Just a quick question, but why are there so many file systems still competing and in use today? (ntfs, fat32, ext3(ffs), etc)

It seems that file system designers could agree upon the best aspects of each type of system and implement a "best" filesystem, no? Just a thought, since these filesystems have been around for a while now, and it should be at least somewhat apparent which ones have good qualities over others, and we could just combine the good in each and create an ultimate system that is much better

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    Should we try to combine a Ferrari with a backhoe too? Design is based off a series of trade-offs; perfect doesn't exist.
    – Pubby
    Oct 10, 2011 at 6:20
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    @Pubby8 I'll drive one. Oct 10, 2011 at 6:47
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    The true answer to this isn't just a technical discussion, but a legal one too.
    – detly
    Oct 10, 2011 at 6:58
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    This question reminds me of xkcd.com/927
    – dan04
    Oct 10, 2011 at 8:03
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    We'll do that about the same time that we make a camera that has a big, long high-quality lens, and is really lightweight, and fits in a pocket or purse, and is very inexpensive. The idea that you can take all the good parts and combine them into one best thing doesn't actually work out in practice. A list of good things is either incomplete or full of items that contradict each other. Oct 10, 2011 at 15:03

11 Answers 11


Let's think about the specifics here for a moment, using examples you've cited:

  • ntfs - Proprietary to Microsoft. Anyone who is not Microsoft cannot use this, therefore would have to use/create something different. Now, if you are Microsoft, you want to use this over FAT because of the issues of the next bullet point.

  • fat32 - Not sufficiently modern. The maximum file size is 4GB. Directory entry lookup is O(n). The allocation table is a linked list, rather than something more efficient like an allocation bitmap (where it's really quick to find contiguous free space). Does not support permissions. Does not support hard links or symbolic links. Does not support journaling.

  • ext3 - This was an extension of ext2 mainly to support journaling.

So, it seems there are a few reasons:

  1. An earlier filesystem lacks something. In the case of FAT it is lacking a lot: both in terms of (1) features and (2) performance. In the case of ext2 it did not have journalled updates, so recovering from a crash took more time.

  2. An existing filesystem would probably do, but it is not yours. (eg. NTFS if you're not Microsoft). In this case you don't really have much choice but to come up with your own.

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    Nitpick: actually, the maximum file size (according to the official specifications published by Microsoft itself) for FAT32 is 2 GiByte, but nobody, not even Microsoft implements it that stupidly :-) Oct 10, 2011 at 8:11
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    Nitpick 2: the NTFS file format was invented by Microsoft, but it is a published format and there are no known patent encumberances. Various non-Microsoft operating systems implement NTFS, including Linux.
    – Stephen C
    Oct 10, 2011 at 12:38
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    Xfs - designed to allow for quick streaming retrieval of massive files (designed for video workstations). ZFS - a filesystem for the 21st century. ReiserFS - an attempt to create a "killer" filesystem. Each filesystem has it's strengths and weaknesses, each was created to fulfill a certain need. Oct 10, 2011 at 13:47
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    @Stephen C: NTFS wasn't exactly "invented" by Microsoft. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NTFS#History
    – Secure
    Oct 10, 2011 at 13:48
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    @StephenC Are you sure about that? As far as I know NTFS is not documented. Most open source implementations warn you that there will be severe damage if you try to write to them using that driver when Windows has left the disk in certain states.
    – asveikau
    Oct 10, 2011 at 17:13

Short answer: One size does not fit all.

There are trade-offs. For example if you want a journaled FS, you pay (efficiency, complexity, etc.) for it but get something out of it. Some don't feel the need for a journaled FS and don't want to pay for it, some do. Same with other "features" of the FS.

  • When was the last time you decided which FS fits your specific needs? I'm more on the coding side than on operations, but i never saw such a decision. Especially, since there is often no real choice: MS->Ntfs. Linux: Ext(latest), maybe Reiser.
    – keppla
    Oct 10, 2011 at 13:40
  • @keppla: Decision are often made by the OS designers. File systems are not balkanized by the end users.
    – Zano
    Oct 10, 2011 at 14:15
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    @keppla: Any time I decide to format a flash drive, I turn off journaling and decide whether it is for my own usage only (then ext2, because it has POSIX file permissions) or for sharing with others (then fat32). Yet for hard drives I tend to use NTFS (when on Windows) or ext4 (when on Linux)...
    – liori
    Oct 10, 2011 at 15:58
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    @keppla Almost all Linux systems come with the capability to use several different filesystems, not just ext[2..4]. When I set up a Linux box, I look at the purpose of the box. For instance: my Linux DVR machine runs JFS on the Video Storage drive because it handles large files much more gracefully than ext3 and uses less CPU overhead than XFS. But for the user accounts and system files on the same machine I run EXT3 because I am dealing with smaller file sizes.
    – jwernerny
    Oct 10, 2011 at 16:42
  • @keppla: Additionally, on Mac OS X too you can have a choice between various combinations of capabilities of their FS. Moreover, originally I intended the tone to be that of someone who designs the FS. Because, the OP asked why doesn't a designer design a FS which has the best of everything. And what I try to point out is the best is relative to where it is going to be used. Some places a feature is useful some other places the same feature is an unnecessary overhead. Oct 10, 2011 at 17:03

There can't ever be one "best" of anything because there are so many opinions about what "best" is. The decision is specific to the needs and limitations of the user. Designs are always based on their ability to fit within constraints.

A basic mobile phone needs to store a few hundred contacts, text message history, and a few small apps. Does its filesystem need to support a hierarchical directory structure on multi-terabyte drives in a RAID configuration? Is there sufficient RAM on the device to run such a filesystem? Does the filesystem need complex ACLs? Probably not -- for all of these questions -- so a simple, resource-sipping filesystem would suffice.

