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Appendix E Tar Internals

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Basic Tar Format

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While an archive may contain many files, the archive itself is a single ordinary file. Like any other file, an archive file can be written to a storage device such as a tape or disk, sent through a pipe or over a network, saved on the active file system, or even stored in another archive. An archive file is not easy to read or manipulate without using the tar utility or Tar mode in GNU Emacs.

Physically, an archive consists of a series of file entries terminated by an end-of-archive entry, which consists of two 512 blocks of zero bytes. A file entry usually describes one of the files in the archive (an archive member), and consists of a file header and the contents of the file. File headers contain file names and statistics, checksum information which tar uses to detect file corruption, and information about file types.

Archives are permitted to have more than one member with the same member name. One way this situation can occur is if more than one version of a file has been stored in the archive. For information about adding new versions of a file to an archive, see Updating an Archive.

In addition to entries describing archive members, an archive may contain entries which tar itself uses to store information. See section Including a Label in the Archive, for an example of such an archive entry.

A tar archive file contains a series of blocks. Each block contains BLOCKSIZE bytes. Although this format may be thought of as being on magnetic tape, other media are often used.

Each file archived is represented by a header block which describes the file, followed by zero or more blocks which give the contents of the file. At the end of the archive file there are two 512-byte blocks filled with binary zeros as an end-of-file marker. A reasonable system should write such end-of-file marker at the end of an archive, but must not assume that such a block exists when reading an archive. In particular, GNU tar does not treat missing end-of-file marker as an error and silently ignores the fact. You can instruct it to issue a warning, however, by using the ‘--warning=missing-zero-blocks’ option (see section missing-zero-blocks).

The blocks may be blocked for physical I/O operations. Each record of n blocks (where n is set by the ‘--blocking-factor=512-size’ (‘-b 512-size’) option to tar) is written with a single ‘write ()’ operation. On magnetic tapes, the result of such a write is a single record. When writing an archive, the last record of blocks should be written at the full size, with blocks after the zero block containing all zeros. When reading an archive, a reasonable system should properly handle an archive whose last record is shorter than the rest, or which contains garbage records after a zero block.

The header block is defined in C as follows. In the GNU tar distribution, this is part of file ‘src/tar.h’:

/* tar Header Block, from POSIX 1003.1-1990.  */

/* POSIX header.  */

struct posix_header
{                              /* byte offset */
  char name[100];               /*   0 */
  char mode[8];                 /* 100 */
  char uid[8];                  /* 108 */
  char gid[8];                  /* 116 */
  char size[12];                /* 124 */
  char mtime[12];               /* 136 */
  char chksum[8];               /* 148 */
  char typeflag;                /* 156 */
  char linkname[100];           /* 157 */
  char magic[6];                /* 257 */
  char version[2];              /* 263 */
  char uname[32];               /* 265 */
  char gname[32];               /* 297 */
  char devmajor[8];             /* 329 */
  char devminor[8];             /* 337 */
  char prefix[155];             /* 345 */
                                /* 500 */

#define TMAGIC   "ustar"        /* ustar and a null */
#define TMAGLEN  6
#define TVERSION "00"           /* 00 and no null */
#define TVERSLEN 2

/* Values used in typeflag field.  */
#define REGTYPE  '0'            /* regular file */
#define AREGTYPE '\0'           /* regular file */
#define LNKTYPE  '1'            /* link */
#define SYMTYPE  '2'            /* reserved */
#define CHRTYPE  '3'            /* character special */
#define BLKTYPE  '4'            /* block special */
#define DIRTYPE  '5'            /* directory */
#define FIFOTYPE '6'            /* FIFO special */
#define CONTTYPE '7'            /* reserved */

#define XHDTYPE  'x'            /* Extended header referring to the
                                   next file in the archive */
#define XGLTYPE  'g'            /* Global extended header */

/* Bits used in the mode field, values in octal.  */
#define TSUID    04000          /* set UID on execution */
#define TSGID    02000          /* set GID on execution */
#define TSVTX    01000          /* reserved */
                                /* file permissions */
#define TUREAD   00400          /* read by owner */
#define TUWRITE  00200          /* write by owner */
#define TUEXEC   00100          /* execute/search by owner */
#define TGREAD   00040          /* read by group */
#define TGWRITE  00020          /* write by group */
#define TGEXEC   00010          /* execute/search by group */
#define TOREAD   00004          /* read by other */
#define TOWRITE  00002          /* write by other */
#define TOEXEC   00001          /* execute/search by other */

