Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

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Filesystem Familiarisation

I previously noted that accessing filesystems would be a component in my work with microkernel-based systems, and towards the end of last year I began an exercise in developing a simple “toy” filesystem that could hold file-like entities. Combining this with some L4Re-based components that implement seemingly reasonable mechanisms for providing access to files, I was able to write simple test programs that open and access these files.

The starting point for all this was the observation that a normal system file – that is, something stored in the filesystem in my GNU/Linux environment – can be treated like an archive containing multiple files and therefore be regarded as providing a filesystem itself. Such a file can then be embedded in a payload providing a L4Re system by specifying it as a “module” in conf/modules.list for a particular payload entry:

module image_root.fs

Since L4Re provides a rudimentary “rom” filesystem that exposes the modules embedded in the payload, I could open this “toy” filesystem module as a file within L4Re using the normal file access functions.

fp = fopen("rom/image_root.fs", "r");

And with that, I could then use my own functions to access the files stored within. Some additional effort went into exposing file access via interprocess communication, which forms the basis of those mechanisms mentioned above, those mechanisms being needed if such filesystems are to be generally usable in the broader environment rather than by just a single program.

Preparing Filesystems

The first step in any such work is surely to devise how a filesystem is to be represented. Then, code must be written to access the filesystem, firstly to write files and directories to it, and then to be able to perform the necessary task of reading that file and directory information back out. At some point, an actual filesystem image needs to be prepared, and here it helps a lot if a convenient tool can be developed to speed up testing and further development.

I won’t dwell on the “toy” representation I used, mostly because it was merely chosen to let me explore the mechanisms and interfaces to be provided as L4Re components. The intention was always to switch to a “real world” filesystem and to use that instead. But in order to avoid being overwhelmed with learning about existing filesystems alongside learning about L4Re and developing file access mechanisms, I chose some very simple representations that I thought might resemble “real world” filesystems sufficiently enough to make the exercise realistic.

With the basic proof of concept somewhat validated, my attentions have now turned to “real world” filesystems, and here some interesting observations can be made about tools and libraries. If you were to ask someone about how they might prepare a filesystem, particularly a GNU/Linux user, it would be unsurprising to me if they suggested preparing a file…

dd if=/dev/zero of=image_root.fs bs=1024 count=1 seek=$SIZE_IN_KB

…then a filesystem in the file…

/sbin/mkfs.ext2 image_root.fs

…and then mounting it as follows:

sudo mount image_root.fs $MOUNTPOINT

Here, an ext2 filesystem is prepared in a normal system file, and then the operating system is asked to mount the filesystem and to expose it via a mountpoint, this being a directory in the general hierarchy of files and filesystems. But this last step requires special privileges and for the kernel to get involved, and yet all we are doing is accessing a file with the data inside it stored in a particular way. So why is there not a more straightforward, unprivileged way of writing data to that file in the required format?

Indeed, other projects of mine have needed to initialise filesystems, and such mounting operations have been a necessary aspect of those, given the apparent shortage of other methods. It really seemed that filesystems and kernel mechanisms were bound to each other, requiring us to always get the kernel involved. But it turns out that there are other solutions.

A History Lesson

I am reminded of the mtools suite of programs for accessing floppy disks. Once upon a time, when I was in my first year of university studies, practically all of our class’s programming was performed on a collection of DECstations. Although networked, each of these also provided a floppy drive capable of supporting 2.88MB disks: an uncommon sight, for me at least, with the availability of media and compatibility concerns dictating the use of 720KB and 1.44MB disks instead.

Presumably, within the Ultrix environment we were using, normal users were granted access to the floppy drive when logged in. With a disk inserted, mtools could then be used to access the disk as one big file, interpreting the contents and presenting the user with a view onto files and directories. Of course, mtools exposes a DOS-like interface to the disk, with DOS-like commands providing DOS-like output, and it does not attempt to integrate the contents of a disk within the general Unix filesystem hierarchy.

Indeed, the mechanisms of integrating such foreign data into the general filesystem hierarchy are denied to mere programs, this being a motivation for pursuing alternative operating system architectures like GNU Hurd which support such integration. But the point here is that filesystems – in this example, DOS-based filesystems on floppy disks – can readily be interpreted with the appropriate tools and without “operator” privileges.

