The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 06 Dec 2007

What's a File?
Almost every December since 2001 I have given a talk to the local Linux users' group on some aspect of Unix internals. My first talk was on the internals of the ext2 filesystem. This year I was under a lot of deadline pressure at work, so I decided I would give the 2001 talk again, maybe with a few revisions.

Actually I was under so much deadline pressure that I did not have time to revise the talk. I arrived at the user group meeting without a certain idea of what talk I was going to give.

Fortunately, the meeting structure is to have a Q&A and discussion period before the invited speaker gives his talk. The Q&A period always lasts about an hour. In that hour before I had to speak, I wrote a new talk called What's a File?. It mostly concerns the Unix "inode" structure, and what the kernel uses it for. It uses the output of the well-known ls -l command as a jumping-off point, since most of the ls -l information comes from the inode.

Then I talk about how files are opened and permissions are checked, how the filesystem is organized, how the kernel reads and writes data, how directories are structured, how it's possible to have one file with two names, how symbolic links work, and what that mysterious field is in the ls -l output between the permissions and the owner.

The talk was quite successful, much more so than I would have expected, given how quickly I wrote it and my complete inability to edit or revise it. Of course, it does help that I know this material backwards and forwards and standing on my head, and also that I could reuse all the diagrams and illustrations from the 2001 version of the talk.

I would not, however, recommend this technique.

As my talks have gotten better over the years, I find that less and less of the talk material is captured in the slides, and so the slides become less and less representative of the talk itself. But I put them online anyway, and here they are.

Here's a .tgz file in case you want to download it all at once.

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