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9.4.2 The Blocking Factor of an Archive

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The data in an archive is grouped into blocks, which are 512 bytes. Blocks are read and written in whole number multiples called records. The number of blocks in a record (i.e., the size of a record in units of 512 bytes) is called the blocking factor. The ‘--blocking-factor=512-size’ (‘-b 512-size’) option specifies the blocking factor of an archive. The default blocking factor is typically 20 (i.e., 10240 bytes), but can be specified at installation. To find out the blocking factor of an existing archive, use ‘tar --list --file=archive-name’. This may not work on some devices.

Records are separated by gaps, which waste space on the archive media. If you are archiving on magnetic tape, using a larger blocking factor (and therefore larger records) provides faster throughput and allows you to fit more data on a tape (because there are fewer gaps). If you are archiving on cartridge, a very large blocking factor (say 126 or more) greatly increases performance. A smaller blocking factor, on the other hand, may be useful when archiving small files, to avoid archiving lots of nulls as tar fills out the archive to the end of the record. In general, the ideal record size depends on the size of the inter-record gaps on the tape you are using, and the average size of the files you are archiving. See section How to Create Archives, for information on writing archives.

Archives with blocking factors larger than 20 cannot be read by very old versions of tar, or by some newer versions of tar running on old machines with small address spaces. With GNU tar, the blocking factor of an archive is limited only by the maximum record size of the device containing the archive, or by the amount of available virtual memory.

Also, on some systems, not using adequate blocking factors, as sometimes imposed by the device drivers, may yield unexpected diagnostics. For example, this has been reported:

Cannot write to /dev/dlt: Invalid argument

In such cases, it sometimes happen that the tar bundled by the system is aware of block size idiosyncrasies, while GNU tar requires an explicit specification for the block size, which it cannot guess. This yields some people to consider GNU tar is misbehaving, because by comparison, the bundle tar works OK. Adding -b 256, for example, might resolve the problem.

If you use a non-default blocking factor when you create an archive, you must specify the same blocking factor when you modify that archive. Some archive devices will also require you to specify the blocking factor when reading that archive, however this is not typically the case. Usually, you can use ‘--list’ (‘-t’) without specifying a blocking factor—tar reports a non-default record size and then lists the archive members as it would normally. To extract files from an archive with a non-standard blocking factor (particularly if you're not sure what the blocking factor is), you can usually use the ‘--read-full-records’ (‘-B’) option while specifying a blocking factor larger then the blocking factor of the archive (i.e., ‘tar --extract --read-full-records --blocking-factor=300’). See section How to List Archives, for more information on the ‘--list’ (‘-t’) operation. See section Options to Help Read Archives, for a more detailed explanation of that option.

-b number

Specifies the blocking factor of an archive. Can be used with any operation, but is usually not necessary with ‘--list’ (‘-t’).

Device blocking

-b blocks

Set record size to blocks*512 bytes.

This option is used to specify a blocking factor for the archive. When reading or writing the archive, tar, will do reads and writes of the archive in records of block*512 bytes. This is true even when the archive is compressed. Some devices requires that all write operations be a multiple of a certain size, and so, tar pads the archive out to the next record boundary.

The default blocking factor is set when tar is compiled, and is typically 20. Blocking factors larger than 20 cannot be read by very old versions of tar, or by some newer versions of tar running on old machines with small address spaces.

With a magnetic tape, larger records give faster throughput and fit more data on a tape (because there are fewer inter-record gaps). If the archive is in a disk file or a pipe, you may want to specify a smaller blocking factor, since a large one will result in a large number of null bytes at the end of the archive.

When writing cartridge or other streaming tapes, a much larger blocking factor (say 126 or more) will greatly increase performance. However, you must specify the same blocking factor when reading or updating the archive.

Apparently, Exabyte drives have a physical block size of 8K bytes. If we choose our blocksize as a multiple of 8k bytes, then the problem seems to disappear. Id est, we are using block size of 112 right now, and we haven't had the problem since we switched…

With GNU tar the blocking factor is limited only by the maximum record size of the device containing the archive, or by the amount of available virtual memory.

However, deblocking or reblocking is virtually avoided in a special case which often occurs in practice, but which requires all the following conditions to be simultaneously true:

If the output goes directly to a local disk, and not through stdout, then the last write is not extended to a full record size. Otherwise, reblocking occurs. Here are a few other remarks on this topic:


Ignore blocks of zeros in archive (means EOF).

The ‘--ignore-zeros’ (‘-i’) option causes tar to ignore blocks of zeros in the archive. Normally a block of zeros indicates the end of the archive, but when reading a damaged archive, or one which was created by concatenating several archives together, this option allows tar to read the entire archive. This option is not on by default because many versions of tar write garbage after the zeroed blocks.

Note that this option causes tar to read to the end of the archive file, which may sometimes avoid problems when multiple files are stored on a single physical tape.


Reblock as we read (for reading 4.2BSD pipes).

If ‘--read-full-records’ is used, tar will not panic if an attempt to read a record from the archive does not return a full record. Instead, tar will keep reading until it has obtained a full record.

This option is turned on by default when tar is reading an archive from standard input, or from a remote machine. This is because on BSD Unix systems, a read of a pipe will return however much happens to be in the pipe, even if it is less than tar requested. If this option was not used, tar would fail as soon as it read an incomplete record from the pipe.

This option is also useful with the commands for updating an archive.

Tape blocking

When handling various tapes or cartridges, you have to take care of selecting a proper blocking, that is, the number of disk blocks you put together as a single tape block on the tape, without intervening tape gaps. A tape gap is a small landing area on the tape with no information on it, used for decelerating the tape to a full stop, and for later regaining the reading or writing speed. When the tape driver starts reading a record, the record has to be read whole without stopping, as a tape gap is needed to stop the tape motion without losing information.

Using higher blocking (putting more disk blocks per tape block) will use the tape more efficiently as there will be less tape gaps. But reading such tapes may be more difficult for the system, as more memory will be required to receive at once the whole record. Further, if there is a reading error on a huge record, this is less likely that the system will succeed in recovering the information. So, blocking should not be too low, nor it should be too high. tar uses by default a blocking of 20 for historical reasons, and it does not really matter when reading or writing to disk. Current tape technology would easily accommodate higher blockings. Sun recommends a blocking of 126 for Exabytes and 96 for DATs. We were told that for some DLT drives, the blocking should be a multiple of 4Kb, preferably 64Kb (-b 128) or 256 for decent performance. Other manufacturers may use different recommendations for the same tapes. This might also depends of the buffering techniques used inside modern tape controllers. Some imposes a minimum blocking, or a maximum blocking. Others request blocking to be some exponent of two.

So, there is no fixed rule for blocking. But blocking at read time should ideally be the same as blocking used at write time. At one place I know, with a wide variety of equipment, they found it best to use a blocking of 32 to guarantee that their tapes are fully interchangeable.

I was also told that, for recycled tapes, prior erasure (by the same drive unit that will be used to create the archives) sometimes lowers the error rates observed at rewriting time.

I might also use ‘--number-blocks’ instead of ‘--block-number’, so ‘--block’ will then expand to ‘--blocking-factor’ unambiguously.

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