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Operating The Linux Filesystem (203.1)

Candidates should be able to properly configure and navigate the standard Linux filesystem. This objective includes configuring and mounting various filesystem types.

Key Knowledge Areas

  • The concept of the fstab configuration

  • Tools and utilities for handling SWAP partitions and files

  • Use of UUIDs for identifying and mounting file systems

  • Understanding of systemd mount units

Terms and Utilities

  • /etc/fstab

  • /etc/mtab

  • /proc/mounts

  • mount and umount

  • sync

  • swapon

  • swapoff

  • blkid

The File Hierarchy

Historically, the location of certain files and utilities has not always been standard (or fixed). This has led to problems with development and upgrading between different "distributions" of Linux. The Linux directory structure (or Linux directory structure file hierarchy) was based on existing flavors of UNIX, but as it evolved, certain inconsistencies came into being. These were often small things such as the location (or placement) of certain configuration files, but this resulted in difficulties porting software from host to host.

To equalize these differences a file standard was developed. This, to date, is an evolving process resulting in a fairly static model for the Linux file hierarchy. This filesystem hierarchy is standardized Linux file hierarchy in the filesystem hierarchy standard. The current version is 2.3. More information and documentation on the FHS can be found at Filesystem Hierarchy Standard homepage. See also the section on the FHS standard.

The top level of the Linux file hierarchy is referred to as the root (or / ). The root directory typically contains several other directories. An overview was already presented in the section that discusses the contents of the root file system. A recap:

  `bin/`          Required boot-time binaries
  `boot/`         Boot configuration files for the OS loader and kernel image
  `dev/`          Device files
  `etc/`          System configuration files and scripts
  `home/`         User home directories
  `lib/`          Main OS shared libraries and kernel modules
  `lost+found/`   Storage directory for "recovered" files
  `media/`        Mount point(s) for removable media like CD-ROM's, flash disks and floppies
  `mnt/`          Temporary mount point for filesystems as needed by a system administrator
  `opt/`          Reserved for the installation of large add-on application software packages
  `proc/`         A \"virtual\" filesystem used by Linux systems to store information about the kernel, processes and current resource usage
  `root/`         Linux (non-standard) home directory for the root user. Alternate location being the `/` directory itself
  ` sbin/`        System administration binaries and tools
  ` tmp/`         Location of temporary files
  ` usr/`         Shareable, read-only data, containing e.g. user commands, C programs header files and non-vital system binaries
  ` var/`         Variable data, usually machine specific. Includes spool directories for mail and news, administrative and logging data

Generally, the root should not contain any additional files NDASH a possible exception would be mount points for various purposes.


A filesystem consists of methods and data structures that an filesystems operating system uses to keep track of files on a disk or partition; that is, the way the files are organised on the disk. The word is also used to refer to a partition or disk that is used to store the files or the type of the filesystem. Thus, one might say "I have two filesystems" meaning one has two partitions on which files are stored, or one might say "I am using the XFS filesystem", meaning the type of the XFS filesystem.

The difference between a disk or partition and the partition filesystem it contains is important. A few programs (including those that create filesystems) operate directly on the raw sectors of a disk or partition; if a filesystem is already there it will be destroyed or seriously corrupted. Most programs operate on a filesystem, and therefore won't work on a partition that doesn't contain one (or that contains a filesystem of the wrong type).

Before a partition or disk can be used as a filesystem, it needs to be initialized, and the bookkeeping data structures need to be written to the disk. This process is called making a filesystem. making a filesystem

Most UNIX filesystem types have a similar general structure, although the exact details vary quite a bit. The central superblock inode directory blocks indirection blocks concepts are superblock, inode, data block, directory block, and indirection block. The superblock contains information about the filesystem as a whole, such as its size (the exact information here depends on the filesystem). An inode contains all information about a file, except its name. The name is stored in the directory, together with the number of the inode. A directory entry consists of a filename and the number of the inode which represents the file. The inode contains the numbers of several data blocks, which are used to store the data in the file. There is space only for a few data block numbers in the inode, however, and if more are needed, more space for pointers to the data blocks is allocated dynamically. These dynamically allocated blocks are indirect blocks; the name indicates that in order to find the data block, one has to find its number in the indirect block first.

