Pgfs: The PostGres File System

by Brian Bartholomew

The PostGres file system is a Linux NFS server that presents software versions as distinct file trees in an NFS file system. Each version is completely distinct from all other versions, and can be modified independently without regard to versions before or after it. Each version retains all of the properties it would have on a normal file system, such as file ownership, permissions, binary file contents, cross-directory hard links and non-files such as devices and symlinks. The effect is the same as if each version of the software had its own separate directory, except far less disk space is used.

Design Motivation for Pgfs

As an example, let's say that a year ago, you picked your favorite Linux distribution, and installed it on your new computer. The distribution had about 15,000 files, and took up about 200MB on disk. During the year you did a lot of hacking on your software, and it is now quite different from the original distribution. These modifications were done incrementally, and some of them replaced the original binaries with completely new binaries, for instance upgrading sendmail(8) or ftpd(8). Now you wish to compare your machine to the original distribution, examine the changes you've made, and apply them to a new distribution of Linux.

How do you record the changes you've made? You could save a complete copy of your distribution every time after you modified it—doing that would consume 200MB * 100 mods = 20 GB of disk. Even using a pair of 9 GB drives that's awfully expensive. However, you notice that most modifications change only a few files—perhaps a total of a half MB per modification. Storing only the files that changed would use 200MB + (100 mods * 0.5MB/mod) = 250MB of disk space—that's much better. What application would store only the differences for you? You could use CVS, but CVS isn't really suitable.

Now let's say you are a systems administrator, and you've faced this version control problem daily for years without finding a satisfactory solution. So since you're also a developer, you decide to build an application to store similar file trees that exploits the compression opportunities you've found. Fundamentally, this application would need to eat file trees and spit them back out again, and it must use less disk than keeping a whole copy of each tree. It should accept files one at a time or in bulk. You shouldn't have to extract and resubmit a whole file tree just to make one change.

How would you implement this application? Start by deciding what data structures are needed and what routines are needed to manipulate the structures. Let's start with files. Files consist of two parts—a stat(2) structure and a big chunk of binary data. Suppose you store the binary data in a file and name this file with a number. Then, name the stat structures with a number and store the fixed-length structures in an array on disk. The structures can be broken apart using field-splitting routines and assembled using record-making routines. Next, a structure is needed to represent the different versions of your software. Each version of your operating system consists of a tree of files. You name a tree of files that represent one specific software version a “version set” or “verset” and number them.

The next thing needed is some routines to search the stat array on disk for a specific structure, add structures and delete them. Since you will be doing random access to the structures, store them in a dbm (database management) file and use the dbm access routines instead of writing your own. Dbm also gives you routines to handle an index into the stat structure numbers, in order to make your access faster. You will need to write maintenance routines to copy dbm files and to copy fields from one dbm file to another with a different structure layout.

To add a new stat structure into your array may require modifying fields in structures other than the one you're adding; for instance, when you add one file to an existing file tree. Your programming task would be a lot simpler if you could collect a bunch of these modifications and do them all at once, or not do any of them if you discover a problem. The idea of doing all or none of a complex modification is called “transactions”.

To use your application you need commands for it to accept. Some commands might be “add this whole tree of files”, “add this single file” and “replace some bytes of a file with these bytes”. The NFS people have figured out the minimal set of file operations you need. (See Sidebar 1.) Now decide how stat(2) structures will be modified for each of the file operations and write pseudo code to modify the stat(2) array. While designing the semantics of the NFS commands, start thinking about sending your application NFS commands, making it an NFS server.

Next write your application. How about using an SQL database? A database decouples the application data structures from their representation on disk giving you the following advantages:

  1. Structures can be defined with arbitrary fields and stored in tables.

  2. A full set of routines to add, delete and modify structures is available, as well as indices to find structures quickly.

  3. A nice command language is available to translate between structure formats as the application evolves.

  4. Routines in the database are designed to operate on chunks of data that won't fit in memory all at once, so your application can grow without problems.

To add a field called “cokecans” to tally the number of cans of Coke it took to create each file, just add it. You can transfer your existing data to a new table with the cokecans field in a couple lines of SQL. Compare this to coding in C where a bunch of custom binary-format conversion programs would have to be written.

Then, find the skeleton of a user-level NFS server and port it to Linux (see Sidebar 2), and hook up the source of NFS commands to the command input of your application. Now you have an NFS server that presents file trees, but compresses away the similarities between trees. Since your application can be used like any file system, you don't have to build any specialized programs to manipulate versions—you can search files with grep and compare file trees with diff.

To control your application, create some fake magic filenames that it can treat as special, like procfs. The lines that are written to these files are the commands to your application. Now your application can be controlled with echo(1) commands from the shell rather than some obscure socket protocol.

The above description is not exactly how I went about writing Pgfs, but it does outline the design motivation. After I tried to store copies of a BSDI distribution under CVS and failed in practical terms, I set out to write an NFS server implemented on a database. My first version was coded in Perl5 using the PostGres client library, and I typed in NFS commands as space-separated text strings. I recoded in C to pick up the NFS RPCs. My first database design schema used one table for “names”--holding filenames and symlinks, and another table for “inodes”--holding the rest of the stat(2) structure and the pointer to the file contents. However, I didn't like the join operation (i.e., matching up rows from two tables with the same key), and I didn't want to implement join either in the database or the application code.

