NTFS Recovery Support

NTFS Recovery Support

NTFS recovery support ensures that if a power failure or a system failure occurs, no file system operations (transactions) will be left incomplete and the structure of the disk volume will remain intact without the need to run a disk repair utility. The NTFS Chkdsk utility is used to repair catastrophic disk corruption caused by I/O errors (bad disk sectors, electrical anomalies, or disk failures, for example) or software bugs. But with the NTFS recovery capabilities in place, Chkdsk is rarely needed.

As mentioned earlier (in the section "Recoverability"), NTFS uses a transaction-processing scheme to implement recoverability. This strategy ensures a full disk recovery that is also extremely fast (on the order of seconds) for even the largest disks. NTFS limits its recovery procedures to file system data to ensure that at the very least the user will never lose a volume because of a corrupted file system; however, unless an application takes specific action (such as flushing cached files to disk), NTFS doesn't guarantee user data to be fully updated if a crash occurs. Transaction-based protection of user data is available in most of the database products available for Windows 2000, such as Microsoft SQL Server. The decision not to implement user data recovery in the file system represents a trade-off between a fully fault tolerant file system and one that provides optimum performance for all file operations.

The following sections describe the evolution of file system reliability as a context for an introduction to recoverable file systems, detail the transaction-logging scheme NTFS uses to record modifications to file system data structures, and explain how NTFS recovers a volume if the system fails.

Evolution of File System Design

The development of a recoverable file system was a step forward in the evolution of file system design. In the past, two techniques were common for constructing a file system's I/O and caching support: careful write and lazy write. The file systems developed for Digital Equipment Corporation's (now Compaq's) VAX/VMS and for some other proprietary operating systems employed a careful write algorithm, while OS/2 HPFS and most older UNIX file systems used a lazy write file system scheme.

The next two subsections briefly review these two types of file systems and their intrinsic trade-offs between safety and performance. The third subsection describes NTFS's recoverable approach and explains how it differs from the other two strategies.

Careful Write File Systems

When an operating system crashes or loses power, I/O operations in progress are immediately, and often prematurely, interrupted. Depending on what I/O operation or operations were in progress and how far along they were, such an abrupt halt can produce inconsistencies in a file system. An inconsistency in this context is a file system corruption—a filename appears in a directory listing, for example, but the file system doesn't know the file is there or can't access the file. The worst file system corruptions can leave an entire volume inaccessible.

A careful write file system doesn't try to prevent file system inconsistencies. Rather, it orders its write operations so that, at worst, a system crash will produce predictable, noncritical inconsistencies, which the file system can fix at its leisure.

When any kind of file system receives a request to update the disk, it must perform several suboperations before the update will be complete. In a file system that uses the careful write strategy, the suboperations are always written to disk serially. When allocating disk space for a file, for example, the file system first sets some bits in its bitmap and then allocates the space to the file. If the power fails immediately after the bits are set, the careful write file system loses access to some disk space—to the space represented by the set bits—but existing data isn't corrupted.

Serializing write operations also means that I/O requests are filled in the order in which they are received. If one process allocates disk space and shortly thereafter another process creates a file, a careful write file system completes the disk allocation before it starts to create the file because interleaving the suboperations of the two I/O requests could result in an inconsistent state.

The FAT file system uses a write-through algorithm that causes disk modifications to be immediately written to the disk. Unlike the careful write approach, the write-through technique doesn't require the file system to order its writes to prevent inconsistencies.

The main advantage of a careful write file system is that in the event of a failure the volume stays consistent and usable without the need to immediately run a slow volume repair utility. Such a utility is needed to correct the predictable, nondestructive disk inconsistencies that occur as the result of a system failure, but the utility can be run at a convenient time, typically when the system is rebooted.

Lazy Write File Systems

A careful write file system sacrifices speed for the safety it provides. A lazy write file system improves performance by using a write-back caching strategy; that is, it writes file modifications to the cache and flushes the contents of the cache to disk in an optimized way, usually as a background activity.

The performance improvements associated with the lazy write caching technique take several forms. First, the overall number of disk writes is reduced. Because serialized, immediate disk writes aren't required, the contents of a buffer can be modified several times before they are written to disk. Second, the speed of servicing application requests is greatly increased because the file system can return control to the caller without waiting for disk writes to be completed. Finally, the lazy write strategy ignores the inconsistent intermediate states on a file volume that can result when the suboperations of two or more I/O requests are interleaved. It is thus easier to make the file system multithreaded, allowing more than one I/O operation to be in progress at a time.

