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9.4 Blocking

Block and record terminology is rather confused, and it is also confusing to the expert reader. On the other hand, readers who are new to the field have a fresh mind, and they may safely skip the next two paragraphs, as the remainder of this manual uses those two terms in a quite consistent way.

John Gilmore, the writer of the public domain tar from which GNU tar was originally derived, wrote (June 1995):

The nomenclature of tape drives comes from IBM, where I believe they were invented for the IBM 650 or so. On IBM mainframes, what is recorded on tape are tape blocks. The logical organization of data is into records. There are various ways of putting records into blocks, including F (fixed sized records), V (variable sized records), FB (fixed blocked: fixed size records, n to a block), VB (variable size records, n to a block), VSB (variable spanned blocked: variable sized records that can occupy more than one block), etc. The JCLDD RECFORM=’ parameter specified this to the operating system.

The Unix man page on tar was totally confused about this. When I wrote PD TAR, I used the historically correct terminology (tar writes data records, which are grouped into blocks). It appears that the bogus terminology made it into POSIX (no surprise here), and now François has migrated that terminology back into the source code too.

The term physical block means the basic transfer chunk from or to a device, after which reading or writing may stop without anything being lost. In this manual, the term block usually refers to a disk physical block, assuming that each disk block is 512 bytes in length. It is true that some disk devices have different physical blocks, but tar ignore these differences in its own format, which is meant to be portable, so a tar block is always 512 bytes in length, and block always mean a tar block. The term logical block often represents the basic chunk of allocation of many disk blocks as a single entity, which the operating system treats somewhat atomically; this concept is only barely used in GNU tar.

The term physical record is another way to speak of a physical block, those two terms are somewhat interchangeable. In this manual, the term record usually refers to a tape physical block, assuming that the tar archive is kept on magnetic tape. It is true that archives may be put on disk or used with pipes, but nevertheless, tar tries to read and write the archive one record at a time, whatever the medium in use. One record is made up of an integral number of blocks, and this operation of putting many disk blocks into a single tape block is called reblocking, or more simply, blocking. The term logical record refers to the logical organization of many characters into something meaningful to the application. The term unit record describes a small set of characters which are transmitted whole to or by the application, and often refers to a line of text. Those two last terms are unrelated to what we call a record in GNU tar.

When writing to tapes, tar writes the contents of the archive in chunks known as records. To change the default blocking factor, use the ‘--blocking-factor=512-size’ (‘-b 512-size’) option. Each record will then be composed of 512-size blocks. (Each tar block is 512 bytes. See section Basic Tar Format.) Each file written to the archive uses at least one full record. As a result, using a larger record size can result in more wasted space for small files. On the other hand, a larger record size can often be read and written much more efficiently.

Further complicating the problem is that some tape drives ignore the blocking entirely. For these, a larger record size can still improve performance (because the software layers above the tape drive still honor the blocking), but not as dramatically as on tape drives that honor blocking.

When reading an archive, tar can usually figure out the record size on itself. When this is the case, and a non-standard record size was used when the archive was created, tar will print a message about a non-standard blocking factor, and then operate normally(26). On some tape devices, however, tar cannot figure out the record size itself. On most of those, you can specify a blocking factor (with ‘--blocking-factor’) larger than the actual blocking factor, and then use the ‘--read-full-records’ (‘-B’) option. (If you specify a blocking factor with ‘--blocking-factor’ and don’t use the ‘--read-full-records’ option, then tar will not attempt to figure out the recording size itself.) On some devices, you must always specify the record size exactly with ‘--blocking-factor’ when reading, because tar cannot figure it out. In any case, use ‘--list’ (‘-t’) before doing any extractions to see whether tar is reading the archive correctly.

tar blocks are all fixed size (512 bytes), and its scheme for putting them into records is to put a whole number of them (one or more) into each record. tar records are all the same size; at the end of the file there’s a block containing all zeros, which is how you tell that the remainder of the last record(s) are garbage.

In a standard tar file (no options), the block size is 512 and the record size is 10240, for a blocking factor of 20. What the ‘--blocking-factor’ option does is sets the blocking factor, changing the record size while leaving the block size at 512 bytes. 20 was fine for ancient 800 or 1600 bpi reel-to-reel tape drives; most tape drives these days prefer much bigger records in order to stream and not waste tape. When writing tapes for myself, some tend to use a factor of the order of 2048, say, giving a record size of around one megabyte.

If you use a blocking factor larger than 20, older tar programs might not be able to read the archive, so we recommend this as a limit to use in practice. GNU tar, however, will support arbitrarily large record sizes, limited only by the amount of virtual memory or the physical characteristics of the tape device.

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