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The Google File System (GFS)


29 April 2014

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  • Title: DISTRIBUTED SYSTEMS Concepts and Design Fifth Edition
  • Authors: George Coulouris, Jean Dollimore, Tim Kindberg and Gordon Blair

The Google File System (GFS)

Chapter 12 presented a detailed study of the topic of distributed file systems, analyzing their requirements and their overall architecture and examining two case studies in detail, namely NFS and AFS. These file systems are general-purpose distributed file systems offering file and directory abstractions to a wide variety of applications in and across organizations. The Google File System (GFS) is also a distributed file system; it offers similar abstractions but is specialized for the very particular requirements that Google has in terms of storage and access to very large quantities of data [Ghemawat et al. 2003]. These requirements led to very different design decisions from those made in NFS and AFS (and indeed other distributed file systems), as we will see below. We start our discussion of GFS by examining the particular requirements identified by Google.

GFS requirements

The overall goal of GFS is to meet the demanding and rapidly growing needs of Google’s search engine and the range of other web applications offered by the company. From an understanding of this particular domain of operation, Google identified the following requirements for GFS (see Ghemawat et al. [2003]):

  • The first requirement is that GFS must run reliably on the physical architecture discussed in Section 21.3.1 – that is a very large system built from commodity hardware. The designers of GFS started with the assumption that components will fail (not just hardware components but also software components) and that the design must be sufficiently tolerant of such failures to enable application-level services to continue their operation in the face of any likely combination of failure conditions.

  • GFS is optimized for the patterns of usage within Google, both in terms of the types of files stored and the patterns of access to those files. The number of files stored in GFS is not huge in comparison with other systems, but the files tend to be massive. For example, Ghemawat et al. [2003] report the need for perhaps one million files averaging 100 megabytes in size, but with some files in the gigabyte range. The patterns of access are also atypical of file systems in general. Accesses are dominated by sequential reads through large files and sequential writes that append data to files, and GFS is very much tailored towards this style of access. Small, random reads and writes do occur (the latter very rarely) and are supported, but the system is not optimized for such cases. These file patterns are influenced, for example, by the storage of many web pages sequentially in single files that are scanned by a variety of data analysis programs. The level of concurrent access is also high in Google, with large numbers of concurrent appends being particularly prevalent, often accompanied by concurrent reads.

  • GFS must meet all the requirements for the Google infrastructure as a whole; that is, it must scale (particularly in terms of volume of data and number of clients), it must be reliable in spite of the assumption about failures noted above, it must perform well and it must be open in that it should support the development of new web applications. In terms of performance and given the types of data file stored, the system is optimized for high and sustained throughput in reading data, and this is prioritized over latency. This is not to say that latency is unimportant, rather, that this particular component (GFS) needs to be optimized for high-performance reading and appending of large volumes of data for the correct operation of the system as a whole.

These requirements are markedly different from those for NFS and AFS (for example), which must store large numbers of often small files and where random reads and writes are commonplace. These distinctions lead to the very particular design decisions discussed below.

GFS interface

GFS provides a conventional file system interface offering a hierarchical namespace with individual files identified by pathnames. Although the file system does not provide full POSIX compatibility, many of the operations will be familiar to users of such file systems (see, for example, Figure 12.4 [1]):

  • create – create a new instance of a file;

  • delete – delete an instance of a file;

  • open – open a named file and return a handle;

  • close – close a given file specified by a handle;

  • read – read data from a specified file;

  • write – write data to a specified file.

It can be seen that main GFS operations are very similar to those for the flat file service described in Chapter 12 (see Figure 12.6 [1]). We should assume that the GFS read and write operations take a parameter specifying a starting offset within the file, as is the case for the flat file service.

The API also offers two more specialized operations, snapshot and record append. The former operation provides an efficient mechanism to make a copy of a particular file or directory tree structure. The latter supports the common access pattern mentioned above whereby multiple clients carry out concurrent appends to a given file.

