What is a file system in computing? – Learn all about file systems

Within the area of ​​computing, a large amount of information is used that, to be stored, requires a database file. However, this would not contemplate the end or beginning of each file if it were not for the implementation of a File System.

File systems have been used for decades to obtain a better organization of stored data. For this reason, throughout this article we will talk a little about what computer file systems are, how they work and what they are for.

Definition and concept of file system in computing

Within computing, a file system is known as a electronic structural set and rule group used for the organization and management of files on any device. It is used to sort files on devices such as hard drives, memory cards, or USB flash drives.

File systems define the handling of files within a storage device, from how they are named, stored and manipulated, even how to access them. This system can specify how files will be organized within a folder, allocate disk space for them, and protect them from unauthorized access.

On the other hand, each operating system has its own unique file system, however, they may be compatible with other operating systems. Popular file systems include HFS+ on macOS, ext4 on Linux, and the best known, NTFS and FAT32 in Windows.


He New Technology File System, or better known as NTFS, is a file system developed by Microsoft to be used in its Windows operating system. It offers several features and benefits that differentiate it from older ones such as FAT and FAT32, including the following:

  • offers a greater security: Supports advanced file and folder permissions. This means that groups and the user can have different levels of access and control of the storage.
  • Supports different file sizes: can handle larger partitions and files than other file systems. In this way they are suitable for devices with greater storage.
  • Has data recovery options: Employs a logging technique that tracks folder and file transactions. This helps prevent data corruption and facilitates data recovery in the event of a system failure.
  • file compression: You can compress everything from files to individual folders, helping you save disk space.

In the computer world, NTFS is known as a reliable and robust file system which, moreover, provides a wide variety of features for its users. This system was first introduced with the Windows NT 3.1 release and has been the default in subsequent releases ever since.


File Allocation Table 32 or FAT32, is a file system that is generally used as a storage device for external hard drives, memory cards, and USB. This system is based on a File Allocation Table (FAT) structure, where information about the location of files on the storage device is stored.

Unlike NTFS, FAT32 is older and has some usage limitations, including the following:

  • It has a maximum limit on file sizes up to 4 GB. This is not very useful when storing large files such as high-definition movies.
  • has a limit partition maximum up to 32 GBmeaning that it is not considered suitable for storage devices that have large capacity.
  • Offers less secure than NTFS, since it does not accept advanced file or folder permissions. This means that all users will have full access to system files and folders.

However, despite its limitations, the FAT32 file system is known for its compatibility with different operating systems. Among them are Linux, Windows and macOS.

In general, it is more useful when it comes to storing smaller files that do not require more advanced tools, but in a way simpler and more reliable.

How does a file system work?

The way a file system works often varies quite a bit. depending on the operating system and file system used. Likewise, these systems have different qualities that are common in their operation.

These systems, when saving a file within a storage device, use file allocation tables to indicate which part of the disk is being used. In addition, these tables keep a record of each of the parts of the disk to which the files were assigned and which are still available.

On the other hand, when you want to access a file, these systems use these tables to get the location of the file. In this way, the system access the file database and loads them into memory for use.

File systems use a numerical structural system for folders or directories that allows the user to organize each file into groups or subgroups. Each of these folders or files have their specific characteristics that can organize them into alphabetical, chronological order or by their date of modification.

What are file systems?

In addition to the file systems that we mentioned above, such as NFTS and FAT32, there are other well-known ones. Likewise, below we will describe the most common file systems:

  • exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table): This file system is ideal for large storage devices as it is capable of handling large files. It was developed by Microsoft and is compatible with Windows, macOS, and some versions of Linux.
  • HFS+ (Hierarchical File System Plus): Offers you higher reliability and efficiency than exFAT on mac, plus it is only compatible with macOS.
  • APFS (Apple File System): This system has security, performance and efficiency improvements based on HFS+. It is a default file system in macOS High Sierra and later.
  • EXT4 (Fourth Extended File System): Compatible with Linux, this is a file system considered to be the evolution of previous EXT versions. This system can handle larger amounts of data and has more advanced features.
  • NTFS for Mac: itself, this is a file system driver that allows macOS users to write to and read from Windows-formatted NTFS drives.

These file systems are known to be the most used in the area, however, there are others that could also be very useful. The selection of any of these will depend on the needs of storage and access to data you need and the operating system used.

What are file systems for?

File systems are used for different functions, in general, they serve to manage and organize data on storage devices, such as USB, hard drives, among others. Likewise, these systems work mainly in the following way:

  • Organize files and directories: A file system can organize files into folders which in turn can contain more files and folders inside.
  • Allocate disk space: These systems are capable of assigning a specific space to each file within the disk, to facilitate its storage and recovery.
  • Use filenames and paths: With these functions you can quickly classify, identify and access files. The names of the files and of each directory may have restrictions such as length limitations and prohibited characters.
  • Reading and accessing files– Provide command sets and application programming interfaces for accessing and reading files within the disk.
  • protect files: Provides security features that enable protection of files from unauthorized access. This means that access to files can be allowed or denied to certain users or groups.
  • Perform maintenance tasks: File systems offer maintenance tasks such as disk error checking.

A file system is considered as a essential part of any operating system and, furthermore, it provides an interface between programs and any data stored on the disk. These systems ensure that stored data can be retrieved and likewise allocate, organize, and protect files effectively, reliably, and efficiently.

Examples of file systems

Throughout this article we have talked about the types of file systems that exist, what features they offer us and with what operating system they work. However, below we have provided a list of examples based on the file system types mentioned above:

  1. FAT: in addition to the FAT file system, you can find other versions that are better suited to your needs, such as FAT12, FAT16, FAT32 and exFAT.
  2. NTFS: another type of systems with this function are those that are based on NTFS, such as ReFS.
  3. HFS: like the previous one, this file system has another version called HFS+.
  4. Ext: in previous points we have talked about the Ext4 version, however, it is not the only one coming from Ext, since it also includes the versions Ext2 and Ext3.
  5. Other file systems that are not very well known, but are also widely used and, if they fit your needs, can be very useful are ZFS, APFS, Btrfs, and XFS.

Can you change the file system?

If you feel that the file system you are using does not suit your needs or you want to try another one, if you can change it. However, this implies that you have to format the device, which means that all data, whether raw or otherwise, stored on it will be erased.

Thus, It is important to make a backup if you have important data on the device before starting with the file system change. You can also use a disk format tool that allows you to choose the system you want, or if you choose, you can manually format the disk.

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