/* tar Header Block, GNU extensions.  */

/* In GNU tar, SYMTYPE is for to symbolic links, and CONTTYPE is for
   contiguous files, so maybe disobeying the "reserved" comment in POSIX
   header description.  I suspect these were meant to be used this way, and
   should not have really been "reserved" in the published standards.  */

/* *BEWARE* *BEWARE* *BEWARE* that the following information is still
   boiling, and may change.  Even if the OLDGNU format description should be
   accurate, the so-called GNU format is not yet fully decided.  It is
   surely meant to use only extensions allowed by POSIX, but the sketch
   below repeats some ugliness from the OLDGNU format, which should rather
   go away.  Sparse files should be saved in such a way that they do *not*
   require two passes at archive creation time.  Huge files get some POSIX
   fields to overflow, alternate solutions have to be sought for this.  */

/* Descriptor for a single file hole.  */

struct sparse
{                              /* byte offset */
  char offset[12];              /*   0 */
  char numbytes[12];            /*  12 */
                                /*  24 */

/* Sparse files are not supported in POSIX ustar format.  For sparse files
   with a POSIX header, a GNU extra header is provided which holds overall
   sparse information and a few sparse descriptors.  When an old GNU header
   replaces both the POSIX header and the GNU extra header, it holds some
   sparse descriptors too.  Whether POSIX or not, if more sparse descriptors
   are still needed, they are put into as many successive sparse headers as
   necessary.  The following constants tell how many sparse descriptors fit
   in each kind of header able to hold them.  */


/* Extension header for sparse files, used immediately after the GNU extra
   header, and used only if all sparse information cannot fit into that
   extra header.  There might even be many such extension headers, one after
   the other, until all sparse information has been recorded.  */

struct sparse_header
{                              /* byte offset */
  struct sparse sp[SPARSES_IN_SPARSE_HEADER];
                                /*   0 */
  char isextended;              /* 504 */
                                /* 505 */

/* The old GNU format header conflicts with POSIX format in such a way that
   POSIX archives may fool old GNU tar's, and POSIX tar's might well be
   fooled by old GNU tar archives.  An old GNU format header uses the space
   used by the prefix field in a POSIX header, and cumulates information
   normally found in a GNU extra header.  With an old GNU tar header, we
   never see any POSIX header nor GNU extra header.  Supplementary sparse
   headers are allowed, however.  */

struct oldgnu_header
{                              /* byte offset */
  char unused_pad1[345];        /*   0 */
  char atime[12];               /* 345 Incr. archive: atime of the file */
  char ctime[12];               /* 357 Incr. archive: ctime of the file */
  char offset[12];              /* 369 Multivolume archive: the offset of
                                   the start of this volume */
  char longnames[4];            /* 381 Not used */
  char unused_pad2;             /* 385 */
  struct sparse sp[SPARSES_IN_OLDGNU_HEADER];
                                /* 386 */
  char isextended;              /* 482 Sparse file: Extension sparse header
                                   follows */
  char realsize[12];            /* 483 Sparse file: Real size*/
                                /* 495 */

/* OLDGNU_MAGIC uses both magic and version fields, which are contiguous.
   Found in an archive, it indicates an old GNU header format, which will be
   hopefully become obsolescent.  With OLDGNU_MAGIC, uname and gname are
   valid, though the header is not truly POSIX conforming.  */
#define OLDGNU_MAGIC "ustar  "  /* 7 chars and a null */

/* The standards committee allows only capital A through capital Z for
   user-defined expansion.  Other letters in use include:

   'A' Solaris Access Control List
   'E' Solaris Extended Attribute File
   'I' Inode only, as in 'star'
   'N' Obsolete GNU tar, for file names that do not fit into the main header.
   'X' POSIX 1003.1-2001 eXtended (VU version)  */

/* This is a dir entry that contains the names of files that were in the
   dir at the time the dump was made.  */