The disadvantage of the lazy write technique is that it creates intervals during which a volume is in too inconsistent a state to be corrected by the file system. Consequently, lazy write file systems must keep track of the volume's state at all times. In general, lazy write file systems gain a performance advantage over careful write systems—at the expense of greater risk and user inconvenience if the system fails.

Recoverable File Systems

A recoverable file system such as NTFS tries to exceed the safety of a careful write file system while achieving the performance of a lazy write file system. A recoverable file system ensures volume consistency by using logging techniques (sometimes called journaling) originally developed for transaction processing. If the operating system crashes, the recoverable file system restores consistency by executing a recovery procedure that accesses information that has been stored in a log file. Because the file system has logged its disk writes, the recovery procedure takes only seconds, regardless of the size of the volume.

The recovery procedure for a recoverable file system is exact, guaranteeing that the volume will be restored to a consistent state. In NTFS, none of the inadequate restorations associated with lazy write file systems can happen.

A recoverable file system incurs some costs for the safety it provides. Every transaction that alters the volume structure requires that one record be written to the log file for each of the transaction's suboperations. This logging overhead is ameliorated by the file system's "batching" of log records—writing many records to the log file in a single I/O operation. In addition, the recoverable file system can employ the optimization techniques of a lazy write file system. It can even increase the length of the intervals between cache flushes because the file system can be recovered if the system crashes before the cache changes have been flushed to disk. This gain over the caching performance of lazy write file systems makes up for, and often exceeds, the overhead of the recoverable file system's logging activity.

Neither careful write nor lazy write file systems guarantee protection of user file data. If the system crashes while an application is writing a file, the file can be lost or corrupted. Worse, the crash can corrupt a lazy write file system, destroying existing files or even rendering an entire volume inaccessible.

The NTFS recoverable file system implements several strategies that improve its reliability over that of the traditional file systems. First, NTFS recoverability guarantees that the volume structure won't be corrupted, so all files will remain accessible after a system failure.

Second, although NTFS doesn't guarantee protection of user data in the event of a system crash—some changes can be lost from the cache—applications can take advantage of the NTFS write-through and cache-flushing capabilities to ensure that file modifications are recorded on disk at appropriate intervals. Both cache write-through—forcing write operations to be immediately recorded on disk—and cache flushing—forcing cache contents to be written to disk—are efficient operations. NTFS doesn't have to do extra disk I/O to flush modifications to several different file system data structures because changes to the data structures are recorded—in a single write operation—in the log file; if a failure occurs and cache contents are lost, the file system modifications can be recovered from the log. Furthermore, unlike the FAT file system, NTFS guarantees that user data will be consistent and available immediately after a write-through operation or a cache flush, even if the system subsequently fails.


NTFS provides file system recoverability by means of a transaction-processing technique called logging. In NTFS logging, the suboperations of any transaction that alters important file system data structures are recorded in a log file before they are carried through on the disk. That way, if the system crashes, partially completed transactions can be redone or undone when the system comes back online. In transaction processing, this technique is known as write-ahead logging. In NTFS, transactions include writing to the disk or deleting a file and can be made up of several suboperations.

Log File Service (LFS)

The log file service (LFS) is a series of kernel-mode routines inside the NTFS driver that NTFS uses to access the log file. Although originally designed to provide logging and recovery services for more than one client, the LFS is used only by NTFS. The caller—NTFS in this case—passes the LFS a pointer to an open file object, which specifies a log file to be accessed. The LFS either initializes a new log file or calls the Windows 2000 cache manager to access the existing log file through the cache, as shown in Figure.

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Figure Log file service (LFS)

The LFS divides the log file into two regions: a restart area and an "infinite" logging area, as shown in Figure.

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Figure Log file regions

NTFS calls the LFS to read and write the restart area. NTFS uses the restart area to store context information such as the location in the logging area at which NTFS will begin to read during recovery after a system failure. The LFS maintains a second copy of the restart data in case the first becomes corrupted or otherwise inaccessible. The remainder of the log file is the logging area, which contains transaction records NTFS writes in order to recover a volume in the event of a system failure. The LFS makes the log file appear infinite by reusing it circularly (while guaranteeing that it doesn't overwrite information it needs). The LFS uses logical sequence numbers (LSNs) to identify records written to the log file. As the LFS cycles through the file, it increases the values of the LSNs. NTFS uses 64 bits to represent LSNs, so the number of possible LSNs is so large as to be virtually infinite.

