COMPARATIVE LOOK AT FILE SYSTEM ARCHITECTURE OF WINDOWS, LINUX & MAC

Computer Forensics Harshita Choudhary todayMarch 29, 2024

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Introduction

In the world of computing, file systems play a very critical role in organizing and managing data on storage devices. While the fundamental principles of file systems are similar across operating systems, each platform has its own unique architectural implementation tailored to specific requirements and design objectives. In this blog, we’ll review the file system architecture of three main operating systems: Windows (FAT and NTFS), Linux (ext and XFS) and Mac OS (APFS and HFS+) highlighting their key components, advantages and disadvantages. 

Windows File System Architectures: FAT and NTFS

Microsoft’s Windows operating system has primarily relied on two file system architectures: FAT (File Allocation Table) and NTFS (New Technology File System).

FAT (File Allocation Table):

FAT is an older file system that dates back to the early days of MS-DOS and Windows. It is a relatively simple file system designed for small disk volumes. The FAT architecture consists of the following components:

  • Boot Sector: The first sector on the disk volume, containing information about the file system layout, such as the number of sectors per cluster and the location of the File Allocation Tables.
  • File Allocation Tables (FATs): The FATs are data structures that keep track of the allocation of clusters on the disk. Each cluster is either marked as allocated or free, and the file system maintains two copies of the FAT for backup.
  • Root Directory: A special directory that contains entries for all files and subdirectories located in the root level of the volume.
  • Data Area: The area on the disk where file data and directory entries are stored. Each file or directory entry occupies one or more clusters, and the FAT is used to map the clusters belonging to a particular file or directory.


While FAT is a simple and compatible file system, it has limitations in terms of maximum file size and volume size. Additionally, it lacks advanced features like access control lists (ACLs) and journaling

NTFS (New Technology File System):

NTFS (New Technology File System): NTFS is the modern and more advanced file system introduced with Windows NT. It offers improved reliability, security, and scalability compared to FAT. The NTFS architecture consists of the following key components:

  • Master File Table (MFT): The MFT is a database that stores metadata about every file and directory on the volume, including attributes, timestamps, security identifiers, and pointers to the file’s data.
  • Boot Sector: Similar to FAT, NTFS has a boot sector that contains information about the file system layout and the location of the MFT.
  • Clusters: Like FAT, NTFS organizes data on disk in clusters, which are groups of contiguous sectors.
  • Metadata Files: NTFS stores metadata in specialized files, separate from user data files. These include the MFT, security descriptors, and other system files that manage the file system structure and operations.
  • Security Descriptors: NTFS incorporates a robust security model based on Access Control Lists (ACLs), defining permissions and access rights for users and groups.
  • Journaling and Recovery: NTFS features a journaling mechanism that records metadata changes before writing them to the disk, enabling data integrity and recovery in case of system failures or power outages.


NTFS supports advanced features like transparent file compression, encryption, hard links, symbolic links, disk quotas. It also incorporates various storage technologies like RAID arrays and dynamic disks.

Linux File System Architecture: ext4 and XFS:

Linux, being an open-source operating system, supports various file system architectures, each with its own strengths and use cases. In this we’ll focus on two widely used file systems: ext4 (Fourth Extended File System) and XFS (X File System).

ext4 (Fourth Extended File System):

ext4 is one of the most widely used file systems in Linux distributions. It is the successor to ext3 and provides several improvements and advanced features:

  • File system size: It supports maximum individual file sizes up to 16 GB and maximum volumes sizes of about 1 EiB.
  • Extent-based Metadata: ext4 uses extents to track file data, improving performance and reducing fragmentation.
  • Delayed Allocation: This feature allows the file system to allocate disk space more efficiently by delaying the allocation of blocks until the data is written.
  • Journaling: ext4 employs journaling to ensure data integrity and enable recovery in case of system crashes or power failures.
  • Online Defragmentation: ext4 supports online defragmentation, allowing users to defragment files without unmounting the file system.

