WinFS - A Sneak Peek Into The Mythical Windows Future Storage

July 19, 2006

After taking a look at the mind-boggling presentation by Microsoft on Windows Future Storage (Win FS) file system in Tech Ed 2006, I just couldn't resist writing my views on Win FS.

Here's the video which intoxicated me into writing about it.

Picture this. The year is 2020, you shoot a ream of pictures on your tour of Europe using your digital camera which automatically records the place where the picture was taken. You move all the pictures to the PC and click on the map of France, zoom down to Paris and then to the Louvre museum, there u click on fetch pictures and it retrieves all the pictures taken in Paris at the Louvre. You choose the option "Send pictures to Picture Owners" and the pictures are automatically sent to the people who are present in each of the pictures without you having to open even one of the pictures.

Well, how true is the saying, appreciation of technology gets better with the laziness created by it?

To appreciate Win FS we have to look back into history and understand the evolution of file systems and the need for replacing these well established file-systems with Win FS. Techie stuff follows, skip the next two paragraphs and jump to "The Future" if you don't wanna get GEEKED !!!

The Past
There were a load of file systems that were developed to support the various needs of the storage industry, but past in this article will focus more on the widely used windows file systems. The most primitive file systems used were the FAT series of file systems which were developed for the sole purpose of managing disks in BASIC (Still remember that?). In FAT the hard disk is usually divided into smaller logical areas called clusters. Each cluster is of a variable size depending on the limitations imposed by the operating system. The earliest windows file system was the FAT 12 system which was used for formatting floppy disks and later evolved to FAT 16 and FAT 32 systems.

In the FAT 12, FAT 16 and the FAT 32 file systems the disk space was limited to the maximum number of clusters each of the file system could address. For instance, using the FAT 16 operating system it is possible to catalog 2 ^16 items which could address 65,536 clusters. If the maximum cluster size is 64 KB, it is possible to have a maximum volume space of close to 4 GB with FAT 16 file system. This limitation was overcome with FAT 32 with a maximum volume size of around 2 Terabytes. The support for the usage of the maximum volume size in a file system is once again dependant on the limitations posed by the operating system consuming them. At a very broad level, all versions of the FAT file system were nothing but upgrades to the amount of data that can be addressed.

The Present
When windows started working on Windows NT technology, they realized that the FAT32 system which was widely used then had removed the space crunch issue but did not have features to support issues like security which gained importance because of exposing logical drives on the network. These challenges posed to the FAT32 file system were overcome by the New Technology File System (popularly called NTFS). NTFS was rolled out with a lot of features to address security issues using Access Control Lists and File System Journaling apart from the classical upgrades to performance, reliability and space utilization.

The Future
While the FAT series of file systems addressed the space limitations posed by increasing drive sizes, the NTFS file system addressed security and metadata issues faced by exposing storage over the network. Hard disk sizes have been increasing by leaps and bounds and buying a half TerraByte disk is not considered madness anymore because of the ever-increasing appetite for a plethora of data including music and movies. With close to half a TeraByte of data at the disposal of the user, the drive is sure to be filled with so much data that it becomes humanly impossible to remember the individual files, let alone understanding the relationships between the files. (A simple relationship between a Friend, a few photos, video, and a song is created because of a friend from office mailing a song which the group sang in a video captured during a vacation to Hawaii).

Enter WinFS - Windows Future Storage, the answer to the question of maintaining such relationships by simplifying and entangling the infinite relationships between zillions of files sitting on the ever growing size of your hard drive. Win FS is a file level relational data storage model very similar to the RDBMS model used in databases and therefore called as a Relational file system. Win FS contains a classical file storage mechanism like NTFS but maintains a range of customizable metadata about the files in a database (probably a SQL lite version optimized for storing information about files) which is tightly coupled to the operating system. New terms like stores instead of drives and items instead of files, etc have been introduced to express the new Win FS entities.

Just the way languages have evolved from procedural methods to object orientation which is closer to the way the mind works, the way database storage has evolved from flat files to relational systems, the way languages have been unified using the Common Language Specification through .net, Win FS is a new stage in the evolution of File systems. Using WinFS, applications would automatically identify relationships between totally diverse file types by mining the data stored along with the files.

The possibility of developing such relations open up a whole new world of ideas giving rise to amazing applications which would be capable of extracting information from anything and be able to use the information wherever needed. Using the files we have on our disc drive is no longer going to be the same, it is going to be as simple as searching and using information on our own mind.

Win FS was actually developed over the past 3-4 years and had a lot of mystery and hype associated with it. It was supposed to be rolled out with Windows Vista (Code Name: Windows Longhorn) but the plan was shelved. I get the impression from a few blogs, that further development on Win FS has been put on a temporary hold to address certain complexities involved in creating it.

What is important is not if Windows is going to roll it out or has given up on it, but the significance of Win FS and what it promises to deliver. Implementations may die, but ideas hardly die, they just lie around hibernating just to be woken up when the time is right.

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WinFS - A Sneak Peek Into The Mythical Windows Future Storage


Author: Minase


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Subhan Ahsan
July 19, 2006
04:54 AM

MS demoed WinFS (infact only this idea) in May 2006 and the very next month the project was announced as aborted. Its not on temporary hold, its Dead like a Fish with no plans for any implementation.

Though the idea is very futuristic, MS has been harpin on it since mid-90s. Only the WinFS was a real inceitive towards that - with no deliverables.

Btw, you should look at Mac OS's Spotlight. Lot many things for which we don't have to wait till 2020 :)

July 19, 2006
05:22 AM

yeah, thats right. Infact parts of the WinFS implementation have been stripped and are now being used within SQL 2007 and Vista.

Spotlight for the Mac OS X Tiger is merely a indexing tool that picks up all the metadata already available in files. It's very similar to google desktop rather than a Relational File System. It can help in finding files based on context but not be able to integrate seemlessly into every application. It is more of an application than a File System.

July 19, 2006
06:49 AM

WinFS was doomed. Microsoft tried to do many things, and if they had accomplished this one, it would have been great.

Yes. Take alook at spotlight - Apple core system beats Windows any day.

GREAT article here - finally after a long long time some article of note on desicritics!


July 19, 2006
11:08 AM

Thanks !!!!!

hahah the Apple-Microsoft battle has always interested me. If you want the best detail check out the movie "Pirates of the Silicon valley", a movie which every modern history student should see ;)

Spotlight is just re-packaged Google desktop in my opinion, would never have the power of Win FS, ever.

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