Files already have a lot of user accessible metadata associated with them – the last time of modification, access control bits, etc.

Extended File Attributes (xattr) is a mechanism to store extra metadata against files, in the filesystem. This metadata takes the form of key:value pairs, with certain (platform dependent!) size restrictions. As of now, xattr is not a POSIX standard, but is independently supported by many modern filesystems like ext2, ext3, ext4, XFS, ReiserFS, etc. The Linux kernel also needs to be compiled with support for xattr. On the latest Ubuntu, xattr is enabled by default for ext4 (which is what I happen to be using).

To use extended attributes, install the xattr package (on Ubuntu):

$ sudo apt install xattr

The usage itself is straightforward. Make a test file to play with:

$ touch test-xattr-file

Attach a few key:val pairs to this file:

$ setfattr -n user.category -v test test-xattr-file
$ setfattr -n user.foo -v bar test-xattr-file

Dump all attributes:

$ getfattr -d test-xattr-file 
# file: test-xattr-file
user.category="test"
user.foo="bar"

Get a specifig attribute:

$ getfattr -n user.category test-xattr-file 
# file: test-xattr-file
user.category="test"

Notice that the attributes are namespaced. Currently, the top level namespaces are security, system, trusted, and user, of which only the user namespace is available for reading/writing from normal user programs. Check out man xattr for a detailed description of those namespaces.

In Bitcask, the setuid bit is used on a data file to indicate that it is part of a currently running merge process. That made me wonder if there is a way to attach arbitrary metadata to files, and indeed xattr is the answer.

Unfortunately, xattr is not very portable – different operating systems impose different size limits on user attributes, and not all operating systems even support xattr. Also, something to keep in mind is that some standard programs like rsync, cp need to be told explicitly to deal with attributes (which is not so weird if you think about it).