Companies will also develop different products to maintain a competitive advantage. For instance, Apple touts the ability of its HFS+ filesystem to track which files have changed recently so that backups are quick. On the flip side, the drivers for a floppy disk filesystem (FAT) can fit in just a few KB of memory.

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    The problem is NOT that nobody can an agree on what "best" means. The problem is that there cannot be a "best" ...
    – Stephen C
    Oct 11, 2011 at 7:30
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    @Stephen: Of course there can be a “best”. We just need to decide the measurement metric first. Oct 11, 2011 at 7:54
  • Only if you can get everyone to agree.
    – Stephen C
    Oct 25, 2011 at 11:51

Too much depends on what you want to optimize.

Consider FAT for a moment: its support for long file names is kludgy (to put it nicely), and searching through files in a directory is linear so it gets slow very quickly if a directory contains a lot of files. At the same time, it has a bare minimum of metadata to raw write speed is very good, and since it's so simple over all, code to implement it can be quite small.

Something like ext2 or ext3 adds a lot of features and capabilities that are simply absent from FAT. Searching for files is also quite a lot faster. At the same time, raw writing speed is probably a bit slower, and the code to implement the file system is undoubtedly quite a lot larger.


Just a quick question, but why are there so many file systems still competing and in use today? (ntfs, fat32, ext3(ffs), etc)

It seems that file system designers could agree upon the best aspects of each type of system and implement a "best" filesystem, no?

Let's suppose that there weren't tradeoffs, and file system designers did implement a "best" filesystem, free from patent worries, and released as dual-licence BSD/GPL so that it would be acceptable to MS and Debian alike. What makes you think that the other file systems would vanish overnight?

I don't think anyone's used FAT32 on a new hard drive for 10 years, but it still persists as the de facto standard for formatting USB drives, SD cards, etc. Camera and mobile phone manufacturers have tried and tested firmware for using it. Arduino hobbyists have stable libraries for using it. They're all going to need big incentives to change.

And then you have the issues of backwards compatibility with older OSes (especially Windows, whose users won't want to install new filesystem drivers).

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    it's nice to have some kind of external device formatted to FAT32 for cross platform capability. That's why you will see a lot of external devices formatted to FAT32.
    – Matt
    Oct 10, 2011 at 8:28
  • @Matt, is that not a subset of what I said? Oct 10, 2011 at 8:38
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    And for small micros, the code to implement basic FAT support fits into only a few kbytes. This matters when you have only a few kbytes total to play in. Oct 10, 2011 at 8:48
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    @Peter i was more stating it for the fact that you can use it on different OSes without any problems.
    – Matt
    Oct 10, 2011 at 9:08

As is so often the case in computing the answer is (a) because of historical circumstance and the need to maintain backwards compatibility and (b) because some methods are better suited to some tasks than others.

On (a) you need to remember that the "Winchester drive" - I am just about old enough to remember them being called that - (what the rest of the world calls a 'hard drive') has only been around for about half the time of electronic computing and even then it has not been accessible to most users for even that long for cost reasons. The FAT file system worked well on floppy disks and also on the original small hard drives as it was reasonably efficient and required low overhead. Once it started to be used - and its use spread widely because it is simple to implement - manufacturers could not tell its users that their old data was suddenly invalid.

Similarly, for Linux users, say, a stable NTFS driver was a long time coming, so keeping devices formatted as FAT meant they could be read and written across multiple systems.

On (b) - think of the differences between a system that, say, stores, billions of text-based database records and one that stores DVD-length media files. For the databse each record could be very small - perhaps just 30 or 40 bytes and certainly a filesystem that allocated a whole 'segment' (however you want to define that) of disk is likely to be wasteful of diskspace. Not so with the DVDs - bigger 'segments' (within reason, obviously) are likely to be highly efficient in space terms.

So different filesystems are designed for different purposes.


Yet another example of why there can never be a perfect file system for everyone: HDDs and SSDs have very different read/write access characteristics. An SSD-optimized filesystem would probably work best by fragmenting files like crazy but with every fragment the page size of the SSD itself; this would perform terribly on an HDD. An HDD-optimized filesystem tries to keep files as unfragmented as possible and even puts frequently-used files in the "hot" area on the faster-spinning outer portion of the platter; these characteristics wouldn't help SSD read speeds at all, and puts a huge encumbrance on how they are written to.


I think a very important fact is missing. Most of the time programmers tend to think that their way of doing something is superior to all other ways and therefore they look at a File System design and come up with problems and solutions that seem to be more general, elegant, fast, right... And if this feeling is strong enough they are free to build their own file system.

This leeds to competition, fragmentation, confustion and I hope in the end better solutions and more options to choose a matching solution for you.


Here's another concrete example of why you would need a separate file system or extend the functionality of an existing FS.

  1. Say you are a database vendor and would like to reduce the complexity of managing striping / mirroring of data to improve IO. You will feel the need to extend the functionality of basic file systems as Oracle did with ASM (Automated Storage Manager) which is like a Logical Volume Manager.

In your list you mention an old filesystem used because a better one is no available however it is fast.

There are other filesystems. I heard google filesystem is mostly for fast duplication/redundancy if one harddrive or server goes down. I remember hearing of another filesystem made for many small files and to be used on a system for lots of request on small file (thumbnails).

Essentially they have difference goals and or may be propriety vs open source.


I think that ZFS (use by Solaris in Sun system [now Oracle]) is THE solution for file system.

Unfortunatly Oracle close OpenSolaris for discoverer and test it.

ZFS is open source, some Linux are trying to integrate it, look in Wikipedia for more informations.

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