Making logical copies, or clones, of files and directories is critical to many real-world applications and workflows, including backups, virtual machines, and containers. An ideal clone implementation meets the following performance goals: (1) creating the clone has low latency; (2) reads are fast in all versions (i.e., spatial locality is always maintained, even after modifications); (3) writes are fast in all versions; (4) the overall system is space efficient. Implementing a clone operation that realizes all four properties, which we call a nimble clone, is a long-standing open problem.

This paper describes nimble clones in BetrFS, an open-source, full-path-indexed, and write-optimized file system. The key observation behind our work is that standard copy-on-write heuristics can be too coarse to be space efficient, or too fine-grained to preserve locality. On the other hand, a write-optimized key-value store, such as a Bε-tree or an LSM-tree, can decouple the logical application of updates from the granularity at which data is physically copied. In our write-optimized clone implementation, data sharing among clones is only broken when a clone has changed enough to warrant making a copy, a policy we call copy-on-abundant-write.

We demonstrate that the algorithmic work needed to batch and amortize the cost of BetrFS clone operations does not erode the performance advantages of baseline BetrFS; BetrFS performance even improves in a few cases. BetrFS cloning is efficient; for example, when using the clone operation for container creation, BetrFS outperforms a simple recursive copy by up to two orders-of-magnitude and outperforms file systems that have specialized LXC backends by 3–4x.




  • Yang Zhan
  • Alex Conway
  • Yizheng Jiao
  • Nirjhar Mukherjee
  • Ian Groombridge
  • Michael A. Bender
  • Martin Farach-Colton
  • William Jannen
  • Rob Johnson
  • Donald E. Porter
  • Jun Yuan

Related projects

Research Areas

  • Data Structures
  • File systems
  • Write-Optimized Data Structures




ACM Transactions on Storage