Creating Filesystems

Before a partition can be mounted (or used), a filesystem must Creatingfilesystem first be installed on it NDASH with ext2, this is the process of creating i-nodes and data blocks.

This process is the equivalent of initializing the partition. Under create filesystem mkfs Linux, the command to create a filesystem is called mkfs.

The command is issued in the following way:

    mkfs [-c] [ -t fstype ] filesystem [ blocks ]


    mkfs -t ext2 /dev/fd0 # Make a ext2 filesystem on a floppy



  • forces a check for bad blocks

-t fstype

  • specifies the filesystem type. For most filesystem types there is a shorthand for this e.g.: mkfs -t ext2 can also be called as ext2 mke2fs or mkfs.ext2 mkfs.ext2 and mkfs -t vfat or mkfs -t msdos can also be called as mkfs.vfat, mkfs.msdos or mkdosfs


  • is either the device file associated with the partition or device OR is the directory where the file system is mounted (this is used to erase the old file system and create a new one)

Note Creating a filesystem on a device with an existing filesystem will cause all data on the old filesystem to be erased.

Mounting and Unmounting

Linux presents all filesystems as one directory tree. Hence to add a new device with a filesystem on it its filesystem needs to be made part of that one directory tree. The way this is done is by attaching the new filesystem under an existing (preferably empty) directory, which is part of the existing directory tree - the "mount" point.

To attach a new file system to the directory mount unmount hierarchy you must mount its associated device file. First you will need to create the mount point; a directory where the device will be attached. As directories are part of a filesystem too the mount point exists on a previously mounted device. It should be empty. If is is not the files in the directory will not be visible while the device is mounted to it, but will reappear after the device has been disconnected (or unmounted). This type of security by obscurity is sometimes used to hide information from the casual onlooker.

To mount a device, use the mount command:

    mount [options] device_file mount_point

With some devices, mount will detect what type of filesystem exists on the device, however it is more usual to use mount in the form of:

    mount [options] -t file_system_type device_file mount_point

Generally, only the root user can use the mount command - mainly due to the fact that the device files are owned by root. For example, to mount the first partition on the second (IDE) hard drive off the /usr directory and assuming it contained the ext2 filesystem, you'd enter the command:

    mount -t ext2 /dev/hdb1 /usr

A common device that is mounted is the floppy drive. A floppy disk generally contains the FAT, also known as msdos, filesystem (but not always) FAT and is mounted with the command:

    mount -t msdos /dev/fd0 /mnt

Note that the floppy disk was mounted under the /mnt directory. This is because the /mnt directory is the usual place to temporarily mount devices.

To see which devices you currently have mounted, simply type the command mount. Some sample output:

    /dev/hda3 on / type ext2 (rw)
    /dev/hda1 on /dos type msdos (rw)
    none on /proc type proc (rw)
    /dev/cdrom on /cdrom type iso9660 (ro)
    /dev/fd0 on /mnt type msdos (rw)

Each line shows which device file is mounted, where it is iso9660 mounted, what filesystem type each partition is and how it is mounted (ro = read only, rw = read/write). Note the strange entry on line three NDASH the proc filesystem. This is a special "virtual" filesystem used by Linux systems to store information about the kernel, processes and current resource usage. It is actually part of the system's memory NDASH in other words, the kernel sets aside an area of memory in which it stores information about the system. This same area is mounted onto the filesystem so that user programs have access to this information.

The information in the proc filesystem can also be used to see which filesystems are mounted by issuing the command: /proc/mounts

    $ cat /proc/mounts
    /dev/root / ext2 rw 0 0
    proc /proc proc rw 0 0
    /dev/hda1 /dos msdos rw 0 0
    /dev/cdrom /cdrom iso9660 ro 0 0
    /dev/fd0 /mnt msdos rw 0 0

The difference between /etc/mtab and /proc/mounts is that /etc/mtab is the user space administration kept by mount, and /proc/mounts is the information kept by the kernel. The latter reflects the information in user space. Due to these different implementations the info in /proc/mounts is always up-to-date, while the info in /etc/mtab may become inconsistent.

