fflush, fsync and sync vs memory layers


I know there are already similar questions and I gave them a look but I couldn’t find an explicit univocal answer to my question. I was just investigating online about these functions and their relationship with memory layers. In particular I found this beautiful article that gave me a good insight about memory layers

memory layers

It seems that fflush() moves data from the application to kernel filesystem buffer and it’s ok, everyone seems to agree on this point. The only thing that left me puzzled was that in the same article they assumed a write-back cache saying that with fsync() “the data is saved to the stable storage layer” and after they added that “the storage may itself store the data in a write-back cache, so fsync() is still required for files opened with O_DIRECT in order to save the data to stable storage”

Reading here and there it seems like the truth is that fsync() and sync() let the data enter the storage device but if this one has caching layers it is just moved here, not at once to permanent storage and data may even be lost if there is a power failure. Unless we have a filesystem with barriers enabled and then “sync()/fsync() and some other operations will cause the appropriate CACHE FLUSH (ATA) or SYNCHRONIZE CACHE (SCSI) commands to be sent to the device” [from your website answer]


  1. if the data to be updated are already in the kernel buffers and my device has a volatile cache layer in write-back mode is it true, like said by the article, that operations like fsync() [and sync() I suppose] synchronize data to the stable memory layer skipping the volatile one? I think this is what happens with a write-through cache, not a write-back one. From what I read I understood that with a write-back cache on fsync() can just send data to the device that will put them in the volatile cache and they will enter the permanent memory only after

  2. I read that fsync() works with a file descriptor and then with a single file while sync() causes a total deployment for the buffers so it applies to every data to be updated. And from this page also that fsync() waits for the end of the writing to the disk while sync() doesn’t wait for the end of the actual writing to the disk. Are there other differences connected to memory data transfers between the two?

Thanks to those who will try to help


1. As you correctly concluded from your research fflush synchronizes the user-space buffered data to kernel-level cache (since it’s working with FILE objects that reside at user-level and are invisible to kernel), whereas fsync or sync (working directly with file descriptors) synchronize kernel cached data with device. However, the latter comes without a guarantee that the data has been actually written to the storage device — as these usually come with their own caches as well. I would expect the same holds for msync called with MS_SYNC flag as well.

Relatedly, I find the distinction between synchronized and synchronous operations very useful when talking about the topic. Here’s how Robert Love puts it succinctly:

A synchronous write operation does not return until the written data is—at least—stored in the kernel’s buffer cache. […] A synchronized operation is more restrictive and safer than a merely synchronous operation. A synchronized write operation flushes the data to disk, ensuring that the on-disk data is always synchronized vis-à-vis the corresponding kernel buffers.

With that in mind you can call open with O_SYNC flag (together with some other flag that opens the file with a write permission) to enforce synchronized write operations. Again, as you correctly assumed this will work only with WRITE THROUGH disk caching policy, which effectively amounts to disabling disk caching.

You can read this answer about how to disable disk caching on Linux. Be sure to also check this website which also covers SCSI-based in addition to ATA-based devices (to read about different types of disks see this page on Microsoft SQL Server 2005, last updated: Apr 19, 2018).

Speaking of which, it is very informative to read about how the issue is dealt with on Windows machines:

To open a file for unbuffered I/O, call the CreateFile function with the FILE_FLAG_NO_BUFFERING and FILE_FLAG_WRITE_THROUGH flags. This prevents the file contents from being cached and flushes the metadata to disk with each write. For more information, see CreateFile.

Apparently, this is how Microsoft SQL Server 2005 family ensures data integrity:

All versions of SQL Server open the log and data files using the Win32 CreateFile function. The dwFlagsAndAttributes member includes the FILE_FLAG_WRITE_THROUGH option when opened by SQL Server. […]
This option instructs the system to write through any intermediate cache and go directly to disk. The system can still cache write operations, but cannot lazily flush them.

I’m saying this is informative in particular because of this blog post from 2012 showing that some SATA disks ignore the FILE_FLAG_WRITE_THROUGH! I don’t know what the current state of affairs is, but it seems that in order to ensure that writing to a disk is truly synchronized, you need to:

  1. Disable disk caching using your device drivers.
  2. Make sure that the specific device you’re using supports write-through/no-caching policy.

However, if you’re looking for a guarantee of data integrity you could just buy a disk with its own battery-based power supply that goes beyond capacitors (which is usually only enough for completing the on-going write processes). As put in the conclusion in the blog article mentioned above:

Bottom-line, use Enterprise-Class disks for your data and transaction log files. […] Actually, the situation is not as dramatic as it seems. Many RAID controllers have battery-backed cache and do not need to honor the write-through requirement.

2. To (partially) answer the second question, this is from the man pages SYNC(2):

According to the standard specification (e.g., POSIX.1-2001), sync() schedules the writes, but may return before the actual writing is done. However, since version 1.3.20 Linux does actually wait. (This still does not guarantee data integrity: modern disks have large caches.)

This would imply that fsync and sync work differently, however, note they’re both implemented in unistd.h which suggests some consistency between them. However, I would follow Robert Love who does not recommend using sync syscall when writing your own code.

The only real use for sync() is in the implementation of the sync utility. Applications should use fsync() and fdatasync() to commit to disk the data of only the requisite file descriptors. Note that sync() may take several minutes or longer to complete on a busy system.

Answered By – gstukelj

This Answer collected from stackoverflow, is licensed under cc by-sa 2.5 , cc by-sa 3.0 and cc by-sa 4.0

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