/* Identifies the *next* file on the tape as having a long linkname.  */

/* Identifies the *next* file on the tape as having a long name.  */

/* This is the continuation of a file that began on another volume.  */

/* This is for sparse files.  */

/* This file is a tape/volume header.  Ignore it on extraction.  */

/* Solaris extended header */

/* Jörg Schilling star header */

struct star_header
{                              /* byte offset */
  char name[100];               /*   0 */
  char mode[8];                 /* 100 */
  char uid[8];                  /* 108 */
  char gid[8];                  /* 116 */
  char size[12];                /* 124 */
  char mtime[12];               /* 136 */
  char chksum[8];               /* 148 */
  char typeflag;                /* 156 */
  char linkname[100];           /* 157 */
  char magic[6];                /* 257 */
  char version[2];              /* 263 */
  char uname[32];               /* 265 */
  char gname[32];               /* 297 */
  char devmajor[8];             /* 329 */
  char devminor[8];             /* 337 */
  char prefix[131];             /* 345 */
  char atime[12];               /* 476 */
  char ctime[12];               /* 488 */
                                /* 500 */


struct star_in_header
  char fill[345];       /*   0  Everything that is before t_prefix */
  char prefix[1];       /* 345  t_name prefix */
  char fill2;           /* 346  */
  char fill3[8];        /* 347  */
  char isextended;      /* 355  */
  struct sparse sp[SPARSES_IN_STAR_HEADER]; /* 356  */
  char realsize[12];    /* 452  Actual size of the file */
  char offset[12];      /* 464  Offset of multivolume contents */
  char atime[12];       /* 476  */
  char ctime[12];       /* 488  */
  char mfill[8];        /* 500  */
  char xmagic[4];       /* 508  "tar" */

struct star_ext_header
  struct sparse sp[SPARSES_IN_STAR_EXT_HEADER];
  char isextended;

All characters in header blocks are represented by using 8-bit characters in the local variant of ASCII. Each field within the structure is contiguous; that is, there is no padding used within the structure. Each character on the archive medium is stored contiguously.

Bytes representing the contents of files (after the header block of each file) are not translated in any way and are not constrained to represent characters in any character set. The tar format does not distinguish text files from binary files, and no translation of file contents is performed.

The name, linkname, magic, uname, and gname are null-terminated character strings. All other fields are zero-filled octal numbers in ASCII. Each numeric field of width w contains w minus 1 digits, and a null. (In the extended GNU format, the numeric fields can take other forms.)

The name field is the file name of the file, with directory names (if any) preceding the file name, separated by slashes.

The mode field provides nine bits specifying file permissions and three bits to specify the Set UID, Set GID, and Save Text (sticky) modes. Values for these bits are defined above. When special permissions are required to create a file with a given mode, and the user restoring files from the archive does not hold such permissions, the mode bit(s) specifying those special permissions are ignored. Modes which are not supported by the operating system restoring files from the archive will be ignored. Unsupported modes should be faked up when creating or updating an archive; e.g., the group permission could be copied from the other permission.

The uid and gid fields are the numeric user and group ID of the file owners, respectively. If the operating system does not support numeric user or group IDs, these fields should be ignored.

The size field is the size of the file in bytes; for archive members that are symbolic or hard links to another file, this field is specified as zero.

The mtime field represents the data modification time of the file at the time it was archived. It represents the integer number of seconds since January 1, 1970, 00:00 Coordinated Universal Time.

The chksum field represents the simple sum of all bytes in the header block. Each 8-bit byte in the header is added to an unsigned integer, initialized to zero, the precision of which shall be no less than seventeen bits. When calculating the checksum, the chksum field is treated as if it were filled with spaces (ASCII 32).

The typeflag field specifies the type of file archived. If a particular implementation does not recognize or permit the specified type, the file will be extracted as if it were a regular file. As this action occurs, tar issues a warning to the standard error.

The atime and ctime fields are used in making incremental backups; they store, respectively, the particular file’s access and status change times.

The offset is used by the ‘--multi-volume’ (‘-M’) option, when making a multi-volume archive. The offset is number of bytes into the file that we need to restart at to continue the file on the next tape, i.e., where we store the location that a continued file is continued at.

The following fields were added to deal with sparse files. A file is sparse if it takes in unallocated blocks which end up being represented as zeros, i.e., no useful data. A test to see if a file is sparse is to look at the number blocks allocated for it versus the number of characters in the file; if there are fewer blocks allocated for the file than would normally be allocated for a file of that size, then the file is sparse. This is the method tar uses to detect a sparse file, and once such a file is detected, it is treated differently from non-sparse files.

