Versioning File System

golang mit license research vfs

Versioning File System (uninterestingly abbreviated VFS) is a simple user-space file system implemented on top of FUSE with the aid of Bazil, written in Go. Development on this project was started as means to learn more about the way Linux handles file systems, while at the same time answering a personal need of an easy to understand, transparent versioning file system for data backup. Although it should not yet be considered to be production ready, VFS is already usable in its current state.


My goal was to build file system which could handle changes to file data and directory structure between mount cycles, in a simple, transparent way. I wanted to avoid storing version information in binary blobs, which are completely incomprehensible to the user. I strongly believed that the user should not be locked into a versioning scheme that prevented trivial migration or export of data. As such, versioned file data is stored in timestamped directories on a host file system (with minimal metadata stored in a human-readable format). This approach is fundamentally different from that of other tools.

Each version consists of a root node and child nodes that represent modified files or directories for that version; unmodified data is not duplicated between versions. Other information (such as records about file and directory deletions) are stored in a JSON file next to the version root. Although VFS provides a mechanism for enumerating and mounting specific snapshots, the user is capable of browsing the version data directly if they choose to do so.

Go was selected as the language of choice for this project as it combines the performance and safety of a compiled language without sacrificing the readability and maintainability of a high level scripting language such as Python. Furthermore, the fact that Go programs are statically linked ensures that binaries will be compatible between various Linux distribution; recompilation is not required.


Usage information can be seen by running VFS without command line arguments:

Usage: ./vfs [options] database [mountpoint]

  -readonly=false: mount filesystem as readonly
  -version=0: version index (0 for head)

In the output above, the database parameter refers to a directory containing VFS versions; an empty directory is a valid database. The mountpoint parameter refers to the path on your system where the file system will be accessible (mounted).

Listing Volume Versions

Specifying a database path without the mount point will output a timestamped listing of available versions. This listing includes identifiers which can be used to specify a specific version to mount with the -version parameter. Note that only read-only mounting is possible of prior versions.

version: 1  time: 2015-06-19 11:14:13 +0900 JST
version: 2  time: 2015-06-20 13:08:04 +0900 JST
version: 3  time: 2015-06-22 15:12:09 +0900 JST
version: 4  time: 2015-06-24 12:41:43 +0900 JST

Mounting a Volume

  1. Add yourself to the fuse user group if you are not added already (a requirement of FUSE). You can optionally skip this step by mounting the volume as the root user, but this is not recommended.
  2. Execute ./vfs database_dir mountpoint_dir, using actual paths on your system to mount a volume. If you wish to provide an identifier for a specific version to mount, you may specify it with the -version parameter. Passing a non-zero value (zero indicates most recent version) will make the mount read-only. Explicit read-only mounting is also possible by setting the -readonly switch.
  3. When you are finished using the volume, unmount it via the fusermount -u mountpoint_dir command.


When you execute VFS for the first time, you will probably neither have a version database nor a mount point. Since an empty directory is a valid empty version database and mount points should by always be empty, let’s create two new directories (db for the database and mp for the mount point).

$ mkdir db mp
$ ls
db/  mp/

Now let’s mount the empty database directory db onto our mount point mp (note that you have to be in the fuse group or root in order for this to work):

$ vfs db mp

Using a new terminal window, let’s create some files and directories:

$ echo hello > mp/greeting.txt
$ mkdir mp/pizza
$ touch mp/pizza/pepperoni mp/pizza/cheese

Now that we are finished working with this version, let’s unmount it:

$ fusermount -u mp

Let’s take a look at the version structure that VFS has created in the database directory:

$ ls -R db

meta.json  root/

greeting.txt  pizza/

cheese  pepperoni

Some points of interest about this structure:

Let’s continue our walkthrough by mounting the now non-empty database once more:

$ vfs db mp

Now let’s make a couple of changes to the files and directory structure:

$ echo howdy > mp/greeting.txt
$ rm mp/pizza/pepperoni
$ touch mp/pizza/bacon

…and verify that everything is as it should be; looks good so far!

$ cat mp/greeting.txt
$ ls -R mp
greeting.txt  pizza/

bacon  cheese

Now let’s unmount and examine at the contents of the database directory:

$ fusermount -u mp
$ ls -l db
total 8
drwxr-xr-x 3 alex alex 4096 Jul  6 14:58 ver_00000000559a17e4/
drwxr-xr-x 3 alex alex 4096 Jul  6 15:08 ver_00000000559a19b4/

Cool, we have a new version! Let’s take a closer look at its structure:

$ ls -R db/ver_00000000559a19b4/
meta.json  root/

greeting.txt  pizza/


We can see that greeting.txt and bacon show up; this reflects the fact that these files were modified and created, respectively. Notice that cheese is not listed; we didn’t make any changes to this file so the data from the previous version is used. If we look at the contents of meta.json, we will see that the pepperoni file was deleted:

$ cat db/ver_00000000559a19b4/meta.json

Now let’s examine the database from VFS tool directly:

$ vfs db
version: 1      time: 2015-07-06 14:53:40 +0900 JST
version: 2      time: 2015-07-06 15:01:24 +0900 JST

Finally, let’s mount the version that we created in the beginning of this walkthrough by specifying its index with the version parameter…

$ vfs -version=1 db mp

…and in a different terminal verify its contents; they are identical to the first version!

$ cat mp/greeting.txt
$ ls -R mp
greeting.txt  pizza/

cheese  pepperoni

Hopefully this brief walkthrough of the system helped illustrate the basic concepts behind how VFS works. At its core, it is a fundamentally simple system, the workings of which can be examined with any file browser and text editor. I encourage those interested in this utility to follow this guide and to ask me any questions they may have.


There are a few lingering limitations of the system in its current state. While the architecture supports their inclusion into a future version, I have not yet gotten around to taking care of this “laundry list” of items: