and manage compared to simpler file systems.
  3. Licensing: While open-source, the licensing of ZFS can make it incompatible with certain Linux distributions out of the box.

In summary, ZFS is a powerful, scalable, and reliable file system that is well-suited for enterprise-level and data-intensive tasks. While it has some drawbacks in terms of resource usage and complexity, its advantages in data integrity and flexibility make it a strong choice for many use-cases.


Journaling is a feature in many modern file systems designed to protect the integrity of the data and file structure. It serves as a safeguard against data corruption that can occur due to sudden power failures, system crashes, or other unexpected events.

When a file operation like a write or delete is performed, the file system first logs this operation in a special area called the 'journal.' Only after successfully writing to the journal does the file system proceed to make the actual changes to the data blocks and metadata. This two-step process ensures that if a failure occurs during the operation, the system can recover by replaying or rolling back the actions recorded in the journal.

There are different types of journaling:

  • Metadata Journaling: Only changes to the file system metadata are journaled. While this method is faster, it may not prevent data corruption.
  • Full Journaling: Both metadata and actual data are journaled. This is more secure but can be slower due to the additional data being written to the journal.
  • Ordered Journaling: Metadata is journaled, and data is written to its final location only after the journal entry is committed. This offers a balance between speed and security.

Journaling ensures that the file system can be quickly restored to a consistent state after a failure. The system can recover more quickly from crashes as it only needs to consult the journal to determine which operations were not completed.

However, writing data to the journal first can introduce some latency. The journal also requires additional disk space, although this is generally a small percentage of the overall disk size.

Journaling is an essential feature for maintaining data integrity and quick system recovery in modern file systems. While it comes with some performance overhead, the benefits often outweigh the drawbacks.


A snapshot is a read-only copy of the file system's state at a specific point in time. Snapshots capture the structure and contents of a file system, allowing administrators or users to revert to a previous state in case of data loss, corruption, or other issues. They are commonly used for backup purposes, data analysis, and system recovery.

Snapshots can be implemented in various ways depending on the file system, but here are some common methods:

  • Copy-on-Write (CoW): In this approach, when a file is modified, the file system writes the new data to a different location, preserving the original data. This allows the snapshot to maintain a reference to the original data blocks, effectively capturing the file system's state at the time the snapshot was taken.
  • Redirect-on-Write: Similar to CoW, but instead of writing the new data to a different location, the changes are written to a snapshot area. The original data remains unchanged in the main file system.
  • Delta Snapshots: Some systems use delta snapshots, which only capture the changes made to the file system since the last snapshot. This is more space-efficient but may require all previous snapshots to be available for a full restore.


Metadata is data about data. It provides essential information about the files and directories stored in the file system, but it is not part of the actual content of those files. Metadata serves several crucial roles:

  • File Name: Metadata includes the name of the file, helping users and systems identify it.
  • File Type: The type of file (e.g., text, image, executable) is often stored as metadata, sometimes indicated by the file extension.
  • Directory Structure: Metadata keeps track of the hierarchical organization of files and directories, including the path to each file.
  • Permissions: Metadata specifies who can read, write, or execute a file, providing a basis for security and access control.
  • Ownership: Information about the user and/or group that owns a file is stored as metadata.
  • Timestamps: Metadata often includes timestamps indicating when a file was created, last modified, and last accessed.
  • File Size: The size of the file is stored as metadata, helping the file system manage disk space and users understand their storage usage.
  • Checksums: Some advanced file systems store checksums or hashes of the file content to verify data integrity.
  • Caching Information: Metadata can include details that help the file system cache files more efficiently.
  • Allocation Units: Information about how a file is fragmented across the disk (i.e., which blocks or clusters it occupies) is stored as metadata, aiding in efficient data retrieval and storage.
  • Extended Attributes: Some file systems allow for custom metadata fields, known as extended attributes, that can be used for specialized applications.
  • Journaling: In journaling file systems like ext4 and NTFS, metadata is crucial for keeping a log (or journal) of file operations to maintain data integrity.
  • Metadata makes it possible to search for files based on various attributes like name, date modified, type, etc., without having to scan the entire content of each file.
  • In file systems that support snapshots or versioning, metadata is used to keep track of different versions of a file.

In summary, metadata in a file system serves as a comprehensive guidebook that facilitates data management, security, and optimization. It's a critical component that enables the file system to function efficiently and effectively.

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