David Mertz, Ph.D.
Welcome to "Understanding Filesystems", the third of eight tutorials designed to prepare you for LPI exam 201. In this tutorial you will learn how to control the mounting and unmounting of filesystems, examine existing filesystems, create filesystems, and perform remedial actions on damaged filesystems.
The Linux Professional Institute (LPI) certifies Linux system administrators at junior and intermediate levels. There are two exams at each certification level. This series of eight tutorials helps you prepare for the first of the two LPI intermediate level system administrator exams--LPI exam 201. A companion series of tutorials is available for the other intermediate level exam--LPI exam 202. Both exam 201 and exam 202 are required for intermediate level certification. Intermediate level certification is also known as certification level 2.
Each exam covers several or topics and each topic has a weight. The weight indicate the relative importance of each topic. Very roughly, expect more questions on the exam for topics with higher weight. The topics and their weights for LPI exam 201 are:
Topic 201: Linux Kernel (5) Topic 202: System Startup (5) Topic 203: Filesystems (10) Topic 204: Hardware (8) Topic 209: File Sharing Servers (8) Topic 211: System Maintenance (4) Topic 213: System Customization and Automation (3) Topic 214: Troubleshooting (6)
Welcome to "Understanding Filesystems", the third of eight tutorials designed to prepare you for LPI exam 201. In this tutorial you will learn the steps a Linux system goes through during system initialization, and how to modify and customize those behaviors for you specific needs.
To get the most from this tutorial, you should already have a basic knowledge of Linux and a working Linux system on which you can practice the commands covered in this tutorial.
This tutorial addresses both elements of Linux strictly speaking and also external tools that are merely useful for working with Linux systems. Support for filesystems, devices and partitions is either compiled into the base kernel or included in kernel modules. So that aspect is a Linux kernel matter, as such. However, various tools that you are likely to use in managing these filesystems recognized by Linux are userland utilities, and hence merely commonly included with Linux distributions rather than part of Linux itself. Nonetheless, filesystem tools are essential for working with pretty much every Linux system, regardless of its intended use (even non-networked or embedded systems).
Before you can work with Linux filesystems, you need to create them. But before you can create a filesystem, you need to create a partition to put it on. As a brief primer, on x86 machines, hard disks may be divided into four primary partitions, but the last of those primary partitions may contain a number of extended partitions inside it. In the past there were a number of restrictions about the highest cylinders where bootable partitions can occur, maximum disk sizes, where primary partitions could be located on large disks, and so on. However, for the last five years or more, pretty much all system bios's flexibly handle disks of essentially unlimited size, and modern bootloaders (at least for Linux), have no important restrictions about paritition sizes or locations.
About the only rule that remains to worry about nowadays concerns operating systems other than Linux. Sometimes those still insist on living in primary partititions near the front of a hard disk. Linux parititions are more than happy to reside on extended partitions, and anywhere on any accessible disk drive.
There are several widely used tools in the Linux world for creating
and manipulating partitions on harddisks. The oldest such tool is
fdisk. Somewhat later the
cfdisk has become
parted is also used in many distributions. As well,
the installation systems for most Linux distributions and/or their
graphical environments come with partititioning front-ends that
provide friendlier interfaces to viewing and modifying partititions.
Of these tools,
fdisk seems to remain the most flexible and most
forgiving tool. Forgiving, however, is a slightly odd term to use
here. Writing unintended partition table information is a recipe for
disaster regardless of what tool you use. But if your partitions have
been created in somewhat non-standard ways, often by non-Linux
operating systems and tools,
fdisk will generally trudge through
where other tools might refuse to try at all. If it works, however,
cfdisk is generally friendlier and more interactive. And
provides more powerful options about resizing and moving existing
partitions non-destructively than will
Whatever tool you use to create partitions, the concepts are similar. First thing is that you need to perform these sort of opertions as root, and ideally in single-user mode. And it's hard to make this point too strongly: be careful when you modify partitions (ideally, have all important data backed up, as well as paying careful attention to what changes you make).
Before you start modifying a partitition table, it is a good idea to
be clear about what partitions currently exist. The command
fdisk -l /dev/hda (or similar for other disks, e.g.
/dev/sda) gives you information on existing partitions.
also helpful in helping understand how these existing paritions are
acutally being used. If you wish to create new partitions, keep
particularly in mind any extra sectors within the fourth primary
partition that might be available for additional extended partitions.