How Pgfs Works for the User

Let's use your favorite Linux distribution as an example of a file tree that needs version control. To start out, copy the virgin operating system from the CD-ROM into Pgfs:

cp -va /cdrom /pgfs/1/1

Let's examine that destination pathname. The pgfs part is where Pgfs is mounted. The first 1 is the “module”. Storing software that evolves independently in different modules saves disk space. The second 1 is the verset. We have a brand new empty Pgfs, so we'll write into verset 1. Once the copy is done, use ls to see what's in the pgfs directory:

ls -l /pgfs/1/1/bin/su /pgfs/1/1/dev/cua0
The output from ls looks like this:
-rwsr-xr-x  1 root   bin     9853 Aug 14 1995 /pgfs/1/1/bin/su
crw-rw----  1 root   uucp    5, 64 Jul 17 1994 /pgfs/1/1/dev/cua0
Notice the suid bit on su(1) and leading c on the cua0 mode. Pgfs stores attributes and non-files just like any other file system. This copy of su will make you root if you picked the mount option to accept suid bits when you mounted Pgfs. Next, copy verset 1 to a new verset, so that the new verset can be modified without changing the files in the old one:
echo "cpverset 1" > /pgfs/ctl
In your new verset, you install a newer version of sendmail:
cp /tmp/sendmail /pgfs/1/2/usr/sbin/sendmail
chown root.bin /pgfs/1/2/usr/sbin/sendmail
chmod 6555 /pgfs/1/2/usr/sbin/sendmail
Now that you have two different versets, you can compare their contents. You access multiple versets with shell wild cards or other filename expansions. To find what versets there are, do ls /pgfs/1.
strings - /pgfs/1/1/usr/sbin/sendmail | \
        grep version.c
@(#)version.c (Berkeley) 3/28/95
strings - /pgfs/1/{1,2}/usr/sbin/sendmail | \
        grep version.c
@(#)version.c (Berkeley) 3/28/95
@(#)version.c (Berkeley) 10/18/96
strings - /pgfs/1/*/usr/sbin/sendmail | \
        grep version.c
@(#)version.c (Berkeley) 3/28/95
@(#)version.c (Berkeley) 10/18/96
Visualizing Software Evolution

Most version control packages focus on the individual modification history of single files, and that's what their tools display. I think the idea of the set of files known as “customer release 1.0” is more important than the idea of how each file happened to arrive in that set.

Suppose a new employee comes across a Pgfs containing 200 versets. One of the first things she wants to know is what each verset represents and how they interrelate. Why is this verset here? Where did this verset come from? Which versets represent consistent software releases? Tools with the file as the basic unit would ask her to compare file histories at this point. Too bad there's no way to coherently display 40,000 individual file history trees when she's comparing two versions of /usr. Tools based around the verset scale work better, because there are a lot fewer versets than there are files per verset.

I wanted a program that reads an entire Pgfs database and plots the relationship of each verset to each other, in terms of quantity of shared files and unique files. Run against Pgfs, the program shows that verset 1 and 2 have 19,998 identical files and 2 different ones, and the different ones are /usr/foo and /usr/bar. The program plots boxes for 200 different versions of /usr, with connecting lines that vary in color and width depending on the percentage of shared files and the percentage of older and newer files. If I told the employee in words that two copies of /usr were “almost identical”, “quite a bit different”, or “from two different operating systems”, she would have a good idea of the approximate numbers I meant. In my program I want those pigeonholes to be visually obvious from the pictures that compare versets.

Access Transparency

For most system administration purposes I don't care how or why files changed. If I apply a vendor patch to a kernel, all I care about is getting the kernel tree back before and after the patch. I don't want to reverse- engineer the patch script into file adds, deletes, renames and modifies just to shove it into Pgfs. I shouldn't need to notify the version control system which files to view or modify with checkin/checkout commands. I just want an NFS file system, and whatever I have in the directory when I leave is stored in the verset for next time. Since I'm not going to be giving Pgfs hints about what I'm doing, every operation needs to be possible. Therefore, each verset must be totally independent from all the others. I don't want to be forced to evolve my files from previous files in a branch structure without loops, or to keep my filenames constant between versions because of the lack of directory versioning, to name two well-known limitations of CVS.

Pgfs Architecture:

Here's a description of the real Pgfs program that you can download. Pgfs is a normal user-level program that reads and writes ordinary TCP streams and UDP packets. Since it is a normal program that requires no privileges, it can run on any Linux system. It doesn't use any ground breaking system call features, so no kernel modifications are necessary. The TCP stream packets are generated by the PostGres client library, so Pgfs can interact with a PostGres database using SQL. The UDP packets are formatted by the conventions of the NFS protocol. All this means is that an NFS client such as a Linux kernel can choose to send NFS packets Pgfs' way, and can mount a file system as if Pgfs were any other variety of NFS server. The AMD automounter is another example of a user-level program that acts as an NFS server. AMD responds to the directory-browsing NFS operations that trigger an automounter response, whereas Pgfs responds to all NFS operations.