NTFS never reads transactions from or writes transactions to the log file directly. The LFS provides services NTFS calls to open the log file, write log records, read log records in forward or backward order, flush log records up to a particular LSN, or set the beginning of the log file to a higher LSN. During recovery, NTFS calls the LFS to perform the following actions: read forward through the log records to redo any transactions that were recorded in the log file but weren't flushed to disk at the time of the system failure; read backward through the log records to undo, or roll back, any transactions that weren't completely logged before the crash; and set the beginning of the log file to a record with a higher LSN when NTFS no longer needs the older transaction records in the log file.

Here's how the system guarantees that the volume can be recovered:

  1. NTFS first calls the LFS to record in the (cached) log file any transactions that will modify the volume structure.
  2. NTFS modifies the volume (also in the cache).
  3. The cache manager prompts the LFS to flush the log file to disk. (The LFS implements the flush by calling the cache manager back, telling it which pages of memory to flush. Refer back to the calling sequence shown in Figure.)
  4. After the cache manager flushes the log file to disk, it flushes the volume changes (the metadata operations themselves) to disk.

These steps ensure that if the file system modifications are ultimately unsuccessful, the corresponding transactions can be retrieved from the log file and can be either redone or undone as part of the file system recovery procedure.

File system recovery begins automatically the first time the volume is used after the system is rebooted. NTFS checks whether the transactions that were recorded in the log file before the crash were applied to the volume, and if they weren't, it redoes them. NTFS also guarantees that transactions not completely logged before the crash are undone so that they don't appear on the volume.

Log Record Types

The LFS allows its clients to write any kind of record to their log files. NTFS writes several types of records. Two types, update records and checkpoint records, are described here.

Update records Update records are the most common type of record NTFS writes to the log file. Each update record contains two kinds of information:

  • Redo information How to reapply one suboperation of a fully logged ("committed") transaction to the volume if a system failure occurs before the transaction is flushed from the cache
  • Undo information How to reverse one suboperation of a transaction that was only partially logged ("not committed") at the time of a system failure

Figure shows three update records in the log file. Each record represents one suboperation of a transaction, creating a new file. The redo entry in each update record tells NTFS how to reapply the suboperation to the volume, and the undo entry tells NTFS how to roll back (undo) the suboperation.

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Figure Update records in the log file

After logging a transaction (in this example, by calling the LFS to write the three update records to the log file), NTFS performs the suboperations on the volume itself, in the cache. When it has finished updating the cache, NTFS writes another record to the log file, recording the entire transaction as complete—a suboperation known as committing a transaction. Once a transaction is committed, NTFS guarantees that the entire transaction will appear on the volume, even if the operating system subsequently fails.

When recovering after a system failure, NTFS reads through the log file and redoes each committed transaction. Although NTFS completed the committed transactions before the system failure, it doesn't know whether the cache manager flushed the volume modifications to disk in time. The updates might have been lost from the cache when the system failed. Therefore, NTFS executes the committed transactions again just to be sure that the disk is up to date.

After redoing the committed transactions during a file system recovery, NTFS locates all the transactions in the log file that weren't committed at failure and rolls back (undoes) each suboperation that had been logged. In Figure, NTFS would first undo the T1c suboperation and then follow the backward pointer to T1b and undo that suboperation. It would continue to follow the backward pointers, undoing suboperations, until it reached the first suboperation in the transaction. By following the pointers, NTFS knows how many and which update records it must undo to roll back a transaction.

Redo and undo information can be expressed either physically or logically. Physical descriptions specify volume updates in terms of particular byte ranges on the disk that are to be changed, moved, and so on. Logical descriptions express updates in terms of operations such as "delete file A.dat." As the lowest layer of software maintaining the file system structure, NTFS writes update records with physical descriptions. Transaction-processing or other application-level software might benefit from writing update records in logical terms, however, because logically expressed updates are more compact than physically expressed ones. Logical descriptions necessarily depend on NTFS to understand what operations, such as deleting a file, involve.