Sparse files are often dbm files, or other database-type files which have data at some points and emptiness in the greater part of the file. Such files can appear to be very large when an ‘ls -l’ is done on them, when in truth, there may be a very small amount of important data contained in the file. It is thus undesirable to have tar think that it must back up this entire file, as great quantities of room are wasted on empty blocks, which can lead to running out of room on a tape far earlier than is necessary. Thus, sparse files are dealt with so that these empty blocks are not written to the tape. Instead, what is written to the tape is a description, of sorts, of the sparse file: where the holes are, how big the holes are, and how much data is found at the end of the hole. This way, the file takes up potentially far less room on the tape, and when the file is extracted later on, it will look exactly the way it looked beforehand. The following is a description of the fields used to handle a sparse file:

The sp is an array of struct sparse. Each struct sparse contains two 12-character strings which represent an offset into the file and a number of bytes to be written at that offset. The offset is absolute, and not relative to the offset in preceding array element.

The header can hold four of these struct sparse at the moment; if more are needed, they are not stored in the header.

The isextended flag is set when an extended_header is needed to deal with a file. Note that this means that this flag can only be set when dealing with a sparse file, and it is only set in the event that the description of the file will not fit in the allotted room for sparse structures in the header. In other words, an extended_header is needed.

The extended_header structure is used for sparse files which need more sparse structures than can fit in the header. The header can fit 4 such structures; if more are needed, the flag isextended gets set and the next block is an extended_header.

Each extended_header structure contains an array of 21 sparse structures, along with a similar isextended flag that the header had. There can be an indeterminate number of such extended_headers to describe a sparse file.


These flags represent a regular file. In order to be compatible with older versions of tar, a typeflag value of AREGTYPE should be silently recognized as a regular file. New archives should be created using REGTYPE. Also, for backward compatibility, tar treats a regular file whose name ends with a slash as a directory.


This flag represents a file linked to another file, of any type, previously archived. Such files are identified in Unix by each file having the same device and inode number. The linked-to name is specified in the linkname field with a trailing null.


This represents a symbolic link to another file. The linked-to name is specified in the linkname field with a trailing null.


These represent character special files and block special files respectively. In this case the devmajor and devminor fields will contain the major and minor device numbers respectively. Operating systems may map the device specifications to their own local specification, or may ignore the entry.


This flag specifies a directory or sub-directory. The directory name in the name field should end with a slash. On systems where disk allocation is performed on a directory basis, the size field will contain the maximum number of bytes (which may be rounded to the nearest disk block allocation unit) which the directory may hold. A size field of zero indicates no such limiting. Systems which do not support limiting in this manner should ignore the size field.


This specifies a FIFO special file. Note that the archiving of a FIFO file archives the existence of this file and not its contents.


This specifies a contiguous file, which is the same as a normal file except that, in operating systems which support it, all its space is allocated contiguously on the disk. Operating systems which do not allow contiguous allocation should silently treat this type as a normal file.


These are reserved for custom implementations. Some of these are used in the GNU modified format, as described below.

Other values are reserved for specification in future revisions of the P1003 standard, and should not be used by any tar program.

The magic field indicates that this archive was output in the P1003 archive format. If this field contains TMAGIC, the uname and gname fields will contain the ASCII representation of the owner and group of the file respectively. If found, the user and group IDs are used rather than the values in the uid and gid fields.

For references, see ISO/IEC 9945-1:1990 or IEEE Std 1003.1-1990, pages 169-173 (section 10.1) for Archive/Interchange File Format; and IEEE Std 1003.2-1992, pages 380-388 (section 4.48) and pages 936-940 (section E.4.48) for pax - Portable archive interchange.

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GNU Extensions to the Archive Format

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The GNU format uses additional file types to describe new types of files in an archive. These are listed below.


This represents a directory and a list of files created by the ‘--incremental’ (‘-G’) option. The size field gives the total size of the associated list of files. Each file name is preceded by either a ‘Y’ (the file should be in this archive) or an ‘N’. (The file is a directory, or is not stored in the archive.) Each file name is terminated by a null. There is an additional null after the last file name.


This represents a file continued from another volume of a multi-volume archive created with the ‘--multi-volume’ (‘-M’) option. The original type of the file is not given here. The size field gives the maximum size of this piece of the file (assuming the volume does not end before the file is written out). The offset field gives the offset from the beginning of the file where this part of the file begins. Thus size plus offset should equal the original size of the file.


