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[ The PC Guide | Systems and Components Reference Guide | Hard Disk Drives | Hard Disk Logical Structures and File Systems | New Technology File System (NTFS) | NTFS Directories and Files ]

NTFS File Attributes

As I mention in many places in this discussion of NTFS, almost everything in NTFS is a file, and files are implemented as collections of attributes. Attributes are just chunks of information of various sorts--the meaning of the information in an attribute depends on how software interprets and uses the bits it contains. Directories are stored in the same general way as files; they just have different attributes that are used in a different manner by the file system.

All file (and directory) attributes are stored in one of two different ways, depending on the characteristics of the attribute--especially, its size. The following are the methods that NTFS will use to store attributes:

  • Resident Attributes: Attributes that require a relatively small amount of storage space are stored directly within the file's primary MFT record itself. These are called resident attributes. Many of the simplest and most common file attributes are stored resident in the MFT file. In fact, some are required by NTFS to be resident in the MFT record for proper operation. For example, the name of the file, and its creation, modification and access date/time-stamps are resident for every file.
  • Non-Resident Attributes: If an attribute requires more space than is available within the MFT record, it is not stored in that record, obviously. Instead, the attribute is placed in a separate location. A pointer is placed within the MFT that leads to the location of the attribute. This is called non-resident attribute storage.

In practice, only the smallest attributes can fit into MFT records, since the records are rather small. Many other attributes will be stored non-resident, especially the data of the file, which is also an attribute. Non-resident storage can itself take two forms. If the attribute doesn't fit in the MFT but pointers to the data do fit, then the data is placed in a data run, also called an extent, outside the MFT, and a pointer to the run is placed in the file's MFT record. In fact, an attribute can be stored in many different runs, each with a separate pointer. If the file has so many extents that even the pointers to them won't fit, the entire data attribute may be moved to an external attribute in a separate MFT record entry, or even multiple external attributes. See the discussion of file storage for more details on this expansion mechanism.

NTFS comes with a number of predefined attributes, sometimes called system defined attributes. Some are associated with only one type of structure, while others are associated with more than one. Here's a list, in alphabetical order, of the most common NTFS system defined attributes:

  • Attribute List: This is a "meta-attribute": an attribute that describes other attributes. If it is necessary for an attribute to be made non-resident, this attribute is placed in the original MFT record to act as a pointer to the non-resident attribute.
  • Bitmap: Contains the cluster allocation bitmap. Used by the $Bitmap metadata file.
  • Data: Contains file data. By default, all the data in a file is stored in a single data attribute--even if that attribute is broken into many pieces due to size, it is still one attribute--but there can be multiple data attributes for special applications.
  • Extended Attribute (EA) and Extended Attribute Information: These are special attributes that are implemented for compatibility with OS/2 use of NTFS partitions. They are not used by Windows NT/2000 to my knowledge.
  • File Name (FN): This attribute stores a name associated with a file or directory. Note that a file or directory can have multiple file name attributes, to allow the storage of the "regular" name of the file, along with an MS-DOS short filename alias and also POSIX-like hard links from multiple directories. See here for more on NTFS file naming.
  • Index Root Attribute: This attribute contains the actual index of files contained within a directory, or part of the index if it is large. If the directory is small, the entire index will fit within this attribute in the MFT; if it is too large, some of the information is here and the rest is stored in external index buffer attributes.
  • Index Allocation Attribute: If a directory index is too large to fit in the index root attribute, the MFT record for the directory will contain an index allocation attribute, which contains pointers to index buffer entries containing the rest of the directory's index information.
  • Security Descriptor (SD): This attribute contains security information that controls access to a file or directory. Access Control Lists (ACLs) and related data are stored in this attribute. File ownership and auditing information is also stored here.
  • Standard Information (SI): Contains "standard information" for all files and directories. This includes fundamental properties such as date/time-stamps for when the file was created, modified and accessed. It also contains the "standard" FAT-like attributes usually associated with a file (such as whether the file is read-only, hidden, and so on.)
  • Volume Name, Volume Information, and Volume Version: These three attributes store key name, version and other information about the NTFS volume. Used by the $Volume metadata file.

Note: For more detail on how the attributes associated with files work, see the page on file storage; for directories, the page on directories.

In addition to these system defined attributes, NTFS also supports the creation of "user-defined" attributes. This name is a bit misleading, however, since the term "user" is really given from Microsoft's perspective! A "user" in this context means an application developer--programs can create their own file attributes, but actual NTFS users generally cannot.

Next: NTFS Reparse Points

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