Let us see an example of a partition table on a Linux system of mine:
% fdisk -l /dev/sda Disk /dev/sda: 80.0 GB, 80026361856 bytes 255 heads, 63 sectors/track, 9729 cylinders Device Boot Start End Blocks Id System /dev/sda1 * 1 1216 9767488+ 7 HPFS/NTFS /dev/sda3 1217 4255 24410767+ 83 Linux /dev/sda4 4256 9729 43969905 5 Extended /dev/sda5 4256 4380 1004031 82 Linux swap / Solaris /dev/sda6 4381 5597 9775521 83 Linux
This tells us several things. First of all, we can see that partition
one is probably used by a foriegn operating system. And running
mount will let us know:
% mount | head -1 /dev/sda3 on / type reiserfs (rw,noatime,notail,commit=600)
That is, the existing system is rooted on
/dev/sda3. Of most
interest, perhaps, is that the
/dev/sda4 parition extends to
cylinder 9729, but the extended paritions within it use only part of
In the last panel, we discovered some free space available on a drive.
Let us create a partition within it using
% fdisk /dev/sda The number of cylinders for this disk is set to 9726 There is nothing wrong with that, but this is larger than 1024, and could in certain setups cuase problems with: 1) software that runs at boot time (e.g., old versions of LILO) 2) booting ant partitioning software from other OSs (e.g., DOS FDISK, OS/2 FDISK) Command (m for help): n Command action l logical (5 or over) p primary partition (1-4) l First cylinder (5598-9729), default 5598): Using default value 5598 Last cylinder or +size or +sizeM or +sizeK (5598-9729, default 9729): +10000M Command (m for help): w The partition table has been altered!
Everything that follows a colon is typed in by the user (you). At this point, we have created a new 10GB Linux partition, i.e.:
/dev/sda7 5598 6814 9775521 83 Linux
Keep reading to find out how to use this partition. Note that you may need to reboot a system to make new paritions accessible.
Just having a partition is not quite enough to use a filesystem. In
the prior panel we created a new Linux parition at
/dev/sda7. But we
still have not yet decided which of the many filesystems Linux
supports to use within that parition. Do we want the historical
ext2? Or the newer journaling-enhanced extension
format? Maybe we want one of the enhanced filesystems contributed to
Linux by other parties, ReiserFS, XFS, JFS. Or maybe we need a
filesystem to interoperate with another operating system, such as
Minix, MSDOS, of VFAT (some others can be read if created already, but
not always created with Linux tools).
All of the tools for making new filesystems are names as
That is, your system might have
and so on, usually installed in
/sbin/. As well, you may access
each of these using the basic
mkfs -t <fstype> switch. Several, but
not all, of the filesystems also have compact forms as, e.g.
Exactly which filesystems are available depends on your specific Linux
distribution and version, as well as what extra tools you might have
mkfs.ext2 is almost certainly available on nearly every
The basics of creating a filesystem are quite simple. Just run your
mkfs.* tool against the partition you want the filesystem to
exist on. For example:
% mkfs.xfs /dev/sda7
The messages you will see will vary somewhat depending on which filesystem type you used. Generally, the displayed information provides you information on the number of inodes, blocks, journaling type (if any), extents, fragments, as is relevant to that particular filesytem's usage strategy. Many of the filesystem creation tools will warn you if you try to create a new filesystem on a partition with an existing filesystem; but not all of them will, so proceed with great caution (creating a new filesystem over an old one will probably result in data loss).
A special case of making a filesystem is the creation of an ISO
filesystem, that is, a system image that may be written to a writeable
CD or DVD device. An ISO filesystem is special in the sense that it
is really just a (large) file that has data layed out in a certain
way, rather than an arrangement of a raw device like
The basic idea of creating an ISO filesystem--which really means either an ISO9660 or HFS hybrid volume--is simply to take the files in one or more existing hierarchies and arrange them into an ISO image. ISO9660 itself is limited to simple DOS-style 8.3 names, but the Rock Ridge and Joliet extensions allow storage of longer names and/or additional file attributes. For example, to create an image of a project, you might use a command like:
% mkisofs -o ProjectCD.iso -r ~/project-files ~/project-extras
In this case, we create an ISO image that uses Rock Ridge attributes
-R sets more useful values, such as all files readable),
and contains a merge of all the files in two directories. Other
options would let us add bootable headers to the image, create an HFS
image, attach directories in specified locations other than root, and
fine tune file options.
Transferring an ISO image to a recordable CD or DVD is often
accomplished nowadays using a frontend tool, often a GUI interface.
