Linux Storage Cache

Linux Content Index

File System Architecture – Part I
File System Architecture– Part II
File System Write
Buffer Cache
Linux File Write 

Every system use case involves a combination of software modules talking to each other. But an optimal system is more than set of efficient modules. The overall architectural arrangement of these modules and their data/control interfaces also impacts the performance. In that sense, several useful design methodologies can be observed from examining the storage sub system within Linux.

Application to VFS
Fig 1

Various abstraction layers have their own purpose. For example, VFS exposes a uniform interface to the user applications, while it’s the file system which actually implements the structural representation of files within the device. Eventually, how each storage sector is accessed will depend on the block driver interactions with the hardware. Productivity depends on how quickly a system can service user requests. In other words, the response time is critical. The pure logic implemented for each of the involved modules could be efficient, but if they are merely stacked up vertically then it will be only as good as using a primitive processor with no internal caches or pipelined executions.


Inode-Dentry Cache

Book keeping information associated with each file is represented by two kernel structures — Inodes and Dentries. In bare simple terms these constructs hold the information necessary to identify and locate the storage blocks associated with a file. A multitasking environment might have numerous processes accessing the same volume or even the same file. Caching this information at higher levels can reduce contentions associated with the corresponding lower layers. If the repeated file accesses would be picked from the VFS cache, then the file system will be free to quickly service the new requests. Consider a use case where there are multiple processes looking up for a file in different dedicated directories; without a cache, the contention on the file system will scale with the number of processes. But with a good cache mechanism, only the brand new requests would end up accessing the file system module. The idea is quite like a fully associative hierarchical hardware cache.

Inode/Dentry Cache
Fig 2 – Inode/Dentry Cache


Data Cache

Inodes and Dentries are accessed by the kernel to eventually locate the file contents, hence the above cache is only a part of the solution while the data cache handles the rest (see below Fig -3). Even here we need frequently accessed file data to be cached and only the new writes or new reads should end up contending for file system module attention. Please note that inside the kernel, the pages associated with file are arranged as a radix tree indexed via file offsets. While the dentry cache is managed by a hash table. Also, each such data cache is eventually associated with the corresponding Inode.

Cache mechanism also determines the program execution speed, it’s closely related to how efficiently the binary sections of the executable are managed within the RAM. For example, the read-ahead heuristics would determine how often the system endures an executable page miss. Also another useful illustration of the utility of a cache is the use case where a program is accessing files from the same volume where its executable is paging from; without a cache the contention on the file system module would be tremendous.

Full Cache
Fig 3 – Full Cache


Cache Management

Cache management involves its own complexities. How these buffers are filled, flushed, invalidated or marked as dirty depends on the file system module. Linux kernel merely invokes the file system registered call-backs and expects that the associated cache buffers would be handled accordingly. For example, during a file overwrite the file system should mark the overwritten cached page as dirty, otherwise the flush may never get invoked for that page.

We can also state that the Linux kernel VFS abstracts the pure logic of how data is represented on the storage device from how it’s viewed by kernel on a running system. In this manner the role of the file system is limited to its core functionality of mapping file access to actual storage blocks and it also deals with the transformation between internal file system specific representation of files to the generic VFS Inode, Dentry and data cache constructs. Eventually, how file is created, deleted or modified and how the associated data cache is managed depends solely on the file system module.

For example, a new file creation would involve invoking of the file system module call-backs registered via kernel structure “inode_operations”. The lookup call-backs registered here would be employed to avoid file name duplication and also the obvious “create inode” call would be needed to create the file. An fopen would invoke “file_operations” callback and similarly a data read/write would involve use of “address_space_operations”.

How the registered file system call-backs would eventually manage the inode, dentry and the page data cache buffers would depend on its own inherent logic. So here there is a kind of loop where the VFS calls the file system module call-backs and those modules would in turn call other kernel helper functions to handle specific cache buffer operations like clean, flush, write-back etc. In the end when the file system call-backs return the control back to VFS the associated caches should be already configured and ready for use.