NTFS writes update records (usually several) for each of the following transactions:

  • Creating a file
  • Deleting a file
  • Extending a file
  • Truncating a file
  • Setting file information
  • Renaming a file
  • Changing the security applied to a file

The redo and undo information in an update record must be carefully designed because although NTFS undoes a transaction, recovers from a system failure, or even operates normally, it might try to redo a transaction that has already been done or, conversely, to undo a transaction that never occurred or that has already been undone. Similarly, NTFS might try to redo or undo a transaction consisting of several update records, only some of which are complete on disk. The format of the update records must ensure that executing redundant redo or undo operations is idempotent, that is, has a neutral effect. For example, setting a bit that is already set has no effect, but toggling a bit that has already been toggled does. The file system must also handle intermediate volume states correctly.

Checkpoint records In addition to update records, NTFS periodically writes a checkpoint record to the log file, as illustrated in Figure.

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Figure Checkpoint record in the log file

A checkpoint record helps NTFS determine what processing would be needed to recover a volume if a crash were to occur immediately. Using information stored in the checkpoint record, NTFS knows, for example, how far back in the log file it must go to begin its recovery. After writing a checkpoint record, NTFS stores the LSN of the record in the restart area so that it can quickly find its most recently written checkpoint record when it begins file system recovery after a crash occurs.

Although the LFS presents the log file to NTFS as if it were infinitely large, it isn't. The generous size of the log file and the frequent writing of checkpoint records (an operation that usually frees up space in the log file) make the possibility of the log file's filling up a remote one. Nevertheless, the LFS accounts for this possibility by tracking several numbers:

  • The available log space
  • The amount of space needed to write an incoming log record and to undo the write, should that be necessary
  • The amount of space needed to roll back all active (noncommitted) transactions, should that be necessary

If the log file doesn't contain enough available space to accommodate the total of the last two items, the LFS returns a "log file full" error and NTFS raises an exception. The NTFS exception handler rolls back the current transaction and places it in a queue to be restarted later.

To free up space in the log file, NTFS must momentarily prevent further transactions on files. To do so, NTFS blocks file creation and deletion and then requests exclusive access to all system files and shared access to all user files. Gradually, active transactions either are completed successfully or receive the "log file full" exception. NTFS rolls back and queues the transactions that receive the exception.

Once it has blocked transaction activity on files as just described, NTFS calls the cache manager to flush unwritten data to disk, including unwritten log file data. After everything is safely flushed to disk, NTFS no longer needs the data in the log file. It resets the beginning of the log file to the current position, making the log file "empty." Then it restarts the queued transactions. Beyond the short pause in I/O processing, the "log file full" error has no effect on executing programs.

This scenario is one example of how NTFS uses the log file not only for file system recovery but also for error recovery during normal operation. You'll find out more about error recovery in the following section.


NTFS automatically performs a disk recovery the first time a program accesses an NTFS volume after the system has been booted. (If no recovery is needed, the process is trivial.) Recovery depends on two tables NTFS maintains in memory:

  • The transaction table keeps track of transactions that have been started but aren't yet committed. The suboperations of these active transactions must be removed from the disk during recovery.
  • The dirty page table records which pages in the cache contain modifications to the file system structure that haven't yet been written to disk. This data must be flushed to disk during recovery.

NTFS writes a checkpoint record to the log file once every 5 seconds. Just before it does, it calls the LFS to store a current copy of the transaction table and of the dirty page table in the log file. NTFS then records in the checkpoint record the LSNs of the log records containing the copied tables. When recovery begins after a system failure, NTFS calls the LFS to locate the log records containing the most recent checkpoint record and the most recent copies of the transaction and dirty page tables. It then copies the tables to memory.

The log file usually contains more update records following the last checkpoint record. These update records represent volume modifications that occurred after the last checkpoint record was written. NTFS must update the transaction and dirty page tables to include these operations. After updating the tables, NTFS uses the tables and the contents of the log file to update the volume itself.

To effect its volume recovery, NTFS scans the log file three times, loading the file into memory during the first pass to minimize disk I/O. Each pass has a particular purpose:

  1. Analysis
  2. Redoing transactions
  3. Undoing transactions

Analysis Pass

During the analysis pass, as shown in Figure, NTFS scans forward in the log file from the beginning of the last checkpoint operation to find update records and use them to update the transaction and dirty page tables it copied to memory. Notice in the figure that the checkpoint operation stores three records in the log file and that update records might be interspersed among these records. NTFS therefore must start its scan at the beginning of the checkpoint operation.

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Figure Analysis pass

Most update records that appear in the log file after the checkpoint operation begins represent a modification to either the transaction table or the dirty page table. If an update record is a "transaction committed" record, for example, the transaction the record represents must be removed from the transaction table. Similarly, if the update record is a "page update" record that modifies a file system data structure, the dirty page table must be updated to reflect that change.

