Hints & Tips for Optimizing Linux Disk Usage

It seems that no matter how much hard disk storage you have, it quickly becomes full. Because Linux is free, many users are on a limited budget and can't afford to simply buy more hardware. This article describes some simple techniques for making the best use of the disk storage you have now.
Half Full or Half Empty?

The first question to be answered is, how full is your disk? The best way to do this is with the “df” command. This is what my system shows:

% df
Filesystem  1024-blocks   Used   Available   Capacity   Mounted on
/dev/hdal   4247          73427    16108       82%               /

In this case I have slightly more that 16 megabytes available on my single 94 megabyte partition, making it 82% full. If you have multiple disk partitions and/or drives, you will see a entry in the listing for each mounted partition.

You may think that as long as you are under 100%, everything is fine. This is not the case, for several reasons.

First, you need some space in reserve for temporary files. Compiling, for example, requires that various intermediate files be stored in a temporary directory. If you don't have enough space for these files, the command will fail, possibly in strange ways. A normal user could even bring the system down by filling up the root disk.

Second, once your disk approaches full capacity, performance starts to degrade. The file system has to spend more time looking for free blocks on the disk to use. The amount of performance degradation depends on how full the disk is, and the type of file system. A good rule of thumb is to keep the disk below 80% full if possible, and definitely below 90%.

Load Balancing

You may have multiple disk drives, and you may have divided one or more drives into separate partitions. This is one way, for example, to avoid having the root partition filled by user data. The disadvantage is that you may find that one partition is full, even though others have space available.

If this is the case, one option is to repartition the drives to better balance the load. This will require backing up all your data first, since repartitioning is destructive.

A second choice is to move some of the files from one partition or disk to another. Using symbolic links, you may be able to do this without affecting other applications.

You likely have at least one swap partition. Choosing its size is a tradeoff between having adequate swap space and losing valuable filesystem space. If you find you have more swap space than needed (the “free” command is useful here), the n you can consider repartitioning to make the swap partition smaller. If you only rarely require a lot of swap space (e.g. during large compiles) an option is to use a smaller swap partition, and to add a swap file on those occasions when extra swap is needed.

If your drives are load balanced and disk space is still a problem, or if you have a single partition, then you are ready for the techniques described in the rest of this article.

Finding the Big Files

A useful concept is the Pareto or 80/20 principle. Applied here, it says that 80% of the disk space is contained in 20% of the files (more or less). How do you find this 20%? One tool is the “find” command. The following command line, for example, will find all of the files on the system that are larger than 1 million bytes (you may have to run this as root so you have access to all the directories; expect it to take a while to run, depending on disk size):

    % find / -size+1000000c -ls

This command tells find to locate any file larger than 1 million characters and printing out its directory information. If you are not familiar with the find command, read up on i t in the man page. It can be a useful tool for identifying areas to attack.

Removing Files

The obvious solution to freeing up disk space is to delete files. With some detective work, you may find a lot of baggage on your system that you don't need. First though, two important warnings:

  • Make sure you have backups of everything you are deleting, in case you find out later you really needed it.

  • Have an emergency floppy that you can boot from (e.g. the SLS A1 disk) in case you delete something (like /vmlinuz?) that puts your system in an unbootable state.

On an SLS or Slackware system, it is easy to identify and remove software packages. Review the packages that you have installed, see how much disk space they require, and delete the ones you don't need.

Some of the things that can save a lot of space if they are not needed are:

  • networking, including NFS and uucp

  • newsreaders (tin, trn, cnews, etc...)

  • language tools: p2c, f2c, lisp, smalltalk

  • TeX and LaTeX

  • source code

You can remove the nroff source for the man pages (in /usr/man/man?) and keep only the compressed, formatted pages (in /usr/man/cat?). Make sure all man pages have been formatted first.

The full distribution of emacs lisp source files (*.el) is quite large. You can just keep the byte compiled (*.elc) files.

If you have compiled the Linux kernel, remove the object files (e.g. cd /usr/src/linux ; make clean).

You may have accumulated some old libraries in /lib and /usr/lib. Some binaries may still require them though. You may be able to determine whether they are used by running ldd on your binaries. This is one area I suggest you avoid unless you know what you are doing, because you can easily cause your system to break if you delete needed libraries.

If you run the X window system, the font files take a lot of disk space (they are usually in /usr/lib/X11). Make sure the .pcf font files are compressed. You may be able to delete some of the more obscure fonts as well. If you compress or delete any fonts, be sure to run the mkfontdir command afterward.

I found on my system that there were a number of duplicate files in /bin and /usr/bin. Eliminating duplicates can save space, but watch that you are not just deleting links to the same file. The diff command is useful here for comparing director of files (e.g. diff /bin /usr/bin).

Certain files grow without limit and should be periodically purged. These include:


In general you should truncate these files to zero length (e.g., cp /dev/null /var/log/notice) rather than deleting the files, or the programs that use them may not create new files.

Finally, there may be files that you need periodically but do not need on-line all the time (e.g. the Linux kernel source). Consider backing these up to floppy or tape and restoring them on an as-needed basis.