GFS architecture

The most influential design choice in GFS is the storage of files in fixed-size chunks, where each chunk is 64 megabytes in size. This is quite large compared to other file system designs. At one level this simply reflects the size of the files stored in GFS. At another level, this decision is crucial to providing highly efficient sequential reads and appends of large amounts of data. We return to this point below, once we have discussed more details of the GFS architecture.

Given this design choice, the job of GFS is to provide a mapping from files to chunks and then to support standard operations on files, mapping down to operations on individual chunks. This is achieved with the architecture shown in Figure 21.9, which shows an instance of a GFS file system as it maps onto a given physical cluster. Each GFS cluster has a single master and multiple chunkservers (typically on the order of hundreds), which together provide a file service to large numbers of clients concurrently accessing the data.

The role of the master is to manage metadata about the file system defining the namespace for files, access control information and the mapping of each particular file to the associated set of chunks. In addition, all chunks are replicated (by default on three independent chunkservers, but the level of replication can be specified by the programmer). The location of the replicas is maintained in the master. Replication is important in GFS to provide the necessary reliability in the event of (expected) hardware and software failures. This is in contrast to NFS and AFS, which do not provide replication with updates (see Chapter 12 [1]).

The key metadata is stored persistently in an operation log that supports recovery in the event of crashes (again enhancing reliability). In particular, all the information mentioned above is logged apart from the location of replicas (the latter is recovered by polling chunkservers and asking them what replicas they currently store).

Although the master is centralized, and hence a single point of failure, the operations log is replicated on several remote machines, so the master can be readily restored on failure. The benefit of having such a single, centralized master is that it has a global view of the file system and hence it can make optimum management decisions, for example related to chunk placement. This scheme is also simpler to implement, allowing Google to develop GFS in a relatively short period of time. McKusick and Quinlan [2010] present the rationale for this rather unusual design choice.

When clients need to access data starting from a particular byte offset within a file, the GFS client library will first translate this to a file name and chunk index pair (easily computed given the fixed size of chunks). This is then sent to the master in the form of an RPC request (using protocol buffers). The master replies with the appropriate chunk identifier and location of the replicas, and this information is cached in the client and used subsequently to access the data by direct RPC invocation to one of the replicated chunkservers. In this way, the master is involved at the start and is then completely out of the loop, implementing a separation of control and data flows – a separation that is crucial to maintaining high performance of file accesses. Combined with the large chunk size, this implies that, once a chunk has been identified and located, the 64 megabytes can then be read as fast as the file server and network will allow without any other interactions with the master until another chunk needs to be accessed. Hence interactions with the master are minimized and throughput optimized. The same argument applies to sequential appends.

Note that one further repercussion of the large chunk size is that GFS maintains proportionally less metadata (if a chunk size of 64 kilobytes was adopted, for example, the volume of metadata would increase by a factor of 1,000). This in turn implies that GFS masters can generally maintain all their metadata in main memory (but see below), thus significantly decreasing the latency for control operations.

As the system has grown in usage, problems have emerged with the centralized master scheme:

  • Despite the separation of control and data flow and the performance optimization of the master, it is emerging as a bottleneck in the design.

  • Despite the reduced amount of metadata stemming from the large chunk size, the amount of metadata stored by each master is increasing to a level where it is difficult to actually keep all metadata in main memory.

For these reasons, Google is now working on a new design featuring a distributed master solution.


As we saw in Chapter12, caching often plays a crucial role in the performance and scalability of a file system (see also the more general discussion on caching in Section 2.3.1). Interestingly, GFS does not make heavy use of caching. As mentioned above, information about the locations of chunks is cached at clients when first accessed, to minimize interactions with the master. Apart from that, no other client caching is used. In particular, GFS clients do not cache file data. Given the fact that most accesses involve sequential streaming, for example reading through web content to produce the required inverted index, such caches would contribute little to the performance of the system. Furthermore, by limiting caching at clients, GFS also avoids the need for cache coherency protocols.