Once the tables are up to date in memory, NTFS scans the tables to determine the LSN of the oldest update record that logs an operation that hasn't been carried out on disk. The transaction table contains the LSNs of the noncommitted (incomplete) transactions, and the dirty page table contains the LSNs of records in the cache that haven't been flushed to disk. The LSN of the oldest update record that NTFS finds in these two tables determines where the redo pass will begin. If the last checkpoint record is older, however, NTFS will start the redo pass there instead.

Redo Pass

During the redo pass, as shown in Figure, NTFS scans forward in the log file from the LSN of the oldest update record, which it found during the analysis pass. It looks for "page update" records, which contain volume modifications that were written before the system failure but that might not have been flushed to disk. NTFS redoes these updates in the cache.

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Figure Redo pass

When NTFS reaches the end of the log file, it has updated the cache with the necessary volume modifications and the cache manager's lazy writer can begin writing cache contents to disk in the background.

Undo Pass

After it completes the redo pass, NTFS begins its undo pass, in which it rolls back any transactions that weren't committed when the system failed. FigureĀ 12-40 shows two transactions in the log file; transaction 1 was committed before the power failure, but transaction 2 wasn't. NTFS must undo transaction 2.

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Figure Undo pass

Suppose that transaction 2 created a file, an operation that comprises three suboperations, each with its own update record. The update records of a transaction are linked by backward pointers in the log file because they are usually not contiguous.

The NTFS transaction table lists the LSN of the last-logged update record for each noncommitted transaction. In this example, the transaction table identifies LSN 4049 as the last update record logged for transaction 2. As shown from right to left in Figure, NTFS rolls back transaction 2.

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Figure Undoing a transaction

After locating LSN 4049, NTFS finds the undo information and executes it, clearing bits 3 through 9 in its allocation bitmap. NTFS then follows the backward pointer to LSN 4048, which directs it to remove the new filename from the appropriate filename index. Finally, it follows the last backward pointer and deallocates the MFT file record reserved for the file, as the update record with LSN 4046 specifies. Transaction 2 is now rolled back. If there are other noncommitted transactions to undo, NTFS follows the same procedure to roll them back. Because undoing transactions affects the volume's file system structure, NTFS must log the undo operations in the log file. After all, the power might fail again during the recovery, and NTFS would have to redo its undo operations!

When the undo pass of the recovery is finished, the volume has been restored to a consistent state. At this point, NTFS flushes the cache changes to disk to ensure that the volume is up to date. NTFS then writes an "empty" LFS restart area to indicate that the volume is consistent and that no recovery need be done if the system should fail again immediately. Recovery is complete.

NTFS guarantees that recovery will return the volume to some preexisting consistent state, but not necessarily to the state that existed just before the system crash. NTFS can't make that guarantee because, for performance, it uses a "lazy commit" algorithm, which means that the log file isn't immediately flushed to disk each time a "transaction committed" record is written. Instead, numerous "transaction committed" records are batched and written together, either when the cache manager calls the LFS to flush the log file to disk or when the LFS writes a checkpoint record (once every 5 seconds) to the log file. Another reason the recovered volume might not be completely up to date is that several parallel transactions might be active when the system crashes and some of their "transaction committed" records might make it to disk whereas others might not. The consistent volume that recovery produces includes all the volume updates whose "transaction committed" records made it to disk and none of the updates whose "transaction committed" records didn't make it to disk.

NTFS uses the log file to recover a volume after the system fails, but it also takes advantage of an important "freebie" it gets from logging transactions. File systems necessarily contain a lot of code devoted to recovering from file system errors that occur during the course of normal file I/O. Because NTFS logs each transaction that modifies the volume structure, it can use the log file to recover when a file system error occurs and thus can greatly simplify its error handling code. The "log file full" error described earlier is one example of using the log file for error recovery.

Most I/O errors a program receives aren't file system errors and therefore can't be resolved entirely by NTFS. When called to create a file, for example, NTFS might begin by creating a file record in the MFT and then enter the new file's name in a directory index. When it tries to allocate space for the file in its bitmap, however, it could discover that the disk is full and the create request can't be completed. In such a case, NTFS uses the information in the log file to undo the part of the operation it has already completed and to deallocate the data structures it reserved for the file. Then it returns a "disk full" error to the caller, which in turn must respond appropriately to the error.

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