Google File System

Mar 15, 2020 by Abhishek Kumar


Google File System is a proprietary distributed file system developed by Google to provide efficient, reliable access to data using large clusters of commodity hardware. It was initially described in a 2003 paper titled “The Google File System” by Sanjay Ghemawat, Howard Gobioff and Shun-Tak Leung [1].

Designed to meet Google’s rapidly growing needs, GFS explores radically different design choices. It is widely deployed within Google as the storage platform for the generation and processing of data used. The largest cluster provides hundreds of terabytes of storage across thousands of disks over a thousand machines and it is concurrently accessed by hundreds of clients.

In 2010, Google adopted Colossus as their revamped file system. Colossus is specifically built for real time services, whereas GFS was built for batch operations. Colossus, along with Caffeine, their new search infrastructure power virtually all of Google’s web services from Gmail to Google Docs, and Youtube to Google Cloud Storage.

I was assigned GFS as a part of an Operating Systems Assignment, which is why I have skipped over most of distributed system aspects. Check out the original paper for more.


Design Overview


GFS has been designed by key observations about expected workload and technological environment. It reflects a departure from some earlier file system design assumptions.


GFS provides a familiar file system interface, although it does not implement a standard API like POSIX. Usual operations to create, delete, open, close, read and write files are supported. Addtionally, GFS supports snapshot and record append operations. Snapshot creates a copy of file or directory tree. Record append allows multiple clients to append data to the same file concurrently while guaranteeing atomicity.


A GFS cluster consists of a single master and mutliple chunkservers and is accessed by mutliple clients. Each of these is typically a commodity linux machine running a user level server process.

Files are divided into fixed-size chunks. Each chunk is identified by an immutable and globally unique 64 bit chunk handle assigned by master at the time of chunk creation. Chunkservers store chunks on local disk as Linux files.

Read/write operations is specified by a chunk handle and byte range. For reliablity, each chunk is replicated on multiple chunkservers. By default, three replicas ares stored, though users can designate different replication levels.

Chunk size is one of the key design parameters. GFS choose 64 MB, which is much larger than typical file system block size. Lazy space allocation avoids wasting space due to internal fragmentation. A large chunk size reduces clients’ need to interact with master, reduces network overhead by maintaing persistent TCP connection to chunkserver and reduces size of metadata stored on master.

The master maintains all file system metadata. This includes namespace, authorization, mapping of files to chunks and current location of chunks. It controls system wide activities such as chunk lease management, garbage collection and migration.

GFS client code linked into each application implements filesystem API and communicates with the cluster. Clients interact with master for metadata but all data-bearing communication goes directly to appropriate chunkserver.


When used with a small number of servers (15), the file system achieves read speeds comparable to a single disk (80-100 MB/s) but has a reduced write performance (30 MB/s) and slow append rate (5 MB/s). Aggregating multiple servers also allows greater capacity, reaching upto 583 MB/s for 342 nodes.


  1. GFS provides a location independent namespace.
  2. GFS spreads file’s data across storage servers, distributing read/writes.
  3. GFS uses commodity machines, lowering infrastructure costs.
  4. GFS stores minimal metadata in memory and has fast reboot times for master (1-2 seconds).


  1. GFS uses replication for redundancy and consumes more raw storage than xFS or Swift.
  2. GFS uses a centralized approach and failure of master stops the service.
  3. GFS is specialized highly for its workload and performs poorly as a general purpose file system.
  4. GFS uses a relaxed consistency model and clients have to perform independent consistency checks.


GFS is a highly customized file system, catering to Google’s specific needs. It is an example of smart design - analysis of workload and expectations. It prioritizes performance for its specific use over overall performance.


  1. The Google File System - 2003 paper introducing GFS

  2. Google Remakes Online Empire With ‘Colossus’ - Article by

  3. Google File System