To release a device and disconnect it from the filesystem, the umount command is used. It is issued in the form: umount

    umount device_file


    umount mount_point

For example, to release the floppy disk, you'd issue the command:

    umount /dev/fd0


    umount /mnt

Again, you must be the root user or a user with privileges to do this. You can't unmount a device/mount point that is in use by a user (e.g. the user's current working directory is within the mount point) or is in use by a process. Nor can you unmount devices/mount points which in turn have devices mounted to them.

The system needs to mount devices during boot. In true UNIX fashion, there is a file which governs the behaviour of mounting devices at boot time. In Linux, this file is /etc/fstab. Lines from the /etc/fstabfile use the following format:

    device_file mount_point file_system_type mount_options [n] [n]

The first three fields are self explanatory; the fourth field, mount_options defines how the device will be mounted (this includes information of access mode ro / rw , execute permissions and other information) - information on this can be found in the mount man pages (note that this field usually contains the word "defaults" ). The fifth and sixth fields are used by the system utilities dump and fsck respectively - see the next section for details.

There's also a file called /etc/mtab. It lists the currently mounted partitions in fstab form.

Systemd Mount Units

Linux distributions that have adopted the systemd initialization system have an additional way of mounting filesystems. Instead of using the fstab file for persistent mounting, a filesystem can be configured using a mount unit file. This mount unit file holds the configuration details for systemd to persistently mount filesystems.

A systemd mount unit file has a specific naming convention. The file name refers to the absolute directory it will be mounted on and the file extension is .mount. For the name of the file the first and last forward slash (/) of the mount path it represents are removed and the remaining slashes are converted to a dash (-). So if, for example, a filesystem is mounted to the mount point /home/user/data/ the mount unit file must be named home-user-data.mount

In the mount file three required sections are defined: [Unit], [Mount] and [Install]. An example of a mount unit file /etc/systemd/system/home-user-data.mount:

    Description=Data for User



To test the configuration reload the systemctl daemon by using the command systemctl daemon-reload and then manually start the mount unit file with the command systemctl start followed by the mount unit file. In our example that would be systemctl start home-user-data.mount. Next you can check if the filesystem was mounted correctly by getting the overview from mount. If everything works as expected make the filesystem mount persistent by enabling the mount unit file with the command systemctl enable home-user-data.mount.


Swap space in Linux is a partition or file that is used to move the contents of inactive pages of RAM to when RAM becomes full. Linux can use either a normal file in the filesystem or a swap separate partition for swap space. A swap partition is faster, but it is easier to change the size of a swap file (there's no need to repartition the whole hard disk, and possibly install everything from scratch). When you know how much swap space you need, you should use a swap partition, but if you are in doubt, you could use a swap file first, and use the system for a while so that you can get a feel for how much swap you need, and then make a swap partition when you're confident about its size. It is recommended to use a separate partition, because this excludes chances of file system fragmentation, which would reduce performance. Also, by using a separate swap partition, it can be guaranteed that the swap region is at the fastest location of the disk. On current HDDs this is at the beginning of the platters (outside rim, first cylinders). It is possible to use several swap partitions and/or swap files at the same time. This means that if you only occasionally need an unusual amount of swap space, you can set up an extra swap file at such times, instead of keeping the whole amount allocated all the time.

The command mkswap is used to initialize a mkswap swap partition or a swap file. The partition or file needs to exist before it can be initialized. A swap partition is created with a disk partitioning tool like fdisk and a swap file can be created with: /dev/zero

    dd if=/dev/zero of=swapfile bs=1024 count=65535

When the partition or file is created, it can be initialized with:

    mkswap {device|file}

An initialized swap space is taken into use with swapon. This swapon command tells the kernel that the swap space may be used. The path to the swap space is given as the argument, so to start swapping on a temporary swap file one might use the following command:

    swapon /swapfile

or, when using a swap partition:

    swapon /dev/hda8

Swap spaces may be used automatically by listing them in the file /etc/fstab:

