File Systems Explained

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File systems are an integral part of any operating systems with the capacity for long term storage. There are two distinct parts of a file system, the mechanism for storing files and the directory structure into which they are organised. In mordern operating systems where it is possibe for several user to access the same files simultaneously it has also become necessary for such features as access control and different forms of file protection to be implemented.

A file is a collection of binary data. A file could represent a program, a document or in some cases part of the file system itself. In modern computing it is quite common for their to be several different storage devices attached to the same computer. A common data structure such as a file system allows the computer to access many different storage devices in the same way, for example, when you look at the contents of a hard drive or a cd you view it through the same interface even though they are completely different mediums with data mapped on them in completely different ways. Files can have very different data structures within them but can all be accessed by the same methods built into the file system. The arrangment of data within the file is then decided by the program creating it. The file systems also stores a number of attributes for the files within it.

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All files have a name by which they can be accessed by the user. In most modern file systems the name consists of of three parts, its unique name, a period and an extension. For example the file ‘bob.jpg’ is uniquely identified by the first word ‘bob’, the extension jpg indicates that it is a jpeg image file. The file extension allows the operating system to decide what to do with the file if someone tries to open it. The operating system maintains a list of file extension associations. Should a user try to access ‘bob.jpg’ then it would most likely be opened in whatever the systems default image viewer is.

The system also stores the location of a file. In some file systems files can only be stored as one contigious block. This has simplifies storage and access to the file as the system then only needs to know where the file begins on the disk and how large it is. It does however lead to complications if the file is to be extended or removed as there may not be enough space available to fit the larger version of the file. Most modern file systems overcome this problem by using linked file allocation. This allows the file to be stored in any number of segments. The file system then has to store where every block of the file is and how large they are. This greatly simplifies file space allocation but is slower than contigious allocation as it is possible for the file to be spread out all over the disk. Modern oparating systems overome this flaw by providing a disk defragmenter. This is a utility that rearranges all the files on the disk so that thay are all in contigious blocks.

Information about the files protection is also integrated into the file system. Protection can range from the simple systems implemented in the FAT system of early windows where files could be marked as read-only or hidden to the more secure systems implemented in NTFS where the file system administrator can set up separate read and write access rights for different users or user groups. Although file protection adds a great deal of complexity and potential difficulties it is essential in an enviroment where many different computers or user can have access to the same drives via a network or time shared system such as raptor.

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Some file systems also store data about which user created a file and at what time they created it. Although this is not essential to the running of the file system it is useful to the users of the system.

In order for a file system to function properly they need a number of defined operations for creating, opening and editing a file. Almost all file systems provide the same basic set of methods for manipulating files.

A file system must be able to create a file. To do this there must be enough space left on the drive to fit the file. There must also be no other file in the directory it is to be placed with the same name. Once the file is created the system will make a record of all the attributes noted above.

Once a file has been created we may need to edit it. This may be simply appending some data to the end of it or removing or replacing data already stored within it. When doing this the system keeps a write pointer marking where the next write oparation to the file should take place.

In order for a file to be useful it must of course be readable. To do this all you need to know the name and path of the file. From this the file system can ascertain where on the drive the file is stored. While reading a file the system keeps a read pointer. This stores which part of the drive is to be read next.

In some cases it is not possible to simply read all of the file into memory. File systems also allow you to reposition the read pointer within a file. To perform this operation the system needs to know how far into the file you want the read pointer to jump. An example of where this would be useful is a database system. When a query is made on the database it is obviously ineficient to read the whole file up to the point where the reuired data is, instead the application managing the database would determine where in the file the required bit of data is and jump to it. This operation is often known as a file seek.

File systems also allow you to delete files. To do this it needs to know the name and path of the file. To delete a file the systems simply removes its entry from the directory structure and adds all the space it previously occupied to the free space list (or whatever other free space management system it uses).

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1 Comment

  1. Inerested Reader

    June 20, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    Good explanation, however, you've only appealed to less than 5 of your target reading audience with a text only article. When explaining concepts that readers cannot see, you need to be sure to show visual representations or illustrations to help get your point across. Most readers are visual learners. Thank you for the article. It was well written.

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