The flexibility and extensibility of support for Linux file systems is a direct result of an abstracted set of interfaces. At the core of that set of interfaces is the virtual file system switch (VFS).
The VFS provides a set of standard interfaces for upper-layer applications to perform file I/O over a diverse set of file systems. And it does it in a way that supports multiple concurrent file systems over one or more underlying devices. Additionally, these file systems need not be static but may come and go with the transient nature of the storage devices.
For example, a typical Linux desktop supports an ext3 file system on the available hard disk, as well as the ISO 9660 file system on an available CD-ROM (otherwise called the CD-ROM file system, or CDFS). As CD-ROMs are inserted and removed, the Linux kernel must adapt to these new file systems with different contents and structure. A remote file system can be accessed through the Network File System (NFS). At the same time, Linux can mount the NT File System (NTFS) partition of a Windows®/Linux dual-boot system from the local hard disk and read and write from it.
Finally, a removable USB flash drive (UFD) can be hot-plugged, providing yet another file system. All the while, the same set of file I/O interfaces can be used over these devices, permitting the underlying file system and physical device to be abstracted away from the user (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. An abstraction layer provides a uniform interface over different file systems and storage devices
Now, let's add some concrete architecture to the abstract features that the
Linux VFS provides. Figure 2 shows a high-level view of the Linux stack
from the point of view of the VFS. Above the VFS is the standard kernel
system-call interface (SCI). This interface allows calls from user-space
to transition to the kernel (in different address spaces). In this domain,
a user-space application invoking the POSIX
open call passes through the GNU C library
glibc) into the kernel and into system call
de-multiplexing. Eventually, the VFS is invoked using the call
Figure 2. The layered architecture of the VFS
The VFS provides the abstraction layer, separating the POSIX API from the details of how a particular file system implements that behavior. The key here is that Open, Read, Write, or Close API system calls work the same regardless of whether the underlying file system is ext3 or Btrfs. VFS provides a common file model that the underlying file systems inherit (they must implement behaviors for the various POSIX API functions). A further abstraction, outside of the VFS, hides the underlying physical device (which could be a disk, partition of a disk, networked storage entity, memory, or any other medium able to store information—even transiently).
In addition to abstracting the details of file operations from the underlying file systems, VFS ties the underlying block devices to the available file systems. Let's now look at the internals of the VFS to see how this works.
Before looking at the overall architecture of the VFS subsystem, let's have a look at the major objects that are used. This section explores the superblock, the index node (or inode), the directory entry (or dentry), and finally, the file object. Some additional elements, such as caches, are also important here, and I explore these later in the overall architecture.
The superblock is the container for high-level metadata about a file system. The superblock is a structure that exists on disk (actually, multiple places on disk for redundancy) and also in memory. It provides the basis for dealing with the on-disk file system, as it defines the file system's managing parameters (for example, total number of blocks, free blocks, root index node).
On disk, the superblock provides information to the kernel on the structure
of the file system on disk. In memory, the superblock provides the
necessary information and state to manage the active (mounted) file
system. Because Linux supports multiple concurrent file systems mounted at
the same time, each
super_block structure is
maintained in a list (
super_blocks, defined in
./linux/fs/super.c, with the structure defined in
Figure 3 provides a simplified view of the superblock
and its elements. The
refers to a number of other structures that encapsulate other information.
file_system_type structure, for example,
maintains the name of the file system (such as ext3) as well as
various locks and functions to get and remove the
file_system_type object is managed through the
register_file system and
unregister_file system functions (see
./linux/fs/file systems.c). The
structure defines a number of functions for reading and writing inodes as
well as higher-level operations (such as remounting). The root directory
dentry) object is cached here also, as
is the block device on which this file system resides. Finally, a number
of lists are provided for managing inodes, including
s_inodes (a list of all inodes),
s_dirty (a list of all dirty inodes),
(parked for writeback), and
s_files (the list
of all opened files for a given file system).
Figure 3. Simplified view of the super_block structure and its related elements
Note that within the kernel, another management object called
vfsmount provides information on mounted file
systems. The list of these objects refers to the superblock and defines
the mount point, name of the /dev device on which this file system
resides, and other higher-level attachment information.
Linux manages all objects in a file system through an object called an inode (short for index node). An inode can refer to a file or a directory or a symbolic link to another object. Note that because files are used to represent other types of objects, such as devices or memory, inodes are used to represent them also.
Note that the inode I refer to here is the VFS layer inode (in-memory inode). Each file system also includes an inode that lives on disk and provides details about the object specific to the particular file system.
VFS inodes are allocated using the slab allocator (from the
Resources for a link to more information on the
slab allocator). The inode consists of data and operations that describe
the inode, its contents, and the variety of operations that are possible
on it. Figure 4 is a simple illustration of a VFS
inode consisting of a number of lists, one of which refers to the dentries
that refer to this inode. Object-level metadata is included here,
consisting of the familiar manipulation times (create time, access time,
modify time), as are the owner and permission data (group-id, user-id, and
permissions). The inode refers to the file operations that are possible on
it, most of which map directly to the system-call interfaces (for example,
There is also a reference to inode-specific operations
mkdir, and so
on). Finally, there's a structure to manage the actual data for the object
that is represented by an address space object. An address space
object is an object that manages the various pages for the inode
within the page cache. The address space object is used to manage the
pages for a file and also for mapping file sections into individual
process address spaces. The address space object comes with its own set of
releasepage, and so on).
Figure 4. Simplified representation of the VFS inode
Note that all of this information can be found in ./linux/include/linux/fs.h.
