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Understanding UNIX / Linux filesystem directories

You use DNS (domain name system) to translate between domain names and IP addresses.

Similarly files are referred by file name, not by inode number. So what is the purpose of a directory? You can groups the files according to your usage. For example all configuration files are stored under /etc directory. So the purpose of a directory is to make a connection between file names and their associated inode number. Inside every directory you will find out two directories . (current directory) and .. (pointer to previous directory i.e. the directory immediately above the one I am in now). The .. appears in every directory except for the root directory.

Directory

A directory contained inside another directory is called a subdirectory. At the end the directories form a tree structure. Use tree command to see directory tree structure:
$ tree /etc | less
Again a directory has an inode just like a file. It is a specially formatted file containing records which associate each name with an inode number. Please note the following limitation of directories under ext2/3 file system:

  • There is an upper limit of 32768 subdirectories in a single directory.
  • There is a "soft" upper limit of about 10-15k files in a single directory

However according to official documentation of ext2/3 file system points that “Using a hashed directory index (which is under development) allows 100k-1M+ files in a single directory without performance problems'. Here are my two favorite alias commands related to directory :
$ alias ..='cd ..'
alias d='ls -l | grep -E "^d"'


Well I'm sure all of you know the basic commands related to directories and files managment. Click above (or here) to see summery of all basic commands related to directories and files managment. See interesting discussion about soft links and directories. This is 6th part of "Understanding UNIX/Linux file system, continue reading rest of the Understanding Linux file system series (this is part IV):

  • Part I - Understanding Linux superblock
  • Part II - Understanding Linux superblock
  • Part III - An example of Surviving a Linux Filesystem Failures
  • Part IV - Understanding filesystem Inodes
  • Part V - Understanding filesystem directories
  • Part VI - Understanding UNIX/Linux symbolic (soft) and hard links
  • Part VII - Why isn't it possible to create hard links across file system boundaries?

Understanding UNIX / Linux filesystem Inodes

The inode (index node) is a fundamental concept in the Linux and UNIX filesystem. Each object in the filesystem is represented by an inode. But what are the objects? Let us try to understand it in simple words. Each and every file under Linux (and UNIX) has following attributes:

=> File type (executable, block special etc)
=> Permissions (read, write etc)
=> Owner
=> Group
=> File Size
=> File access, change and modification time (remember UNIX or Linux never stores file creation time, this is favorite question asked in UNIX/Linux sys admin job interview)
=> File deletion time
=> Number of links (soft/hard)
=> Extended attribute such as append only or no one can delete file including root user (immutability)
=> Access Control List (ACLs)

All the above information stored in an inode. In short the inode identifies the file and its attributes (as above) . Each inode is identified by a unique inode number within the file system. Inode is also know as index number.

inode definition

An inode is a data structure on a traditional Unix-style file system such as UFS or ext3. An inode stores basic information about a regular file, directory, or other file system object.

How do I see file inode number?

You can use ls -i command to see inode number of file
$ ls -i /etc/passwd
Sample Output

32820 /etc/passwd

You can also use stat command to find out inode number and its attribute:
$ stat /etc/passwdOutput:

File: `/etc/passwd'
Size: 1988            Blocks: 8          IO Block: 4096   regular file
Device: 341h/833d       Inode: 32820       Links: 1
Access: (0644/-rw-r--r--)  Uid: (    0/    root)   Gid: (    0/    root)
Access: 2005-11-10 01:26:01.000000000 +0530
Modify: 2005-10-27 13:26:56.000000000 +0530
Change: 2005-10-27 13:26:56.000000000 +0530

Inode application

Many commands used by system administrators in UNIX / Linux operating systems often give inode numbers to designate a file. Let us see he practical application of inode number. Type the following commands:
$ cd /tmp
$ touch \"la*
$ ls -l

Now try to remove file "la*

You can't, to remove files having created with control characters or characters which are unable to be input on a keyboard or special character such as ?, * ^ etc. You have to use inode number to remove file. This is fourth part of "Understanding UNIX/Linux file system, continue reading rest of the Understanding Linux file system series (this is part IV):

  • Part I - Understanding Linux superblock
  • Part II - Understanding Linux superblock
  • Part III - An example of Surviving a Linux Filesystem Failures
  • Part IV - Understanding filesystem Inodes
  • Part V - Understanding filesystem directories
  • Part VI - Understanding UNIX/Linux symbolic (soft) and hard links
  • Part VII - Why isn't it possible to create hard links across file system boundaries?

Understanding UNIX / Linux filesystem Superblock

This is second part of "Understanding UNIX/Linux file system", part I is here. Let us take an example of 20 GB hard disk. The entire disk space subdivided into multiple file system blocks. And blocks used for what?

Unix / Linux filesystem blocks

The blocks used for two different purpose:

  1. Most blocks stores user data aka files (user data).
  2. Some blocks in every file system store the file system's metadata. So what the hell is a metadata?

In simple words Metadata describes the structure of the file system. Most common metadata structure are superblock, inode and directories. Following paragraphs describes each of them.

Superblock

Each file system is different and they have type like ext2, ext3 etc. Further each file system has size like 5 GB, 10 GB and status such as mount status. In short each file system has a superblock, which contains information about file system such as:

  • File system type
  • Size
  • Status
  • Information about other metadata structures

If this information lost, you are in trouble (data loss) so Linux maintains multiple redundant copies of the superblock in every file system. This is very important in many emergency situation, for example you can use backup copies to restore damaged primary super block. Following command displays primary and backup superblock location on /dev/sda3:
# dumpe2fs /dev/hda3 | grep -i superblock
Output:

Primary superblock at 0, Group descriptors at 1-1
Backup superblock at 32768, Group descriptors at 32769-32769
Backup superblock at 98304, Group descriptors at 98305-98305
Backup superblock at 163840, Group descriptors at 163841-163841
Backup superblock at 229376, Group descriptors at 229377-229377
Backup superblock at 294912, Group descriptors at 294913-294913

Continue reading rest of the Understanding Linux file system series (this is part II):

  • Part I - Understanding Linux superblock
  • Part II - Understanding Linux superblock
  • Part III - An example of Surviving a Linux Filesystem Failures
  • Part IV - Understanding filesystem Inodes
  • Part V - Understanding filesystem directories
  • Part VI - Understanding UNIX/Linux symbolic (soft) and hard links
  • Part VII - Why isn't it possible to create hard links across file system boundaries?

Understanding UNIX / Linux File System

A conceptual understanding of file system, especially data structure and related terms will help you become a successful system administrator. I have seen many new Linux system administrator without any clue about file system. The conceptual knowledge can be applied to restore file system in an emergency situation.
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