General Characteristics of Ext2

Unix-like operating systems use several filesystems. Although the files of all such filesystems have a common subset of attributes required by a few POSIX APIs like stat( ), each filesystem is implemented in a different way.

The first versions of Linux were based on the Minix filesystem. As Linux matured, the Extended Filesystem (Ext FS) was introduced; it included several significant extensions, but offered unsatisfactory performance. The Second Extended Filesystem (Ext2) was introduced in 1994; besides including several new features, it is quite efficient and robust and has become the most widely used Linux filesystem.

The following features contribute to the efficiency of Ext2:

When creating an Ext2 filesystem, the system administrator may choose the optimal block size (from 1,024 to 4,096 bytes), depending on the expected average file length. For instance, a 1,024-block size is preferable when the average file length is smaller than a few thousand bytes because this leads to less internal fragmentation—that is, less of a mismatch between the file length and the portion of the disk that stores it (see Section 7.2, where internal fragmentation for dynamic memory was discussed). On the other hand, larger block sizes are usually preferable for files greater than a few thousand bytes because this leads to fewer disk transfers, thus reducing system overhead.

When creating an Ext2 filesystem, the system administrator may choose how many inodes to allow for a partition of a given size, depending on the expected number of files to be stored on it. This maximizes the effectively usable disk space. The filesystem partitions disk blocks into groups. Each group includes data blocks and inodes stored in adjacent tracks. Thanks to this structure, files stored in a single block group can be accessed with a lower average disk seek time. The filesystem preallocates disk data blocks to regular files before they are actually used. Thus, when the file increases in size, several blocks are already reserved at physically adjacent positions, reducing file fragmentation.

Fast symbolic links are supported. If the pathname of the symbolic link (see Section 1.5.2) has 60 bytes or less, it is stored in the inode and can thus be translated without reading a data block.

Moreover, the Second Extended File System includes other features that make it both robust and flexible:

• A careful implementation of the file-updating strategy that minimizes the impact of system crashes. For instance, when creating a new hard link for a file, the counter of hard links in the disk inode is incremented first, and the new name is added into the proper directory next. In this way, if a hardware failure occurs after the inode update but before the directory can be changed, the directory is consistent, even if the inode's hard link counter is wrong. Deleting the file does not lead to catastrophic results, although the file's data blocks cannot be automatically reclaimed. If the reverse were done (changing the directory before updating the inode), the same hardware failure would produce a dangerous inconsistency: deleting the original hard link would remove its data blocks from disk, yet the new directory entry would refer to an inode that no longer exists. If that inode number were used later for another file, writing into the stale directory entry would corrupt the new file.

• Support for automatic consistency checks on the filesystem status at boot time. The checks are performed by the e2fsck external program, which may be activated not only after a system crash, but also after a predefined number of filesystem mountings (a counter is incremented after each mount operation) or after a predefined amount of time has elapsed since the most recent check.

• Support for immutable files (they cannot be modified, deleted, or renamed) and for append-only files (data can be added only to the end of them).

• Compatibility with both the Unix System V Release 4 and the BSD semantics of the Group ID for a new file. In SVR4, the new file assumes the Group ID of the process that creates it; in BSD, the new file inherits the Group ID of the directory containing it. Ext2 includes a mount option that specifies which semantic is used.

The Ext2 filesystem is a mature, stable program, and it has not evolved significantly in recent years. Several additional features, however, have been considered for inclusion. Some of them have already been coded and are available as external patches. Others are just planned, but in some cases, fields have already been introduced in the Ext2 inode for them. The most significant features being considered are:

Block fragmentation

System administrators usually choose large block sizes for accessing disks because computer applications often deal with large files. As a result, small files stored in large blocks waste a lot of disk space. This problem can be solved by allowing several files to be stored in different fragments of the same block.

Access Control Lists (ACL)

Instead of classifying the users of a file under three classes—owner, group, and others—this list is associated with each file to specify the access rights for any specific users or combinations of users.

Handling of transparently compressed and encrypted files

These new options, which must be specified when creating a file, allow users to transparently store compressed and/or encrypted versions of their files on disk.

Logical deletion

An undelete option allows users to easily recover, if needed, the contents of a previously removed file.

Journaling

Journaling avoids the time-consuming check that is automatically performed on a filesystem when it is abruptly unmounted — for instance, as a consequence of a system crash.

In practice, none of these features has been officially included in the Ext2 filesystem. One might say that Ext2 is victim of its success; it is still the preferred filesystem adopted by most Linux distribution companies, and the millions of users who use it every day would look suspiciously at any attempt to replace Ext2 with some other filesystem that has not been so heavily tested and used.

A self-evident example of this phenomenon is journaling, which is the most compelling feature required by high-availability servers. Journaling has not been introduced in the Ext2

filesystem; rather, as we shall discuss in the later section Section 17.7, a new filesystem that is fully compatible with Ext2 has been created, which also offers journaling. Users who do not really require journaling may continue to use the good old Ext2 filesystem, while the others will likely adopt the new filesystem.

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