ZFS File system Tomorrow
A standard single-layer DVD holds 4.7 gigabytes of data but can only handle individual files to a
maximum of 1GB. Hard disk drives formatted with the FAT32 filesystem might have partitions as
large as 32GB but no single file may exceed 4GB in size. Modern filesystems like NTFS on
Windows or HFS+ on Mac OS X do away with these limitations but lack platform interoperability.
Sun Microsystems has brought a new filesystem to market, ZFS, in hopes to make all this other
Currently available only in Sun's own Solaris 10 operating system -- heavy UNIX systems use it --
but making mainstream headway, ZFS is the filesystem of the future. Fully open-source (it can be
used by anyone without restrictive licensing fees), ZFS is expected to show up in Apple's next
server version of OS X, code-named "Snow Leopard", and the Linux community is working on
bringing it to that free operating system. No plans are on the table to make ZFS work with
Windows, but Microsoft's new filesystem, WinFS, originally planned to launch with Windows
Vista, was scrapped. If Windows gets a new filesystem, it too could be ZFS.
ZFS exceeds the capabilities of other modern filesystems in a number of ways. First of all, its
volume and file size limits boggle the mind. Researchers have asserted that the entirety of human
speech -- every word ever uttered by a person throughout history -- would consume 5 exabytes of
data. ZFS supports a maximum volume and file size over three times this: 16 exabytes. Today's
storage silos don't approach this upper limit, but give it a few years, particularly if you're Google. It
wasn't that long ago that a 1 terabyte drive was a fantasy, and now they're commonplace.
One of the main design concerns Sun addressed in developing ZFS was the traditional separation of
disk and file management tools -- disk partitioning, file system creation, compression, usage quotas,
security, and data protection are all rolled into ZFS itself, which removes the distinction between,
say, arranging disks in a mirror set and applying compression to a volume.
This consolidation of power brings understanding of the physical and logical layout of disk drives
and file systems under the same umbrella, which simplifies many operations. ZFS is inherently
aware of and ready to support RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks). Disks can be added
to a pool in real-time, storage pools expanded, even small disks replaced with larger ones to extend
capacity, all on the fly. You can't do this with legacy filesystems where upgrading to a larger disk
means a lengthy forklift of data file-by-file from the smaller disk to the larger one before the
smaller one is retired.
Legacy file systems operate on a partition-format-use scheme where the size of your filesystem is
set in stone from the beginning -- users generally create a single large partition to consume all the
space on a physical disk then format it for use. ZFS works differently. A ZFS filesystem uses no
space at all until files are added to it, and it only grows as its needed. With the ability to configure
"reservations," ZFS is based on establishing minimum sizes for filesystems, not maximum sizes for
partitions. It is because of this tweak that physical disks in a ZFS pool can be added and upgraded
on the fly.
ZFS is still in its infancy, having only been released in 2006, and as noted support is not yet
widespread. Other limitations exist too, such as the inability to use ZFS for a computer's boot drive,
which has been added to Sun Solaris only as recently as the newest October 2008 release of that
operating system. The Linux community clashes with the Sun community over incompatibility
between their different open-source licenses, which has delayed ZFS adoption by the Linux kernel.
ZFS should vault into the mainstream when it shows up in Mac OS X, and when it does it will be a
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