[TUHS] VFS prior to 1984

Rob Pike robpike at gmail.com
Wed Jun 24 06:38:53 AEST 2020

For my taste, the various Unix file system switches that I've seen are too
firmly tied to the idea of blocks and disks and all that, making them less
flexible than they should have been. That's why the Plan 9 version is about
names and byte streams, to make it as general as possible.

That's one of the reasons the possibilities of the file system approach to
data has not reached its potential in Unix.


On Wed, Jun 24, 2020 at 1:14 AM Clem Cole <clemc at ccc.com> wrote:

> I agree with Larry with his observations.   The only thing I would add is
> that Popek and Walker had a file system in the UCLA Locus distributed
> system for the 11/70 that was published in SIGOPS in late 1970s.  In fact,
> Gerry came up with the idea after a sabbatical @ PARC.   But it was not
> formalized like NFS as a separate (layered) FS, it was just part of the
> basic Locus FS.
> Peter Weinberger created the file system switch (FSS) for V8 and in the
> UNIX world, it was first.    Dave Arnovitz used it for RFS in System V,
> while Perry Flynn and I used it for EFS, both of us after talking
> to Peter.   Rusty and team did the VFS layer Sun @ (Larry will have to tell
> you who actually built it, I never knew).  Rusty and I both published
> papers in the '85 Summer USENIX (NFS and EFS were contemporaries -- the
> difference is that Sun gave away NFS and Masscomp was not smart enough to
> do that).
> I talked to Steve Kleinman extensively about VFS at one point, and I'm
> pretty sure he and the rest of the Sun guys had talked to the PARC folks
> who after Gerry went back to UCLA started working on a DFS.   The idea of
> the state-less (idempotent) file system RPC that NFS used based on stuff
> PARC did.   But I'm not sure PARC had anything like the FSS or the VFS
> layer.  Peter, Dave, and I used a stateful scheme because we chose to have
> full UNIX FS semantics, which NFS did not.  In the end, early NFS was
> notorious for putting 'holes' in the files because of the automatic seek in
> every operation and errors not coming until close(2) time.
> EFS used an RPC and a RUDP layer that Perry and Alan Atlas built, but it
> was not nearly as flexible as what Sun built [which had a crude interface
> generator], although until years later when Mike Leibensger built PIG (the
> Paceline Interface Generator) NFS RPC was always a PITA and not much better
> in practice than what we had at Masscomp.
> In fact, the point of the EFS paper was it's all about the recovery when
> there is a failure/error.  If you read his paper, Rusty's point was who
> cares if there is an error (I've always felt vindicated that while I lost
> the war, over time everyone came to our way of thinking and now NFS
> V4 looks a whole lot like EFS did).
> Having a DFS as a feature was an incredible advance and proved we needed
> something (and it needed to be standard in all systems).   NFS really lead
> the market with that advance, although it sort of took a few years to make
> it really good.  The fact is that others had the same idea before or at
> least contemporary with it.
> That said, and to give the NFS team* a huge amount of credit *(and great
> applause), the VFS layer was better thought out than the FSS and in fact
> made it possible to add a lot of different file systems into UNIX later.
> FSS was much more ad hoc.
> At LCC, when we built VPROC for TNC a few years later, we used some of the
> same ideas from VFS and of course used VFS for the file system layer since
> TNC had to have full POSIX semantics.  (It's a shame VPROC never caught on
> the way VFS did).
> Clem
> On Tue, Jun 23, 2020 at 10:02 AM Larry McVoy <lm at mcvoy.com> wrote:
>> I like to claim credit for creating the ChangeSet concept, the grouping
>> of a set of deltas across a number of files.  But I wasn't the first.
>> Back when dejanews was a thing and you could search usenet posts in a
>> date range, if you searched before I started talking about ChangeSets,
>> you could find 6, count 'em, 6 hits.  There was a really obscure system
>> called Aide De Camp, that had a similar concept.
>> But if you searched after I started talking about them you would see
>> millions of hits.
>> So I didn't invent the concept but I sure as heck made the world
>> understand the concept.
>> I suspect Sun could be in a similar position.  The VFS concept is
>> pretty sweet so there might have been someone before Sun.  I'll
>> long odds that if there was, it didn't gain traction until Sun
>> did it.
>> If there is nothing that predates it, then the inspiration was
>> almost certainly the device driver interface.  One interface,
>> many devices.  VFS is the same.
>> On Tue, Jun 23, 2020 at 11:09:57AM +0200, Paul Ruizendaal wrote:
>> > When googling for File System Switch or Virtual File System most
>> sources mention Sun NFS and SysVr3 as the earliest implementations. Some
>> sources mention 8th Edition.
>> >
>> > I did a (short) search  on FSS/VFS in earlier, non-Unix OS???s (Tenex,
>> Multics, CTSS, etc.), but none of those seem to have had a comparable
>> concept.
>> >
>> > Does anybody recall prior art (prior to 1984) in this area?
>> >
>> > Paul
>> --
>> ---
>> Larry McVoy                  lm at mcvoy.com
>> http://www.mcvoy.com/lm
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