How NTFS File System Works: NTFS Physical Structure (6)

NTFS Physical Structure Last Access Time

Each file and folder on an NTFS volume contains an attribute called Last Access Time. This attribute shows when the file or folder was last accessed, such as when a user performs a folder listing, adds files to a folder, reads a file, or makes changes to a file. The most up-to-date Last Access Time is always stored in memory and is eventually written to disk within two places:

  • The file’s attribute, which is part of its MFT record.
  • A directory entry for the file. The directory entry is stored in the folder that contains the file. Files with multiple hard links have multiple directory entries.

The Last Access Time on disk is not always current because NTFS looks for a one-hour interval before forcing the Last Access Time updates to disk. NTFS also delays writing the Last Access Time to disk when users or programs perform read-only operations on a file or folder, such as listing the folder’s contents or reading (but not changing) a file in the folder. If the Last Access Time is kept current on disk for read operations, all read operations become write operations, which impacts NTFS performance.

Note: File-based queries of Last Access Time are accurate even if all on-disk values are not current. NTFS returns the correct value on queries because the accurate value is stored in memory.

NTFS eventually writes the in-memory Last Access Time to disk as follows.

Within the file’s attribute

NTFS typically updates a file’s attribute on disk if the current Last Access Time in memory differs by more than an hour from the Last Access Time stored on disk, or when all in-memory references to that file are gone, whichever is more recent. For example, if a file’s current Last Access Time is 1:00 P.M., and you read the file at 1:30 P.M., NTFS does not update the Last Access Time. If you read the file again at 2:00 P.M., NTFS updates the Last Access Time in the file’s attribute to reflect 2:00 P.M. because the file’s attribute shows 1:00 P.M. and the in-memory Last Access Time shows 2:00 P.M.

Within a directory entry for a file

NTFS updates the directory entry for a file during the following events:

  • When NTFS updates the file’s Last Access Time and detects that the Last Access Time for the file differs by more than an hour from the Last Access Time stored in the file’s directory entry. This update typically occurs after a program closes the handle used to access a file within the directory. If the program holds the handle open for an extended time, a lag occurs before the change appears in the directory entry.
  • When NTFS updates other file attributes such as Last Modify Time, and a Last Access Time update is pending. In this case, NTFS updates the Last Access Time along with the other updates without additional performance impact.

Note: NTFS does not update a file’s directory entry when all in-memory references to that file are gone.

If you have an NTFS volume with a high number of folders or files, and a program is running that briefly accesses each of these in turn, the I/O bandwidth used to generate the Last Access Time updates can be a significant percentage of the overall I/O bandwidth.

Multiple Data Streams

A data stream is a sequence of bytes. An application populates the stream by writing data at specific offsets within the stream. The application can then read the data by reading the same offsets in the read path. Every file has a main, unnamed stream associated with it, regardless of the file system used.

However, NTFS supports additional named data streams in which each data stream is an alternate sequence of bytes as illustrated in the figure Unnamed and Named Streams. Applications can create additional named streams and access the streams by referring to their names. This feature permits related data to be managed as a single unit. For example, a graphics program can store a thumbnail image of bitmap in a named data stream within the NTFS file containing the image.

Unnamed and Named Streams

NTFS File System

FAT volumes support only the main, unnamed stream, so if you try to copy or move Streamexample.doc to a FAT volume or floppy disk, you receive an error message.