Andrew File System (AFS) is a distributed filesystem designed and implemented in 1980s after NFS v2. It focuses on improving the scalability by resolving 3 problems: 1. reduce the amount of requests sent to the server; 2. reduce the amount of computation (e.g., pathname resolution, context switch, etc) on the server; 3. load balancing between multiple AFS servers.

AFS servers are leader based: each file stored in AFS is replicated over multiple nodes with one dedicated leader. All update requests to the file are directed to the leader node that will propagate the update to all other read-only replicas. When the client accesses a file, it fetches it from the server and keeps a local cache. When it tries to access the same file again, it will check with the server responsible for that file if the file has recently been modified. If not, it will use the local cache instead of fetching the file from the server again. This provides a simple close-to-open consistency guarantee.

An important feature of AFS is that for a typical read-modify-write operation on a file, an AFS client simply requests the entire file from the server on opening, apply all updates to its local cache, and commit the changes to the server on closing. This significantly reduces the number of requests sent to the server from a client: regardless of the number of operations between open and close, only two requests are communicated to the server. However, this also means that updates are only visible to other clients on close, so if there are multiple clients concurrently updating the same file, the last one that commits will overwrite all updates from other clients. AFS assumes that concurrent access is rare and requires application level concurrency control for sharing.

AFS improves performance through caching: if a file is already present in cache, it does not have to request it again from the server. Yet, instead of periodically checking with the server for validity, AFS uses callbacks: when the client requests a file, the server attaches a callback to that request. When a client commits some updates to a file, the server breaks the callbacks to notify all other clients that their caches are no longer up-to-date. Hence if a cache has a callback, the client can assume that this file has not been modified and use it directly.

AFS servers manage files using key-value stores. Each file on AFS is associated with a unique fixed-length Fid and directories map pathnames to the corresponding Fids. The clients will locally resolve for the Fid corresponding to the desired pathname with its local directory cache and present the Fid to the server. The server manages files in volumes: Fid contains information about which volume the file belongs to, its offset within the volume, and a uniquifier that indicates if the file corresponding to that Fid is still the original file, not a different file placed in the same position in the same volume after the original file was removed. AFS achieves load balancing by moving volumes among the servers. A distributed database keeps track of on which server each volume is located.


  • The design of AFS delivers high scalability: the client only communicates with the server for open, close, and other operations off the critical path, significantly reducing the server load when compared with NFS.
  • Changes to a file are materialized atomically on close, making it easy for failure handling: only server or client failure during close may lead to crash consistency issues. The server contains a consistent copy at any other time.
  • The abstraction of volume makes data migration (and hence load balancing) simple, and files are still accessible during volume migration.


  • This design makes sharing complicated. Modifications on one client is not visible on other clients until it closes the file, and AFS relies on application-level concurrency control permit sharing.
  • AFS clients always cache the entire file. If the client only needs to access a small portion of a large file, this can incur huge network traffic and exhaust client storage resources.

John H Howard, Michael L Kazar, Sherri G Menees, David A Nichols, MahadevSatyanarayanan, Robert N Sidebotham, and Michael J West. 1988. Scale andperformance in a distributed file system.ACM Transactions on Computer Systems(TOCS)6, 1 (1988), 51–81.

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