Decoding Filesystem Data

Since filesystems are really just data structures encoded in storage, there should really be no magic involved in decoding and accessing them. After all, the code in the Linux kernel and in other operating system kernels has to do just that, and these things are just programs that happen to run under certain special conditions. So it would make sense if some of the knowledge encoded in these kernels had been extracted and made available as library code for other purposes. After all, it might come in useful elsewhere.

Fortunately, it is likely that such library code is already installed on your system, at least if you are using the ext2 family of filesystems. A search for some common utilities can be informative in this respect. Here is a query being issued for the appropriate filesystem checking utility on a Debian system:

$ dpkg -S e2fsck
e2fsprogs: /usr/share/man/man5/e2fsck.conf.5.gz
e2fsprogs: /sbin/e2fsck
e2fsprogs: /usr/share/man/man8/e2fsck.8.gz

And for the filesystem initialisation utility mentioned above:

$ dpkg -S mkfs.ext2
e2fsprogs: /sbin/mkfs.ext2
e2fsprogs: /usr/share/man/man8/mkfs.ext2.8.gz

The e2fsprogs package itself depends on a package called libext2fs2 – or e2fslibs on earlier distribution versions – and ultimately one discovers that these tools and their libraries are provided by a software distribution, e2fsprogs, whose aim is to provide programs and libraries for general access to the ext2/3/4 filesystem format. So it turns out to be possible and indeed feasible to write programs accessing filesystems without needing to make use of code residing in some kernel or other.

Tooling Up

Had I bothered to investigate further, I might have discovered another useful package. Running one or both of the following commands on a Debian system lets us see which other packages make use of the library functionality of e2fsprogs:

apt-cache rdepends e2fslibs
apt-cache rdepends libext2fs2

Amongst those listed is e2tools which offers a suite of commands resembling those provided by mtools, albeit with a Unix flavour instead of a DOS flavour. Investigating this, I discovered that these tools inherit somewhat from the utilities provided by e2fsprogs, particularly the debugfs utility.

However, investigating e2fsprogs by myself gave me a chance to become familiar with the details of libext2fs and how the different utilities managed to use it. Since it is not always obvious to me how the library should be used, and I find myself missing some good documentation for it, the more program code I can find to demonstrate its use, the better.

For my purposes, accessing individual files and directories is not particularly interesting: I really just want to treat an ext2 filesystem like an archive when preparing my L4Re payload; it is only within L4Re that I actually want to access individual things. Outside L4Re, having an equivalent to the tar command, but with the output being a filesystem image instead of a tar file, would be most useful for me. For example:

e2archive --create image_root.fs $ROOTFS

Currently, this can be made to populate a filesystem for eventual deployment, although the breadth of support for the filesystem features is rather limited. It is possible that I might adopt e2tools as the basis of this archiving program, given that it is merely a shell script that calls another program. Then again, it might be useful to gain direct experience with libext2fs for my other activities.

Future Directions

And so, in the GNU/Linux environment, the creation of such archives has been the focus of my experiments. Meanwhile, I need to develop library functions to support filesystem operations within L4Re, which means writing code to support things like file descriptor abstractions and the appropriate functions for accessing and manipulating files and directories. The basics of some of this is already done for the “toy” filesystem, but it will be a matter of figuring out which libext2fs functions and abstractions need to be used to achieve the same thing for ext2 and its derivatives.

Hopefully, once I can demonstrate file access via the same interprocess communications mechanisms, I can then make a start in replacing the existing conventional file access functions with versions that use my mechanisms instead of those provided in L4Re. This will most likely involve work on the C library support in L4Re, which is a daunting prospect, but some familiarity with that is probably beneficial if a more ambitious project to replace the C library is to be undertaken.

But if I can just manage to get the dynamic linker to be able to read shared libraries from an ext2 filesystem, then a rather satisfying milestone will have been reached. And this will then motivate work to support storage devices on various hardware platforms of interest, permitting the hosting of filesystems and giving those systems some potential as L4Re-based general-purpose computing devices, too.

One Response to “Filesystem Familiarisation”

  1. Filesystem Abstractions for L4Re « Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog Says:

    [...] of using “real world” filesystems in L4Re, initially considering the nature of code to access an ext2-based filesystem using the┬álibrary known as libext2fs, then getting some of that code working within L4Re itself. [...]