In essence, Pgfs is an NFS <-> SQL translator. When an NFS request comes in, the C code submits SQL to get the stat(2) structures for the directory and file mentioned in the request, doing error and permission checking as it goes along. First it compares the request with the data it gets back about the file, enforcing conditions, such as whether rmdir can or can't be used to delete a file.

If the request is valid and the permissions allow it, the C code finds all the stat(2) structures that must be changed, such as the current file, the current directory, the directory above and hard links that share the file's inode. Then these modifications are made in the database by SQL. The modifications include side effects like updating the access time that you might not ordinarily think of.

Each NFS operation is processed within a database transaction. If an “expected” error occurs that could be caused by bad user input on the NFS client, such as typing rmdir to delete a file, an NFS error is returned. If an “unexpected” error occurs, such as the database not responding or a file handle not found, the transaction is aborted in a way that will not pollute the file system with bad data.

Pgfs does all the things “by hand” that go on in a “real” file system. It uses PostGres as a storage device that it accesses by inode number, pathname and verset number. For an example, the nfs_getattr NFS operation works like the lstat(2) system call. getattr takes a file identifier, in this case an NFS handle instead of a pathname, and returns all the fields of a stat(2) structure. When Pgfs processes an nfs_getattr operation, the following things happen:

  1. The NFS packet is broken apart into operation and arguments.

  2. NFS operations counters are incremented.

  3. The NFS handle is broken into fields.

  4. Bounds-checking is done on the nfs_getattr parameters.

  5. stat(2) information is gotten for handle, e.g., select * from tree where handle = 20934

  6. Permissions are checked.

  7. File access times are updated, e.g., update tree set atime = 843357663 where inode = 8923

  8. NFS reply is constructed.

  9. Reply is sent to NFS client

Storage Schema

The single table that holds all the stat(2) structures has fields defined as shown in Table 1.

Inode numbers are unique across the entire database, even for identical files in different versets. Each file in each verset has one database row. Each directory has three rows; one for it's name from the directory above, one for . (dot), and one for .. (dot dot) from the directory below.

Philosophically, compression of similar file trees is the business of the back end of a program—it should not be visible to the user. In Pgfs, each collection of file bytes is contained in a Unix file, shared copy-on- write across all the versets from which the filename was inherited. Whenever a shared file is modified, a private copy is made for that verset. This matches Pgfs' system administration orientation, where files will be large and binary and replaced in total, and the old and new binaries won't be similar enough to make differences small. This differs from source code, where the same files get incrementally modified over and over and differences are small. With the keep-whole-files policy, doing a grep on files in multiple versets won't be slower than staying within a single verset. There is not a big delay while a compression algorithm unpacks intermediate versions into a temporary area.

Audience Participation Time

So far I've identified versets only by integers, but integers are boring. Since Pgfs is built on top of a database, all manner of things are possible. What naming schemes have you come up with for versets in other projects to support a configuration management effort? Are all the names/identifiers in a flat space? Are they hierarchical, and do they inherit properties from the location they are placed in? Let me know, I'm particularly interested in experiences from large projects with tens and hundreds of thousands of files per verset.

So far the only method I've supplied for making a new verset is by sending Pgfs a special command to copy one verset into a new one. However, a verset is just a collection of database rows, so it can be manufactured by a SQL program, perhaps one that represents a semi-automated multi-way merge across 14 versets. Take the base file tree from here, take this patch there, take this other patch over yonder, and make all the daemons owned by fred, thank you very much. What would an interface to control this process look like? Would you have an interactive file-browser shopping-cart thing, where you pulled bits and pieces from wherever you find them? How would this process resolve collisions?

There are more interesting open-ended questions in the BUGS and TODO files of the Pgfs distribution that concern both interface and implementation. I encourage you to pick a couple that interest you and talk about them on the host-gen mailing list.

Closing Thoughts

The most important message I want to give you is that file system hacking is not just for wizards anymore. NFS supplies a portable file system interface that eliminates the usual kernel-hacking requirements. NFS semantics are not great, but they are adequate for many things. Anyone can use the NFS-decoding portion of Pgfs as a skeleton and write a file system with whatever semantics they dream up. Mundane possibilities are an ftp-browsing or web-browsing file system. More interesting areas involve wide-area, fault-tolerant file systems with distributed physical redundancy. The job of higher-level protocols is to turn failure into bad performance. Instead of a list of Linux ftp sites to pick through by hand, wouldn't you rather use a file system that automatically gets blocks from the best-performing site of the moment? Wouldn't you like to create a new local storage area for a subtree of your favorite archive site, and the only thing your users need to know is...access just got faster? These ideas raise lots of interesting authentication and trust issues, many of which can be solved by the PGP model of the web-of-trust. Now, go forth and code.

Sidebar 3

Brian Bartholomew is writing Pgfs as a component of the Host Factory automated host maintenance system. Host Factory integrates hosts into a Borg collective. Working Version does large site toolsmithing, and further info on Host Factory is available at Brian can be reached at

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