For example, both Gnome and KDE make CD burning part of their file
manager interface. Some commercial tools exist also. But for an system
administrator, the older command-line tool
cdrecord is a trusted
utility that is present on most modern distributions, and is much
closer to "standard" than are other front-ends. Generally, the basic
usage just requires specifying the device you want to write to, and
the ISO file you want to write.
As usual with Linux utilities, you may also specify a number of
options to the record process, such as
-overburn for CD's larger
than 650 MB, or a specific burn speed for your writer. See the
cdrecord for current details.
Finding the device may be accomplished with the
-scanbus option. The
device you want is named as a numeric triple indicating the bus, not a
regular block device in the filesystem. For example, you might see
something like (abridged):
% cdrecord -scanbus [...] scsibus0: 0,0,0 0) 'ATA ' 'WDC WD800UE-00HC' '09.0' Disk 0,1,0 1) * [...] scsibus1: 1,0,0 100) 'Slimtype' 'DVDRW SOSW-852S ' 'PSB2' Removable CD-ROM [...]
With bus information in hand, you might burn an image thus:
% sudo cdrecord -overburn -v speed=16 dev=1,0,0 /media/KNOPPIX_V3.6-2004-08-16-EN.iso
In this case, my image is oversized, and I know my burner supports
16x. The action command output is rather verbose because of the
option, but that helps in understanding the whole process.
Of final note (about ISO images), sometimes you want to
create a brand new ISO image not out of some directories in your main
filesystem, but rather from an already existing CD or DVD. To make an
ISO image from a CD, just use the command
dd, but refer to the raw
block device for the CD rather than to the mounted location. For
% dd if=/dev/cdrom of=project-cd.iso
An active reader might wonder why not just use
cp if the goal is to
copy bytes. Actually, if you ignore a reported I/O error when the raw
device runs out of bytes to copy, the
cp command is likely to
dd is better style (and doesn't complain at, but
instead report a summary of activity).
A flexible feature of Linux systems is the fine tuned control you have
over mounting and unmounting filesystems. Unlike under Windows and
some other operating systems, partitions are not automatically
assigned locations by the Linux kernel, but are instead attached to
/ root hierarchy by the
mount command. Moreover,
different filesystems types (on different drives, even) may be mounted
within the same hierarchy. Unmounting a particular partition is done
umount command, specifying either the mount point (e.g.
/home) or the raw device (e.g.
For recovery purposes, the ability to control mount points lets you
perform forensic analysis on partitions--using
fsck or other
tools--without risking further damage to a damaged filesystem. You may
also custom mount a filesystem using various options; the most
important of these is mounting read-only using either of the synonyms
As a quick example, you might wish to substitute one user directory location for another, either because of damage to one, or simply to expand disk space or move to a faster disk. You might perform this switch using something like:
# umount /home # old /dev/hda7 home dir # mount -t xfs /dev/sda1 /home # new SCSI disk using XFS # mount -t ext3 /dev/sda2 /tmp # also put the /tmp on SCSI
For day-to-day operation, you generally want a pretty fixed set of
mounts to happen at every system boot. You control the mounts that
happen at bootup by putting configuration lines in the file
/etc/fstab. A typical configuration might look something like the
# <file system> <mount point> <type> <options> <dump> <pass> proc /proc proc defaults 0 0 /dev/sda3 / reiserfs notail 0 1 /dev/sda5 none swap sw 0 0 /dev/sda6 /home ext3 rw 0 2 /dev/scd0 /media/cdrom0 udf,iso9660 ro,user,noauto 0 0 /media/Ubuntu-5.04-install-i386.iso /media/Ubuntu_5.04 iso9660 rw,loop 0 0
Some brief explanation of the fields is helpful. The first field
listed is (normally) the block device to mount. The second field is
the mounted location. In some special cases, something other than a
block device is given first. For
supermount devices, you will see
/proc is another odd case. You might also mount loopback
devices, which are usually regular files.
Type and options (3rd and 4th fields) are fairly straightforward (options depend on filesystem type and usage). Dump (5th field) is usually zero. Pass (6th field) should be 1 for the root filesystem, and 2 for other filesystems that should be 'fsck'ed during system boot.
Linux has quite a few different ways of automatically mounting media that is removable (e.g. floppies, CDs, USB drives) or otherwise not of fixed availability (e.g. such as NFS filesystems). The goal of all these tools is similar, but each works slightly differently.
The tool AMD (automount daemon) is somewhat older, and operates in userland. Basically, AMD runs periodically to see if any new mountable filesystems have become available, generally for NFS filesystems. For the most part, AMD has been replaced in Linux distributions by Autofs, which runs as a kernel process.