Inode/Page Cache maps
Fig 4 – Inode/Page Cache maps


Load Store Analogy

A generic Linux file system can be described as a module which directly services the kernel cache by implementing functions for creating, invalidating or flushing various cache entries and in this manner it only indirectly caters to the POSIX file operations. The methodology here is in a way analogous to how a RISC load-store would differ from a 8051 like CISC design, separation of the slow memory access from the register operations constitute the core attribute of a load-store mechanism. Here the Linux kernel ensures that the operations on the cache can happen in parallel with an ongoing load or store which might involve the file system and the driver modules, the obvious trade-offs are complexity and memory consumption.



Caches are effective when there are read ahead mechanisms and background flusher tasks. A pipelined architecture would involve as much parallel execution as possible. Cache memories are filled in advance by the reader threads while the dirty entries are constantly flushed in the background by worker threads. Such sector I/O requests are asynchronously queued and processed by the block driver task which will eventually DMA them into the interfaced device. After the writes, the corresponding cache entries are marked as clean and similarly after the reads the entries are marked as up-to-date. The pipeline stages can be seen in the below Fig 5.

Kernel Storage Pipeline
Fig 5 – Kernel Storage Pipeline

System organization evolves over time when various use cases are analyzed for performance bottlenecks and the system arrangement itself is constantly revisited to remove those identified issues. Matured generic software architectures adapt effectively to all the intended use cases while remaining  within various resource constraints. For a general purpose operating system like Linux, the infrastructure for cache memory utilization is a good illustration of how various abstract software components can seamlessly coordinate with widely varying user requests.

Linux Buffer Cache and Block Device

Linux Content Index

File System Architecture – Part I
File System Architecture– Part II
File System Write
Buffer Cache
Storage Cache

Working on a flash file system port to Linux kernel mandates a good understanding of its buffer management, sometimes the excavation of internals can be a bit taxing but it’s needed for executing a well integrated port. Hopefully this write up will help someone who is looking to get a good design overview of the kernel buffer/page cache.

VFS work on top of pages and it allocates memory with a minimum granularity of the page size (usually 4K) but a storage device is capable of an I/O size much smaller than that (typically 512 bytes).  A case where the device write granularity is set to page size can result in redundant writes, for example if an application modifies 256 bytes of a file then the corresponding page in cache is marked as dirty & flushing of this file results in a transfer of 4K  bytes because there is no mechanism for the cache to identify the dirty sector within this dirty PAGE.

Buffer Cache bridges the page and the block universes, a page associated with a file  will be divided into buffers & when a page is modified only the corresponding buffer is set as dirty, so while flushing only the dirty buffer gets written. In other words a buffer cache is an abstraction done on top of a page, its simply a different facet to the same RAM memory. The data structure called “buffer_head” is used for managing these buffers, the below diagram is a rather crass depiction of this system.

Buffer Cache can traverse the list of these buffers associated with a page via the “buffer_head” linked list and identify their status; note that the above diagram assumes a buffer size of 1K.

How about streaming writes?

When dealing with huge quantities of data, the method of sequential transfer of small sectors can lead to a pronounced overall read-write head positioning delay and there is also this additional overhead due to multiple set up and tear down cycles of transfers.

Lets consider an example of a 16K buffer write operation consisting of four 4K pages, the memory mapping for these 4 pages are given in the table below. For example, sectors 0 to 3 of a file is located in the RAM address 0x1000 to 0x1FFF, and it’s mapped to storage blocks 10, 11, 12 & 13.

Blindly splitting the 16K into 16 buffers and writing them one by one will result in as many transfer set ups and teardowns, and also an equivalent number of read-write head position delays.

How about we reorder the writing of pages in the following manner?

Page1 >>> Page 3 >>> Page 2 >>> Page 4

The above sequence is the result of sorting the pages in an increasing order of block mappings, ie: from 10 till 25, a closer look will also reveal that the adjacent transfers have addresses running from 0x1000 till 0x4FFF and hence contiguous in RAM memory. This results in an uninterrupted  transfer of 16K bytes, which seems to be the best case optimization.

How does Linux achieve this gathering?

Let’s try to comprehend how bock driver subsystem skews application’s order of writes to achieve the previously described optimization.

Algorithm implemented by the above architecture is explained below

Step 1: A Buffer is encapsulated in a BIO structure.
File system buffers are encapsulated in a BIO structure  (submit_bh function can give the details). At this stage all the 16 buffers in our example are wrapped inside its corresponding BIO struct. We can see the mapping in the below table.