    /dev/hda8 none swap sw 0 0
    /swapfile none swap sw 0 0

The startup scripts will run the command swapon -a, which will start swapping on all the swap spaces listed in /etc/fstab. Therefore, the swapon command is usually used only when extra swap is needed. You can monitor the use of swap spaces with free free. It will report the total amount of swap space used:

    $ free
    total used free shared buffers cached
    Mem: 127148 122588 4560 50 1584 69352
    -/+ buffers/cache: 51652 75496
    Swap: 130748 57716 73032

The first line of output (Mem:) shows the physical memory. The total column does not show the physical memory used by the kernel, which is loaded into the RAM memory during the boot process. The used column shows the amount of memory used (the second line does not count buffers). The free column shows completely unused memory. The shared column shows the amount of memory used by tmpfs (shmem in /proc/meminfo); The buffers column shows the current size of the disk buffer cache.

That last line (Swap: ) shows similar information for the swap spaces. If this line is all zeroes, swap space is not activated.

The same information, in a slightly different format, can be shown by using cat on the file /proc/meminfo /proc/meminfo:

    $ cat /proc/meminfo
    total used free shared buffers cached
    Mem: 130199552 125177856 5021696 0 1622016 89280512
    Swap: 133885952 59101184 74784768
    MemTotal: 127148 kB
    MemFree: 4904 kB
    MemShared: 0 kB
    Buffers: 1584 kB
    Cached: 69120 kB
    SwapCached: 18068 kB
    Active: 80240 kB
    Inactive: 31080 kB
    HighTotal: 0 kB
    HighFree: 0 kB
    LowTotal: 127148 kB
    LowFree: 4904 kB
    SwapTotal: 130748 kB
    SwapFree: 73032 kB

swapoff To disable a device or swap file, use the swapoff command:

    # swapoff /dev/sda3


The term UUID stands for Universal Unique IDentifier. It's a 128 bit number that can be used to identify basically anything. Generating such UUIDs can be done using appropriate software. There are 5 various versions of UUIDs, all of them use a (pseudo)random element, current system time and some mostly unique hardware ID, for example a MAC address. Theoretically there is a very, very remote chance of an UUID not being unique, but this is seen as impossible in practice.

On Linux, support for UUIDs was started within the e2fsprogs package. With filesystems, UUIDs are used to represent a specific filesystem. You can for example use the UUID in /etc/fstab to represent the partition which you want to mount.

Usually, a UUID is represented as 32 hexadecimal digits, grouped in sequences of 8,4,4,4 and 12 digits, separated by hyphens. Here's what an fstab entry with a UUID specifier looks like:

    UUID=652b786e-b87f-49d2-af23-8087ced0c828 / ext4 errors=remount-ro,noatime 0 1

You might be wondering about the use of UUID's in fstab, since device names work fine. UUIDs come in handy when disks are moved to different connectors or computers, multiple operating systems are installed on the computer, or other cases where device names could change while keeping the filesystem intact. As long as the filesystem does not change, the UUID stays the same.

Note the 'as long as the filesystem does not change'. This means, when you reformat a partition, the UUID will change. For example, when you use mke2fs to reformat partition /dev/sda3, the UUID will be changed. So, if you use UUIDs in /etc/fstab, you have to adjust those as well.

blkid If you want to know the UUID of a specific partition, use blkid /path/to/partition:

    # blkid /dev/sda5
    /dev/sda5: UUID="24df5f2a-a23f-4130-ae45-90e1016031bc" TYPE="swap"

Note It is possible to create a new filesystem and still make it have the same UUID as it had before, at least for 'ext' type filesystems.

    # tune2fs /dev/sda5 -U 24df5f2a-a23f-4130-ae45-90e1016031bc

Note On most Linux distributions you can generate your own UUIDs using the command uuidgen.


To improve performance of Linux filesystems, many operations are done in filesystem buffers, stored in RAM. To actually flush the data contained in these buffers to disk, the sync command is used.

sync is called automatically at the right moment when rebooting or halting the system. You will rarely need to use the command yourself. sync might be used to force syncing data to an USB device before removing it from your system, for example.

sync does not have any operation influencing options, so when you need to, just execute \"sync\" on the command line.