Until it fails…

Tommy: How come you don’t put files in the file cabinets?
Michelle: I don’t like file cabinets.
Tommy: Why not?
Michelle: You have to open them. I’ve got my own system. Hasn’t failed me yet.

– Tommy Boy, 1995

Ars Technica has front-paged an interesting and pretty technical article on filesystems. A filesystem is definitely not a sexy topic and traditionally has little direct affect on the home user…until it fails. However the article makes a good argument why everyone should be paying attention. I strongly recommend it for nerds, but even non-nerds might find it of interest.

Filesystems are not just for the enterprise anymore. Most of the technology advances in filesystems prior to the most recent generation have been in features that support enterprise performance, such as journaling and multi-user access control. The features in the coming generation of filesystems are much more…well, not user-focused really, since ideally the average user will never interact directly with the filesystem. Let’s call these features data-focused: snapshots, self-healing data storage, and automated incremental backups are just some of the features being built into modern filesystems.

Notice that these data-focused features primarily ensure integrity, in particular integrity over long-term storage. Increasing numbers of users never print their family pictures, never burn their videos to more durable storage media like CD/DVDs. Long-term archival storage of family memorabilia like these is becoming important to the average user, and having a filesystem that supports these features natively will be important moving forward.

This article is definitely nerd-friendly, with numerous snippets of command invocations and log entries; my cup of tea though maybe not yours. While giving some detail on ZFS, a Sun Microsystems-developed filesystem, the focus on the article is definitely btrfs, an emerging filesystem generally associated with Linux distributions. Caveat emptor: btrfs is not the default choice for most distributions, and is still technically beta; it is more an indication of what’s coming than what you need to install today on a production system.

Some of the comments “point out” that the author ignores the commenter’s favorite filesystem; but the article makes no pretense to being comprehensive, nor does it advocate btrfs per se. Plus, I mean I’m a nerd and all, but if you’re sufficiently emotionally attached to a filesystem that you feel the need to savage an author of a technology survey article for not including it…maybe you need to read a book or take up dominoes.

For you fellow nerds out there, I actually recommend playing around with a filesystem, and some of the low-level tools for installing and interacting with it. I have written some filesystem training materials, and going through the details of how filesystems are implemented is really educational, and it’s much better to have gone through it while your computer is still functioning. It’s the sort of knowledge that you may never need, but if you need it…there’s no substitute.

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