XFS (X File System): 

XFS is a highly scalable and high-performance file system designed for large data storage requirements. It was originally developed by Silicon Graphics and is now widely used in Linux distributions. Key features of XFS include:

  • Metadata Journaling: XFS journals metadata changes, ensuring data consistency and enabling fast recovery.
  • Delayed Allocation: Similar to ext4, XFS delays the allocation of disk blocks until the data is written, improving performance and reducing fragmentation.
  • Online Resizing: XFS supports online resizing of file systems, allowing users to grow or shrink the file system without unmounting it.
  • Scalability: XFS is designed to handle extremely large file systems and files, making it suitable for high-performance computing and big data workloads.

Mac OS File System Architectures: APFS and HFS+:

Apple’s macOS has relied on two primary file system architectures: APFS (Apple File System) and HFS+ (Hierarchical File System Plus).

APFS (Apple File System): 

Introduced in macOS High Sierra (10.13), APFS is the modern and default file system for Apple’s operating systems. It replaced the older HFS+ file system. APFS offers several advanced features:

  • Cloning and Snapshots: APFS supports efficient cloning and snapshot capabilities, enabling space-efficient backups and restoration.
  • Encryption: APFS provides built-in encryption capabilities, ensuring data security and privacy.
  • Crash Protection: APFS employs a copy-on-write mechanism and metadata checksums to protect against data corruption in case of system crashes or power failures.
  • Sparse Files: APFS supports sparse files, which only consume disk space for the data they contain, improving storage efficiency.
  • Space Sharing: APFS allows for space sharing between multiple file system containers, enabling more efficient storage utilization.

HFS+ (Hierarchical File System Plus): 

HFS+ was the primary file system used in macOS (and its predecessor, Mac OS X) for many years before the introduction of APFS. While still supported for compatibility purposes, HFS+ lacks many of the advanced features and optimizations found in APFS. Some key aspects of HFS+ include:

  • Journaling: HFS+ employs journaling to ensure data integrity and enable recovery in case of system crashes or power failures.
  • Case-insensitive Filenames: HFS+ treats filenames as case-insensitive by default, although case-sensitive mode is supported.
  • Metadata Caching: HFS+ caches metadata in memory to improve performance for common file operations.

Comparison and Key Differences:

While the file system architectures of Windows, Linux, and macOS share some common principles, there are notable differences in their implementations. These differences also extend to their feature sets.

Metadata Management:

  • FAT and NTFS rely on File Allocation Tables (FATs) and the Master File Table (MFT), respectively, to manage file metadata.
  • ext4 and XFS use extent-based metadata and journaling to track file data and ensure data integrity.
  • APFS employs a copy-on-write mechanism and metadata checksums but HFS+ utilizes journaling and metadata caching for crash protection and data integrity.

Security and Permissions:

  • NTFS incorporates a robust security model based on Access Control Lists (ACLs), defining permissions and access rights for users and groups.
  • Linux file systems like ext4 and XFS rely on traditional Unix-style permissions (user, group, and other) for access control.
  • Both APFS and HFS+ rely on the macOS system’s security model.  

Advanced Features:

  • NTFS and APFS offer advanced features like transparent file compression, encryption, and support for various storage technologies (RAID arrays, dynamic disks, space sharing, etc.).
  • Linux file systems like ext4 and XFS provide features like online defragmentation, online resizing, and support for large file systems and files.
  • HFS+ and FAT lack many of the advanced features found in APFS and NTFS.

Scalability and Performance:

  • NTFS and APFS offer good scalability and performance for general-purpose use cases, while also supporting advanced features.
  • ext4 strikes a balance between performance and compatibility. XFS is designed for high scalability and performance, making it suitable for large data storage requirements and high-performance computing workloads.
  • HFS+ has limitations in terms of scalability and performance.

Cross-Platform Compatibility:

  • FAT is a widely compatible file system across different operating systems, making it suitable for removable media and data transfer.
  • Windows environments primarily use NTFS, with limited compatibility on other platforms.
  • On Linux distributions, native support exists for Linux file systems such as ext4 and XFS, but accessing them on other platforms may necessitate third-party tools or drivers.
  • Apple designed APFS and HFS+ specifically for macOS, and other operating systems do not natively support them.

Written by: Harshita Choudhary

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