This flag indicates that we are dealing with a sparse file. Note that archiving a sparse file requires special operations to find holes in the file, which mark the positions of these holes, along with the number of bytes of data to be found after the hole.


This file type is used to mark the volume header that was given with the ‘--label=archive-label’ (‘-V archive-label’) option when the archive was created. The name field contains the name given after the ‘--label=archive-label’ (‘-V archive-label’) option. The size field is zero. Only the first file in each volume of an archive should have this type.

For fields containing numbers or timestamps that are out of range for the basic format, the GNU format uses a base-256 representation instead of an ASCII octal number. If the leading byte is 0xff (255), all the bytes of the field (including the leading byte) are concatenated in big-endian order, with the result being a negative number expressed in two’s complement form. If the leading byte is 0x80 (128), the non-leading bytes of the field are concatenated in big-endian order, with the result being a positive number expressed in binary form. Leading bytes other than 0xff, 0x80 and ASCII octal digits are reserved for future use, as are base-256 representations of values that would be in range for the basic format.

You may have trouble reading a GNU format archive on a non-GNU system if the options ‘--incremental’ (‘-G’), ‘--multi-volume’ (‘-M’), ‘--sparse’ (‘-S’), or ‘--label=archive-label’ (‘-V archive-label’) were used when writing the archive. In general, if tar does not use the GNU-added fields of the header, other versions of tar should be able to read the archive. Otherwise, the tar program will give an error, the most likely one being a checksum error.

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Storing Sparse Files

The notion of sparse file, and the ways of handling it from the point of view of GNU tar user have been described in detail in Archiving Sparse Files. This chapter describes the internal format GNU tar uses to store such files.

The support for sparse files in GNU tar has a long history. The earliest version featuring this support that I was able to find was 1.09, released in November, 1990. The format introduced back then is called old GNU sparse format and in spite of the fact that its design contained many flaws, it was the only format GNU tar supported until version 1.14 (May, 2004), which introduced initial support for sparse archives in PAX archives (see section GNU tar and POSIX tar). This format was not free from design flaws, either and it was subsequently improved in versions 1.15.2 (November, 2005) and 1.15.92 (June, 2006).

In addition to GNU sparse format, GNU tar is able to read and extract sparse files archived by star.

The following subsections describe each format in detail.

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E.0.1 Old GNU Format

The format introduced in November 1990 (v. 1.09) was designed on top of standard ustar headers in such an unfortunate way that some of its fields overwrote fields required by POSIX.

An old GNU sparse header is designated by type ‘S’ (GNUTYPE_SPARSE) and has the following layout:

OffsetSizeNameData typeContents
0345N/ANot used.
34512atimeNumberatime of the file.
35712ctimeNumberctime of the file .
36912offsetNumberFor multivolume archives: the offset of the start of this volume.
3814N/ANot used.
3851N/ANot used.
38696spsparse_header(4 entries) File map.
4821isextendedBool1 if an extension sparse header follows, 0 otherwise.
48312realsizeNumberReal size of the file.

Each of sparse_header object at offset 386 describes a single data chunk. It has the following structure:

OffsetSizeData typeContents
012NumberOffset of the beginning of the chunk.
1212NumberSize of the chunk.

If the member contains more than four chunks, the isextended field of the header has the value 1 and the main header is followed by one or more extension headers. Each such header has the following structure:

OffsetSizeNameData typeContents
021spsparse_header(21 entries) File map.
5041isextendedBool1 if an extension sparse header follows, or 0 otherwise.

A header with isextended=0 ends the map.

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E.0.2 PAX Format, Versions 0.0 and 0.1

There are two formats available in this branch. The version 0.0 is the initial version of sparse format used by tar versions 1.14–1.15.1. The sparse file map is kept in extended (x) PAX header variables:


Real size of the stored file;


Number of blocks in the sparse map;


Offset of the data block;


Size of the data block.

