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The Installable File System (IFS) is a filesystem API in IBM OS/2 and Microsoft Windows that enables the operating system to recognize and load drivers for file systems. It is part of the Windows Driver Kit.



When IBM and Microsoft were codeveloping OS/2, they realized that File Allocation Tables, FATs, did not offer the features a modern OS would require, and Microsoft began developing the High Performance File System, codenamed Pinball.

Instead of coding it inside the kernel, as FAT was, Microsoft developed a "driver-based" Filesystem API that could allow them and other developers to add new filesystems to the kernel without needing to modify it.

When Microsoft stopped working on OS/2, IBM continued using the IFS interface and Microsoft implemented a similar one in Windows NT.

IFS in OS/2

The IFS provided a basic and powerful interface for programming filesystems. It was introduced in 1989 in OS/2 1.20, along with the HPFS filesystem.

Filesystem drivers executed in kernel-space (ring 0) and are divided in four principal pieces: microIFS, miniIFS, IFS, helpers.

Only the IFS and the filesystem code itself is required and it is loaded via an "IFS=" statement in the CONFIG.SYS file. It is a NE 16-bit dynamically loaded library. No matter if it is a 32-bit OS/2 (2.0 and upper), the IFS is always 16-bit (although extraofficially you can make a 32-bit IFS).

The microIFS is a piece of code that loads in memory the kernel and the miniIFS and jumps to kernel execution. It is usually in the boot portion of the filesystem.

The miniIFS is a piece of code that is called by the kernel to load the first IFS statement that appers in the CONFIG.SYS file, so the first IFS statement must be the boot's filesystem for the system to be able to boot.

The helpers are 16-bit (for OS/2 1.x) or 32-bit (for OS/2 2.x and upper), are executed in user-space (ring 3) and contain the code used for typical filesystem maintenance, and are called by CHKDSK and FORMAT utilities.

This four-piece scheme allowed developers to dynamically add a new bootable filesystem, as the ext2 driver for OS/2 demonstrated.

CD-ROM filesystem driver (ISO 9660) was added in OS/2 2.0, UDF was added in OS/2 4.0 and JFS was added in OS/2 4.5. eComStation, the latest packaging of OS/2, also includes many filesystem drivers for OS/2 in its companion CDs. There was also an official 32-bit HPFS IFS, called HPFS386 that improved performance and added some features, like variable size cache and Access Control Lists, and was available only in OS/2 3.0 server edition. The FAT filesystem was never removed from the kernel and officially never an IFS, although there are FAT IFS that added features like long file names (LFNs), FAT32 support, etc.

Network file-sharing protocols like NFS and SMB are also implemented using IFS, and the IFS interface never changed.

IFS in Windows NT

When Microsoft stopped developing OS/2 and concentrated on what was then called OS/2 NT, they took the IFS ideas with it, along with the HPFS filesystem.

Instead of being a four-piece scheme they implemented a two-piece scheme. microIFS and miniIFS were removed from the scheme. IFS and helpers remain as the same, but later, in Windows NT 4.0, a defragmentation helper (DEFRAG) was added. Microsoft's original NTLDR was coded for loading the NT kernel from FAT, HPFS or NTFS, but subsequent versions dropped HPFS support. All of the drivers and helpers became 32-bit PE executables. The FAT file system was moved out of the Kernel to an IFS and was heavily optimized for performance, taking advantage of the 32-bit processing capabilities (being called FASTFAT).

Original Windows NT 3.1 incorporated FAT, HPFS (Pinball) and the newly created NTFS drivers, along with a new and improved CD-ROM filesystem driver that incorporated long file names using the Microsoft Joliet filesystem.

Windows NT 3.5 added per-file compression to NTFS and to the IFS interface. In Windows NT 4.0 the HPFS was removed, in Windows 2000 FASTFAT was updated to support FAT32 and UDF was added.

Windows 2000 modified the IFS interface to add per-file encryption.

Network file-sharing protocols and antivirus are also implemented using IFS.


  • O'Reilly - Windows NT File System Internals, A Developer's Guide - By Rajeev Nagar - ISBN 1-56592-249-2
  • Microsoft Press - Inside Windows NT File System - By Helen Custer - ISBN 1-55615-660-X
  • Microsoft Press - Inside Windows NT - By Helen Custer - ISBN 1-55615-481-X

See also

External links







  • Solid File System - (SolFS) cross-platform single-file virtual filesystem with encryption and compression
  • Callback File System - SDK that lets developers create installable virtual file systems for Windows in user mode
  • RomFS - Windows driver examples
  • WinFUSE - a .NET based Filesystem in USErspace framework that uses SMB instead of IFS
  • Dokan - a user mode filesystem toolkit by means of an IFS proxy driver


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