Picking the right filesystem across Win, Mac, and Linux

Tuxera, a company that provides both open source and commercial filesystem drivers, announced the millionth download of NTFS for Mac today — that’s a large number, with many or most downloads being the free NTFS-3G solution.

We use NTFS-3G on Mac OS 10.4 here, in combination with the Plugable USB 2.0 SATA All-in-one Storage Dock and large TB+ SATA drives. Along with built-in NTFS support on Windows XP and up, and all recent Linux distros, this lets us easily swap a single USB cable between Windows, Mac, and Linux and have all three be able to read and write the drive(s).

Overall, this is a good solution for developers who have to span multiple platforms, for people who use boot camp to switch between Mac and Windows, or for increasingly common multi-platform offices that are using external storage docks for backup.

And it’s nice having a both an open source and a (better performing) commercially supported option.

It used to be that the venerable FAT32 filesystem was best way to format a drive to make sure you could easily read and write it from Windows, Mac, and Linux. But FAT32 has some limits that are especially problematic for today’s large drives 1 TB and up:

  • Hard limit of 4GB on any individual file (think home movies of 30 mins or more)
  • FAT32 needs large cluster size for large disks – which means wasted disk space in the case of many small files
  • Partition size limits that can get as small as 32GB, and certainly hit at 2TB

There are various ways to read and write filesystems native to one OS on another. But there are also lots of pitfalls. All things considered, NTFS is the best compromise today.

For more background: