Clean and dirty slots
Data in a read cache is sometimes in sync with underlying storage, and sometimes—if the cache is incoherent—that data is older than underlying storage.
Conversely, sometimes data in a write cache is newer than underlying storage. This can happen if the write cache is coalescing writes or batching, and therefore contains data written by its user that have not been written yet to the underlying slower storage.
A slot that contains data newer than underlying storage is called dirty. A slot containing data that is not newer than underlying storage is called clean.
For an example of both incoherent caches and dirty slots, consider the
following steps involving a single file,
f.txt, that’s opened twice by
stdio, once for reading and once for writing. (Either the same program called
fopen twice on the same file, or two different programs called
the same file.) The first column shows the buffer cache’s view of the file
(which is coherent with the underlying disk). The other two show the stdio
caches’ views of the file. The file initially contains all “A”s.
|Buffer cache||Stdio cache f1||Stdio cache f2|
|1. Initial state of
At step 5, after
fprintf but before
fflush, f2’s stdio cache is dirty: it
contains newer data than underlying storage. At step 6, after
stdio cache demonstrates incoherence: it contains older data than underlying
storage. At steps 2–4, though, f1’s stdio cache is clean and coherent.
A cache that never contains dirty slots is called a write-through cache. Write-through caches can’t perform write coalescing or batching for writes: every write to the cache goes immediately “through” to underlying storage. Such caches are mostly useful for reads. A cache that can contain dirty slots is called a write-back cache.
System call atomicity
Unix file system system calls, such as
write, should have
atomic effect. Atomicity is a correctness property that concerns
concurrency—the behavior of a system when multiple computations are
happening at the same time. (For example, multiple programs have the file open
at the same time.)
An operation is atomic, or has atomic effect, if it always behaves as if it executes without interruption, at one precise moment in time, with no other operation happening. Atomicity is good because it makes complex behavior much easier to understand.
The standards that govern Unix say
writes should have atomic
effect. It is the operating system kernel’s job to ensure this atomic effect,
perhaps by preventing different programs from read or writing to the same file
at the same time.
Unfortunately for our narrative, experiment shows that on Linux many
system calls do not have atomic effect, meaning Linux has bugs. But
made in “append mode” (
open(… O_APPEND) or
fopen(…, "a")) do have
atomic effect. In this mode, which is frequently used for log files,
are always placed at the end of the open file, after all other data.