GFS also does not provide any particular strategy for server-side caching (that is, on chunkservers) rather relying on the buffer cache in Linux to maintain frequently accessed data in memory.


GFS is a key example of the use of logging in Google to support debugging and performance analysis. In particular, GFS servers all maintain extensive diagnostic logs that store significant server events and all RPC requests and replies. These logs are monitored continually and used in the event of system problems to identify the underlying causes.

Managing consistency in GFS

Given that chunks are replicated in GFS, it is important to maintain the consistency of replicas in the face of operations that alter the data – that is, the write and record append operations. GFS provides an approach for consistency management that:

  • maintains the previously mentioned separation between control and data and hence allows high-performance updates to data with minimal involvement of masters;

  • provides a relaxed form of consistency recognizing, for example, the particular semantics offered by record append.

The approach proceeds as follows.

When a mutation (i.e., a write, append or delete operation) is requested for a chunk, the master grants a chunk lease to one of the replicas, which is then designated as the primary. This primary is responsible for providing a serial order for all the currently pending concurrent mutations to that chunk. A global ordering is thus provided by the ordering of the chunk leases combined with the order determined by that primary. In particular, the lease permits the primary to make mutations on its local copies and to control the order of the mutations at the secondary copies; another primary will then be granted the lease, and so on.

The steps involved in mutations are therefore as follows (slightly simplified):

  • On receiving a request from a client, the master grants a lease to one of the replicas (the primary) and returns the identity of the primary and other (secondary) replicas to the client.

  • The client sends all data to the replicas, and this is stored temporarily in a buffer cache and not written until further instruction (again, maintaining a separation of control flow from data flow coupled with a lightweight control regime based on leases).

  • Once all the replicas have acknowledged receipt of this data, the client sends a write request to the primary; the primary then determines a serial order for concurrent requests and applies updates in this order at the primary site.

  • The primary requests that the same mutations in the same order are carried out at secondary replicas and the secondary replicas send back an acknowledgement when the mutations have succeeded’

  • If all acknowledgements are received, the primary reports success back to the client; otherwise, a failure is reported indicating that the mutation succeeded at the primary and at some but not all of the replicas. This is treated as a failure and leaves the replicas in an inconsistent state. GFS attempts to overcome this failure by retrying the failed mutations. In the worst case, this will not succeed and therefore consistency is not guaranteed by the approach.

It is interesting to relate this scheme to the techniques for replication discussed in Chapter 18. GFS adopts a passive replication architecture with an important twist. In passive replication, updates are sent to the primary and the primary is then responsible for sending out subsequent updates to the backup servers and ensuring they are coordinated. In GFS, the client sends data to all the replicas but the request goes to the primary, which is then responsible for scheduling the actual mutations (the separation between data flow and control flow mentioned above). This allows the transmission of large quantities of data to be optimized independently of the control flow.

In mutations, there is an important distinction between write and record append operations. writes specify an offset at which mutations should occur, whereas record appends do not (the mutations are applied at the end of the file wherever this might be at a given point in time). In the former case the location is predetermined, whereas in the latter case the system decides. Concurrent writes to the same location are not serializable and may result in corrupted regions of the file. With record append operations, GFS guarantees the append will happen at least once and atomically (that is, as a contiguous sequence of bytes); the system does not guarantee, though, that all copies of the chunk will be identical (some may have duplicate data). Again, it is helpful to relate this to the material in Chapter 18 [1]. The replication strategies in Chapter 18 are all general-purpose, whereas this strategy is domain-specific and weakens the consistency guarantees, knowing the resultant semantics can be tolerated by Google applications and services (a further example of domain-specific replication – the replication algorithm by Xu and Liskov [1989] for tuple spaces can be found in Section 6.5.2 [1]).


[1] George Coulouris, Jean Dollimore, Tim Kindberg and Gordon Blair, DISTRIBUTED SYSTEMS Concepts and Design Fifth Edition, Pearson Education, Inc., 2012.

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