The latter two variables repeat for each data block, so the overall structure is like this:

repeat numblocks times
end repeat

This format presented the following two problems:

  1. Whereas the POSIX specification allows a variable to appear multiple times in a header, it requires that only the last occurrence be meaningful. Thus, multiple occurrences of GNU.sparse.offset and GNU.sparse.numbytes are conflicting with the POSIX specs.
  2. Attempting to extract such archives using a third-party’s tar results in extraction of sparse files in condensed form. If the tar implementation in question does not support POSIX format, it will also extract a file containing extension header attributes. This file can be used to expand the file to its original state. However, posix-aware tars will usually ignore the unknown variables, which makes restoring the file more difficult. See Extraction of sparse members in v.0.0 format, for the detailed description of how to restore such members using non-GNU tars.

GNU tar 1.15.2 introduced sparse format version 0.1, which attempted to solve these problems. As its predecessor, this format stores sparse map in the extended POSIX header. It retains GNU.sparse.size and GNU.sparse.numblocks variables, but instead of GNU.sparse.offset/GNU.sparse.numbytes pairs it uses a single variable:


Map of non-null data chunks. It is a string consisting of comma-separated values "offset,size[,offset-1,size-1...]"

To address the 2nd problem, the name field in ustar is replaced with a special name, constructed using the following pattern:


The real name of the sparse file is stored in the variable GNU.sparse.name. Thus, those tar implementations that are not aware of GNU extensions will at least extract the files into separate directories, giving the user a possibility to expand it afterwards. See Extraction of sparse members in v.0.1 format, for the detailed description of how to restore such members using non-GNU tars.

The resulting GNU.sparse.map string can be very long. Although POSIX does not impose any limit on the length of a x header variable, this possibly can confuse some tars.

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E.0.3 PAX Format, Version 1.0

The version 1.0 of sparse format was introduced with GNU tar 1.15.92. Its main objective was to make the resulting file extractable with little effort even by non-posix aware tar implementations. Starting from this version, the extended header preceding a sparse member always contains the following variables that identify the format being used:


Major version


Minor version

The name field in ustar header contains a special name, constructed using the following pattern:


The real name of the sparse file is stored in the variable GNU.sparse.name. The real size of the file is stored in the variable GNU.sparse.realsize.

The sparse map itself is stored in the file data block, preceding the actual file data. It consists of a series of decimal numbers delimited by newlines. The map is padded with nulls to the nearest block boundary.

The first number gives the number of entries in the map. Following are map entries, each one consisting of two numbers giving the offset and size of the data block it describes.

The format is designed in such a way that non-posix aware tars and tars not supporting GNU.sparse.* keywords will extract each sparse file in its condensed form with the file map prepended and will place it into a separate directory. Then, using a simple program it would be possible to expand the file to its original form even without GNU tar. See section Extracting Sparse Members, for the detailed information on how to extract sparse members without GNU tar.

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Format of the Incremental Snapshot Files

A snapshot file (or directory file) is created during incremental backups (see section Using tar to Perform Incremental Dumps). It contains the status of the file system at the time of the dump and is used to determine which files were modified since the last backup.

GNU tar version 1.35 supports three snapshot file formats. The first format, called format 0, is the one used by GNU tar versions up to and including 1.15.1. The second format, called format 1 is an extended version of this format, that contains more metadata and allows for further extensions. It was used by alpha release version 1.15.90. For alpha version 1.15.91 and stable releases version 1.16 up through 1.35, the format 2 is used.

GNU tar is able to read all three formats, but will create snapshots only in format 2.

This appendix describes all three formats in detail.

  1. Format 0’ snapshot file begins with a line containing a decimal number that represents a UNIX timestamp of the beginning of the last archivation. This line is followed by directory metadata descriptions, one per line. Each description has the following format:
    [nfs]dev inode name



    A single plus character (‘+’), if this directory is located on an NFS-mounted partition, otherwise empty.

    (That is, for non-NFS directories, the first character on the description line contains the start of the dev field.)


    Device number of the directory;


    I-node number of the directory;


    Name of the directory. Any special characters (white-space, backslashes, etc.) are quoted.

  2. Format 1’ snapshot file begins with a line specifying the format of the file. This line has the following structure:
    GNU tar-tar-version-incr-format-version

    where tar-version is the version number of GNU tar implementation that created this snapshot, and incr-format-version is the version number of the snapshot format (in this case ‘1’).

    Next line contains two decimal numbers, representing the time of the last backup. First number is the number of seconds, the second one is the number of nanoseconds, since the beginning of the epoch.

