A Deeper Look At Microsoft’s New ReFS Format

As early back as 2003, Microsoft has been promising a new file system to replace NTFS, originally known as WinFS. Now, in 2012 a new file system finally is coming. So what is ReFS all about and does it have anything to do with the original WinFS announcement?

First off, WinFS was a technology designed as a relational file system for the storage of structured and unstructured data. After several years of hype, it was essentially quietly killed in 2006.

The main factors for its death laid around the fact that it didn’t offer a significantly better experience than what we already had with NTFS.

So fast forwarding to today, with NTFS as the dominate file system (though many legacy devices still use FAT-32), what makes ReFS worth the change?

First off, Windows 8 is all about change with its touch-centric design, its use of the hibernate kernel for speeding up start-ups and shut-downs, and the introduction of ARM processor support. So now seems like the perfect time to make yet a big change on the file system front as well.

Microsoft is working hard to overcome past perceptions that its Oses are easily corrupted and overly unstable when compared to options like Linux and Mac OS. Despite that fact this has been somewhat true, the folks at Redmond still find it important to lay these security and stability concerns to rest.

So ReFS standards for “resilient” file system, and resilient it is. The main purpose that designers kept in mind with this format is that it is capable of keeping data safe and, hopefully, free of potential corruptibility.

There are several ways it attempts to accomplish this goal, such as keeping metadata integrity with checksums,  verifying and auto-correcting data to limit data corruption, isolating data corruption, keeping user data integrity with integrity streams, and keeping an entire volume intact, online, and accessible.

In general, ReFS’s big data protection features are really meant to be used with Storage Spaces, which provides native RAID and provisioning capabilities within Windows Server 8.

According to the “Building Windows 8 Blog”:

We have tested ReFS using a sophisticated and vast set of tens of thousands of tests that have been developed over two decades for NTFS. These tests simulate and exceed the requirements of the deployments we expect in terms of stress on the system, failures such as power loss, scalability, and performance. Therefore, ReFS is ready to be deployment-tested in a managed environment. Being the first version of a major file system, we do suggest just a bit of caution. We do not characterize ReFS in Windows 8 as a “beta” feature. It will be a production-ready release when Windows 8 comes out of beta, with the caveat that nothing is more important than the reliability of data. So, unlike any other aspect of a system, this is one where a conservative approach to initial deployment and testing is mandatory.

With this in mind, we will implement ReFS in a staged evolution of the feature: first as a storage system for Windows Server, then as storage for clients, and then ultimately as a boot volume. This is the same approach we have used with new file systems in the past.

Initially, our primary test focus will be running ReFS as a file server. We expect customers to benefit from using it as a file server, especially on a mirrored Storage Space. We also plan to work with our storage partners to integrate it with their storage solutions.

So what does this all mean? It means that Windows Server 8 is the only version getting ReFS for now. Additionally, it is not a bootable format at this time and instead is used for extra drives and partitions as a way of keeping crucial data safe and uncorrupted.

Will ReFS truly prove to be an uncorruptable format and a worthy successor of NTFS? It is certainly shaping up that way, but I have a feeling we won’t truly see ReFS shine its brightest until Windows 9.

So what do you think of the new ReFS format? Share your thoughts below.

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