The hierarchical nature of a file system is managed by another object in
VFS called a dentry object. A file system will have one root dentry
(referenced in the superblock), this being the only dentry without a
parent. All other dentries have parents, and some have children. For
example, if a file is opened that's made up of /home/user/name, four
dentry objects are created: one for the root
one for the
home entry of the root directory,
one for the
name entry of the
user directory, and finally, one dentry for the
name entry of the user directory. In this way,
dentries map cleanly into the hierarchical file systems in use today.
The dentry object is defined by the dentry structure (in
./linux/include/fs/dcache.h). It consists of a number of elements that
track the relationship of the entry to other entries in the file system as
well as physical data (such as the file name). A simplified view of the
dentry object is shown in Figure 5. The dentry refers
super_block, which defines the
particular file system instance in which this object is contained. Next is
the parent dentry (parent directory) of the object, followed by the
children dentries contained within a list (if the object happens to be a
directory). The operations for a dentry are then defined (consisting of
operations such as
release, and so on). The name of the object is
then defined, which is kept here in the dentry instead of the inode
itself. Finally, a reference is provided to the VFS inode.
Figure 5. Simplified representation of the dentry object
Note that the dentry objects exist only in file system memory and are not stored on disk. Only file system inodes are stored permanently, where dentry objects are used to improve performance. You can see the full description of the dentry structure in ./linux/include/dcache.h.
For each opened file in a Linux system, a
object exists. This object contains information specific to the open
instance for a given user. A very simplified view of the file object is
provided in Figure 6. As shown, a
path structure provides reference to both the
A set of file operations is defined for each file, which are the
well-known file operations (
flush, and so
on). A set of flags and permissions is defined (including group and
owner). Finally, stateful data is defined for the particular file
instance, such as the current offset into the file.
Figure 6. Simplified representation of the file object
Now that I've reviewed the various important objects in the VFS layer, let's look at how they relate in a single diagram. Because I've explored the object in a bottom-up fashion so far in this article, I now look at the reverse from the user perspective (see Figure 7).
At the top is the open
file object, which is
referenced by a process's file descriptor list. The
file object refers to a
dentry object, which refers to an
inode. Both the
objects refer to the underlying
object. Multiple file objects may refer to the same dentry (as in the case
of two users sharing the same file). Note also in Figure 7 that a
dentry object refers to another
dentry object. In this case, a directory refers
to file, which in turn refers to the inode for the particular file.
Figure 7. Relationships of major objects in the VFS
The internal architecture of the VFS is made up of a dispatching layer that provides the file system abstraction and a number of caches to improve the performance of file system operations. This section explores the internal architecture and how the major objects interact (see Figure 8).
Figure 8. High-level view of the VFS layer
The two major objects that are dynamically managed in the VFS include the
objects. These are cached to improve the performance of accesses to the
underlying file systems. When a file is opened, the dentry cache is
populated with entries representing the directory levels representing the
path. An inode for the object is also created representing the file. The
dentry cache is built using a hash table and is hashed by the name of the
object. Entries for the dentry cache are allocated from the
dentry_cache slab allocator and use a
least-recently-used (LRU) algorithm to prune entries when memory pressure
exists. You can find the functions associated with the dentry cache in
./linux/fs/dcache.c (and ./linux/include/linux/dcache.h).
The inode cache is implemented as two lists and a hash table for faster
lookup. The first list defines the inodes that are currently in use; the
second list defines the inodes that are unused. Those inodes in use are
also stored in the hash table. Individual inode cache objects are
allocated from the
inode_cache slab allocator.
You can find the functions associated with the inode cache in
./linux/fs/inode.c (and ./linux/include/fs.h). From the implementation
today, the dentry cache is the master of the inode cache. When a
dentry object exists, an
inode object will also exist in the inode
cache. Lookups are performed on the dentry cache, which result in an
object in the inode cache.
This article has scratched the surface of the VFS, its approach, and objects used to provide uniform access to differing file systems. Linux is scalable, flexible, and extensible from subsystems such as this. The Resources section provides details on where you can learn more.
- The Linux subsystem for managing file
systems is large and complex. You can learn more about the larger file
system subsystem in Tim's
"Anatomy of the Linux file system"
(developerWorks, October 2007).
"Anatomy of ext4"
(developerWorks, February 2009) gives an introduction to and overview of
this next-generation journaling file system.
"Anatomy of the Linux slab allocator"
(developerWorks, May 2007) discusses how Linux manages memory through slab
- Dealing with the VFS from user-space
involves the system-call interface, which manages commands' transitions
from user-space to the kernel and back. You can learn more about this
process in Tim's
"Kernel command using Linux system calls"
(developerWorks, March 2007).
- Another implementation of a VFS is
provided in the IBM AIX® operating system. This
File System Overview
provides an introduction to the AIX VFS implementation and describes the
various objects that are represented.
Linux VFS overview
from the operating systems course at the Institut für Informatik
provides a great introduction to VFS and explores its use by the ext2 file
presentation from the Indian Institute of Technology at Bombay
provides a good short introduction to VFS.
- Read more of
articles on developerWorks.
- In the
developerWorks Linux zone,
find more resources for Linux developers, and scan our
most popular articles and
- See all
- Stay current with
developerWorks technical events and Webcasts.
Get products and technologies
IBM trial software,
available for download directly from developerWorks, build your next
development project on Linux.
- Get involved in the
My developerWorks community;
with your personal profile and custom home page, you can tailor
developerWorks to your interests and interact with other developerWorks
M. Tim Jones is an embedded firmware architect and the author of Artificial Intelligence: A Systems Approach, GNU/Linux Application Programming (now in its second edition), AI Application Programming (in its second edition), and BSD Sockets Programming from a Multilanguage Perspective. His engineering background ranges from the development of kernels for geosynchronous spacecraft to embedded systems architecture and networking protocols development. Tim is a Consultant Engineer for Emulex Corp. in Longmont, Colorado.