    Lines that follow contain directory metadata, one line per directory. Each line is formatted as follows:

    [nfs]mtime-sec mtime-nsec dev inode name

    where mtime-sec and mtime-nsec represent last modification time of this directory with nanosecond precision; nfs, dev, inode and name have the same meaning as with ‘format 0’.

  3. Format 2’ snapshot file begins with a format identifier, as described for version 1, e.g.:
    GNU tar-1.35-2

    This line is followed by newline. Rest of file consists of records, separated by null (ASCII 0) characters. Thus, in contrast to the previous formats, format 2 snapshot is a binary file.

    First two records are decimal integers, representing the time of the last backup. First number is the number of seconds, the second one is the number of nanoseconds, since the beginning of the epoch. These are followed by arbitrary number of directory records.

    Each directory record contains a set of metadata describing a particular directory. Parts of a directory record are delimited with ASCII 0 characters. The following table describes each part. The Number type in this table stands for a decimal integer in ASCII notation. (Negative values are preceded with a "-" character, while positive values have no leading punctuation.)

    nfsCharacter1’ if the directory is located on an NFS-mounted partition, or ‘0’ otherwise;
    timestamp_secNumberModification time, seconds;
    timestamp_nsecNumberModification time, nanoseconds;
    devNumberDevice number;
    inoNumberI-node number;
    nameStringDirectory name; in contrast to the previous versions it is not quoted;
    contentsDumpdirContents of the directory; See section Dumpdir, for a description of its format.

    Dumpdirs stored in snapshot files contain only records of types ‘Y’, ‘N’ and ‘D’.

    The specific range of values allowed in each of the Number fields depends on the underlying C datatypes as determined when tar is compiled. To see the specific ranges allowed for a particular tar binary, you can use the ‘--show-snapshot-field-ranges’ option:

    $ tar --show-snapshot-field-ranges
    This tar's snapshot file field ranges are
       (field name      => [ min, max ]):
        nfs             => [ 0, 1 ],
        timestamp_sec   => [ -9223372036854775808, 9223372036854775807 ],
        timestamp_nsec  => [ 0, 999999999 ],
        dev             => [ 0, 18446744073709551615 ],
        ino             => [ 0, 18446744073709551615 ],

    (This example is from a GNU/Linux x86_64 system.)

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Incremental archives keep information about contents of each dumped directory in special data blocks called dumpdirs.

Dumpdir is a sequence of entries of the following form:

C filename \0

where C is one of the control codes described below, filename is the name of the file C operates upon, and ‘\0’ represents a nul character (ASCII 0). The white space characters were added for readability, real dumpdirs do not contain them.

Each dumpdir ends with a single nul character.

The following table describes control codes and their meanings:


filename is contained in the archive.


filename was present in the directory at the time the archive was made, yet it was not dumped to the archive, because it had not changed since the last backup.


filename is a directory.


This code requests renaming of the filename to the name specified with the ‘T’ command, that immediately follows it.


Specify target file name for ‘R’ command (see below).


Specify temporary directory name for a rename operation (see below).

Codes ‘Y’, ‘N’ and ‘D’ require filename argument to be a relative file name to the directory this dumpdir describes, whereas codes ‘R’, ‘T’ and ‘X’ require their argument to be an absolute file name.

The three codes ‘R’, ‘T’ and ‘X’ specify a renaming operation. In the simplest case it is:


which means “rename file ‘source’ to file ‘dest’”.

However, there are cases that require using a temporary directory. For example, consider the following scenario:

  1. Previous run dumped a directory ‘foo’ which contained the following three directories:
  2. They were renamed cyclically, so that:
    a’ became ‘b’
    ‘b’ became ‘c’
    ‘c’ became ‘a
  3. New incremental dump was made.

This case cannot be handled by three successive renames, since renaming ‘a’ to ‘b’ will destroy the existing directory. To correctly process it, GNU tar needs a temporary directory, so it creates the following dumpdir (newlines have been added for readability):


The first command, ‘Xfoo\0’, instructs the extractor to create a temporary directory in the directory ‘foo’. Second command, ‘Rfoo/aT\0’, says “rename file ‘foo/a’ to the temporary directory that has just been created” (empty file name after a command means use temporary directory). Third and fourth commands work as usual, and, finally, the last command, ‘R\0Tfoo/a\0’ tells tar to rename the temporary directory to ‘foo/a’.

The exact placement of a dumpdir in the archive depends on the archive format (see section Controlling the Archive Format):

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