The Synopsis File System: From Files to File Objects
Mic Bowman and Ranjit John
Transarc Corporation
The Gulf Tower, 707 Grant St.
Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Wide-area file systems like AFS and DFS enable file sharing between users in large distributed organizations. The file system does not enforce any structure on the data in the files leaving that to individual applications. This lack of structure makes it difficult to locate information and for applications to share data. Consider the simple problem of adding an appointment to someone's schedule. The file system makes it possible to share the file that contains the schedule (assuming you know where it is located), but it does not contain information about the programs that must be run to manipulate the information within the file. Ideally, the file system should provide an encapsulation that helps others find the calendar and, simultaneously, the operations that act on it.

To solve this problem, we have implemented a new file system, called the Synopsis file system (SynFS), that enhances the traditional file system with facilities for storing, locating and manipulating objects. The Synopsis file system defines a logical uniform interface to files through an object-based extension to the traditional file system interface. In addition to the traditional untyped files, SynFS defines an interface to a typed synopsis. As the name indicates, a synopsis is an object that contains a summary of the file. A file system uses static directories to group similar files. SynFS adds digests to dynamically classify synopses; a digest is similar to a database view. Path names serve to identify files. To discover synopses, SynFS adds content-based addressing based on synopsis properties. Finally, for operational encapsulation, SynFS adds method invocation as a way of operating on a synopsis.

SynFS leverages technology from the object and World-Wide Web communities to address two specific problems. First, to address the problem of adding structure and a well defined interface to data in files, we borrow the concept of encapsulation and typing from the object community. A synopsis is an object that contains data and a set of methods that operate on the data. Every synopsis is typed and that identifies the data and the methods that can be invoked. Types are defined in a declarative language similar to ODMG ODL. The SynFS type system is extensible in that new types can be created after the system is installed. Type definitions are stored in a globally accessible type repository. These types have methods implemented in a scripting language (currently we use Tcl) which allows code to be shipped whenever a type is retrieved.

Second, to address the problem of representing the information content in a file, we borrowed the uniform presentation language (HTML) from the Web community. In a traditional file system, a user can see the raw data in a file or must run a specific application to view the information content. The raw data presents no information about the information content of the file, but a specific application limits the scope of interaction. SynFS uses a special method, 'display' (which is defined in the base type Synopsis and is inherited by all other types) to dynamically format the information content of a file using HTML. For example, the display method for the C++ type highlights comments, function and class declarations, and other C++-specific constructs in a C++ source file. HTML makes it possible for SynFS to present additional semantic information about a file without limiting the scope of interaction.

In summary, the Synopsis file system provides a functioning demonstration of the integration of technology and concepts from the object, web and database communities. The enhanced interface uses these technologies to improve the file system's ability to support file location and data sharing. Further, the global type system enables applications to collaborate and share data across autonomous organizations.

For more information please see the SynFS home page.
Last modified: Wed Apr 17 07:52:47 EDT 1996