You setup Autofs firstly by compiling it into the kernel you use.
After that, the behavior of the autofs daemon (usually
/etc/init.d/autofs) is controlled by the file
which in turn references a map file. For example:
# Sample auto.master file # Format of this file: mountpoint map options /mnt /etc/auto.mnt --timeout=10
/etc/auto.mnt specifies one or more subdirectories
/mnt that will be mounted (if access is requested). Unmounting
will occur automatically, in this case 10 seconds after last access.
# Sample /etc/auto.mnt floppy -fstype=auto,rw,sync,umask=002 :/dev/fd0 cdrom -fstype=iso9660,ro,nosuid,nodev :/dev/cdrom remote -fstype=nfs example.com:/some/dir
submount are kernel-level tools (either
compiled into the base kernel or kernel modules) to automatically
mount removable media when accessed. Submount is somewhat newer, but
Supermount is still probably used in more distributions. Neither tool
is useful for NFS remote mounts, but either is more seamless than
Autofs for local media.
In either case, devices requiring automounting are generally listed in
/etc/fstab configuration. The tools use slightly different
/etc/fstab but both are straightforward. A supermount
/etc/fstab might contain, e.g.:
# Example of supermount in /etc/fstab none /mnt/cdrom supermount fs=auto,dev=/dev/cdrom 0 0 none /mnt/floppy supermount fs=auto,dev=/dev/fd0,--,user,rw 0 0
Submount specifies the block device in the regular location rather than as a mount option. For example:
/dev/cdrom /mnt/cdrom subfs fs=cdfss,ro,users 0 0 /dev/fd0 /mnt/floppy subfs fs=floppyfss,rw,users 0 0
An Linux user actually has several ways to see a list of current
mount command with no options (or with the
lists currently mounted paths. If you like, you can filter the
results with the
-t fstype option.
The underlying dynamic information on mounted filesystems lives in
umount commands, and other systems
processes, will update this file to reflect current status; you should
treat this file as read-only. A subset of the mount status
information is additionally contained in
Your best friend in repairing a broken filesystem is
The tool called
fsck is actually just a frontend for a number of
fsck.* tools, such as
fsck.reiser. You may specify the type explicitly using the
fsck will make an effort to figure it out on its own.
Read the manpage for
fsck.* for more details. The main
think you want to know is that the
-a option will try to fix
everything it can automatically.
You can check an unmounted filesystem by mentioning its raw device.
fsck /dev/hda8 to check a partition not in use. You
can also check a rooted filesystem, such as
fsck /home; but
generally you only want to do that if the filesystem is already
mounted as read-only, not as read-write.
A lower-level test of the quality of a block device (i.e. partition)
fsck is performed by
badblocks. This utility
may--destructively or non-destructively--examine the reliability of
blocks on a device by writing and reading test patterns. The default
-n for a slower mode that preserves existing data. For a
brand new partition with no existing files, you can (and probably
should) use the
-w. This tool simply informs you of bad blocks, it
does not repair or mark them.
However, in practice, you are usually better off using the badblock
checking wrapper in the
fsck.* tool for your filesystem. For
e2fsck (also called
fsck.ext2) has the option
find and mark badblocks that the
badblocks tool can detect.
ReiserFS has similar
--badblocks options (but is not
quite as automatic). Read the documentation for your particular
filesystem type for details on wrappers to
A number of tool are available for examining and fine-tuning Linux filesystems. In normal usage, the default settings for file systems are well designed, but occassionally you will want to use filesystem tools for forensic analysis on crashed systems or to tune performance on systems with well-defined usage patterns. Each filesystem type has its own set of tools; check the documentation for the filesystem you use for more details, but the most have a similar array of tools. Some examples include:
dumpe2fs: output information about an ext2/3 filesystem. tune2fs: adjust filesystem parameters on ext2/3 filesystems. debugfs: interactively fine-tune and examine an ext2/3 filesystem. reiserfstune: adjust filesystem parameters on Reiser filesystems. debugreiserfs: output information about a Reiser filesystem. xfs_admin: adjust filesystem parameters of an XFS filesystem
sync forces changed unwritten blocks to disk. You should
not need to use this in normal situations, but you can sometimes check
for disk problems by checking for a non-zero exit status. Modern
filesystems, particularly journalling filesystems like ext3, Reiser,
or JFS, effectively do syncing on every write.
If you like, you can manually disable or enable the use of a swapping,
or enable/disable swapping for particular devices. Normally, every
device marked as type
/etc/fstab is used for swapping.