Step 2: A BIO is plugged into a request.
BIOs are sequentially submitted to the below layers and the those mapped to adjacent blocks are clubbed into a single “request“.  With the addition of the request struct we have the below updated mapping table, as you can see “Request 0” combines BIO 0,1,2 & 3.

Prior to adding the requests to the global block driver queue there is an intermediate task_struct queue, this is an obvious optimization aimed at clubbing the adjacent BIOs into one request and to minimize contention for the block driver queue. Yes, a global queuing operation cannot happen in parallel to another queuing or a de-queuing.

Step 3: Merge requests into the global queue.
Merging a request into the global queue will reorder and coalesce the adjacently mapped “requests” into one and in our case we will finally have only one single request which will envelop all the BIOs.

Step 4:Finally we need to identify the contiguous memory segments.
Block device driver will identify consecutive memory segments across adjacent BIOs and club them before initiating a transfer, this will reduces the I/O setup – tear down cycles. So we will have a segment attribute added to our final table which is given below.

The block device driver can also have a request scheduler, this scheduler algorithm will prioritize and pick requests to be de-queued from the global queue for I/O processing. Please note that the steps for read requests also follow the above framework.


The above bells and whistles are irrelevant when it comes to flash memories, so avoiding all this baggage might make a lot of sense.

Linux File System Stack – 2

Linux Content Index

File System Architecture – Part I
File System Architecture– Part II
File System Write
Buffer Cache
Storage Cache

A Linux file system is expected to handle two types of data structure species — Dentries & Inodes. They are indeed the defining characteristic of a file system running inside the Linux kernel. For example a path “/bm/celtic” contains three elements, “/” , “bm” & “celtic”, so each will have its own own dentry and inode. Among a lot of other information a dentry encapsulates the name, a pointer to the parent dentry and also a pointer to the corresponding inode.

What happens when we type “cd /bm/celtic”?

Setting the current working directory involves pointing the process “task_struct” to the dentry associated with “celtic”, locating that particular entry involves the following steps.

  1. “/” at the beginning of the string indicates root
  2. Root dentry is furnished during file system mount, so VFS has a point where it can start its search for a file or a directory.
  3. A file system module is expected to have the capability to search for a child when the parent dentry is provided to it. So VFS will request the dentry for “bm” by providing its parent dentry (root).
  4. It’s up to the file system module to find the child entry using the parent dentry. Note that the parent Dentry also has a pointer to its own inode which might hold the key.

The above sequence of steps will be repeated recursively. This time the parent will be  “bm” and “celtic” will be the child, in this manner VFS will generate a list of Dentries associated with a path.

Linux is geared to run on sluggish hard disks supported with relatively large DRAM memories. This might mean that there is this ocean of Dentries and Inodes cached in RAM & whenever a cache miss is encountered, VFS tries to access it using the above steps by calling the file system module specific “look_up” function.

Fundamentally a file system module is only expected to work on top of inodes, Linux will request operations like creation and deletion of inodes, look up of inodes, linking of inodes, allocation of storage blocks for inodes etc.

Parsing of paths, control cache management are all abstracted in kernel as part of VFS and buffer management as part of block driver framework.

How about writing to new file?

  1. User space communicates the buffer to be written using the “write” system call.
  2. VFS then allocates a kernel page and associates that with the write offset in the “address_space” of that inode, each inode has its own address_space indexed by the file offset.
  3. Every write needs to eventually end up in the storage device so the new page in the RAM cache will have to be mapped to a block in the storage device. For this VFS calls the “get_block” interface of a the file system module, which establishes this mapping.
  4. A copy_from_user_space routine moves the user contents into that kernel page and marks it as dirty.
  5. Finally the control returns to the application.

Overwriting contents of a file differ in two aspects – one is that the offset being written to might already have a page allocated in the cache and the other is that it would be already mapped to a block in the storage. So it’s just a matter of memcpy from user space to kernel space buffer. All the dirty pages are written when the kernel flusher threads kick in, and at this point the already established storage mapping will help the kernel identify to which storage block the page must go.

Reading a new file follows the similar steps but it’s just that the contents needs to be read from the device into the page and then into the user space buffer. If an updated page is encountered, the read from storage device read is of course avoided.