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Mac 911: Why is my Mac full of a million tiny files?

Glenn Fleishman | March 16, 2015
Last time, I talked about the "dark matter" of your iOS devices and OS X systems: stuff that seems to occupy space without offering up information about why. In this Mac 911, I'll answer more questions about storage and backup.

Last time, I talked about the "dark matter" of your iOS devices and OS X systems: stuff that seems to occupy space without offering up information about why. In this Mac 911, I'll answer more questions about storage and backup.

As many as grains of sand on the beach

Doug Eldred writes in with a concern about a form of file bloat — but not about bloated sizes. Rather, the sheer number of items that seem to appear on his drive.

Whatever or wherever they are, they must not be terribly large, but my Mac used to have less than a million files (according to various tools, including SuperDuper!), and now it's [up] to 1.3 million. Trust me, I haven't knowingly created 300K new file recently!

Mac OS X (and, invisibly, iOS) has always had an inordinate quantity of files because of its Unix underpinnings. There is something about Unix that loves a multiplicity of tiny files rather than monolithic larger ones, hence these huge counts.

In the way back, in the long ago, it used to matter, because each file consumed a minimum amount of hard disk space regardless of the actual amount of data in it, and no more than 65,536 files on the drive. With HFS+, however, a drive can have nearly 4.3 billion files without each consuming unreasonable amounts of space.

Doug continues:

Those zillions of stray files don't seem to consume much space, but tools like SuperDuper! and Disk Utility "verify disk" need to process each and every one of them in one way or another.

To my recollection and experience, the number of files shouldn't contribute to any system slowdowns, because they're inert unless needed. But during the cases that Doug mentions, could it cause delays? And why are there all these files being created, anyway?

I turned to an expert: Dave Nanian, the founder of Shirt Pocket, makers of the SuperDuper! app that Doug uses. SuperDuper! is a disk backup utility that makes an exact, bootable clone of a drive, and I have it scheduled to run every night on my main computer in addition to two other forms of incremental document backup.

Dave writes:

Ah, 1.3 million files. I remember those early days, back when laptops were made of plastic, and chips by IBM. But today, you're not alone. The laptop I'm typing on right now has — according to Disk Utility — 6,709,682 files. Make that, two seconds later, 6,709,687.

In general, especially if you're not seeing excessive disk usage, this just isn't something to worry about. There are a lot of hidden folders on your drive, sometimes entire hierarchies that are emulating things that can't be directly expressed in HFS+, but are still counted as "files," even though you wouldn't ever access them that way.

 

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