Records in Oak segments

While TAR files and segments are a coarse-grained mechanism to divide the repository content in more manageable pieces, the real information is stored inside the segments as finer-grained records. Here I zoom in the segments and show the binary representation of data stored by Oak in the segments. It is not strictly necessary to know how segments work in order to understand the content of this post, but if you feel lost you can refer to my previous entry describing segments in greater detail.

Data and bulk segments

Segments are not created equal. Oak, in fact, distinguishes data and bulk segments, where the former is used to store structured data (e.g. information about node and properties), while the latter contains unstructured data (e.g. the value of binary properties or of very long strings).

It is possible to take apart a bulk segment from a data segment by just looking at its identifier. As explained in a previous post, a segment identifier is a randomly generated UUID. Segment identifiers are 16 bytes long, but Oak uses 4 bits to store a flag capable to set apart bulk segments from data segments.

The most interesting kind of segment is the data segment, because it stores information about the repository in a structured and easily accessible way.

Overview of data segments

A data segment can be roughly divided in two parts, a header and a data section. The header contains management information about the segment itself, while the data section stores the actual repository data.

Repository data is split into records, that are tiny bits of information that represent different types of information. There are different types of records, where every type is specialized in storing a specific piece of information: node records, template records, map records, list records, and so on.

In general, a record can be considered as a contiguous sequence of bytes stored at a specific position inside a segment. A record can also have references to other records, where the referenced records can be stored in the same segment or not. Since records can reference each other, a segment actually stores a graph of records, where the implementation guarantees that the graph is acyclic.

The segment also maintains a set of references to root records those records in the graph that are not referenced by any other records. In graph jargon, these records would be called source vertices. The set of references to root records is stored in the header section of the segment.

Record identifiers

Records need a mechanism to reference each other, both from inside the same segment and across different segments. The mechanism used to reference a record is (unsurprisingly) a record identifier.

A record identifier is composed of a segment field and a position field. The segment field is a single byte that identifies the segment where the referenced record is stored. The position field is the position of the record inside the segment identified by the segment field. There are some peculiarities in both the segment and the position field that may not be immediately obvious. The picture below shows how a segment looks like.

Overview of a segment

The segment field is just one byte long, but a segment identifier is 16 bytes long. To bridge the gap, the segment header contains an array of segment identifiers that is used as a look-up table. The array can store only 255 segment identifiers, so a single byte is enough to access every element in the array. In fact, the segment field in a record identifier is just an index in the array of segment identifiers that is used as a look-up table. The look-up table always contains the segment identifier of the current segment in the first position: if a segment field is set to zero, the referenced record is stored in the current segment.

The definition of the position field relies on some important properties of data segments:

  • data segments have a maximum size of 256 KiB, or 0x40000 bytes. The size of a data segment can never exceed this limit, but it is perfectly legal to have data segments smaller than 256 KiB.

  • records are always aligned on a two-bit boundaries. Stated differently, when a record is written in a segment, it must be stored at a position that is a multiple of four.

  • records are stored from the end of the segment. Even if this may seem counterintuitive, it makes perfectly sense if you consider that new records are written as a consequence of an in-depth traversal of a content tree. Writing records from the end of the segment guarantees that the records that are relevant to the root of the content tree are at the beginning of the segment, while records that are relevant to the leaves of the content tree are stored at the end. This makes reading from the segment faster, because operating systems are optimized to read files from the beginning to the end, and not backwards.

So, according to the the previous properties, allowed positions range from 0x40000 (not included) to zero (included). Moreover, assigned positions must be multiples of four.

0x3FFFC, 0x3FFF8, 0x3FFF4, 0x3FFF0, 0x3FFEC, ..., 0x0

As you can see, three bytes would be necessary to store these positions, but we know that a record identifier uses only two bytes to store position values. This is possible because of a very simple optimization made to the positions before being used in a record identifier. Since the positions are multiples of four, the last two least significant bits are always zero. Being constant, these bits can be removed by shifting the positions to the right twice. After the shift, the list of possible positions become

0xFFFF, 0xFFFE, 0xFFFD, 0xFFFC, 0xFFFB, ..., 0x0

With this optimization, only two bytes are necessary to store a position inside a record identifier. Of course, when you read a position from a record identifier you have to remember to shift the position to left twice to obtain a valid position.

The last important piece of information about positions is that they are always assigned on a logic segment size of 0x40000 bytes, even if the segment ends up to be smaller than 256 KiB. This doesn’t mean that these absolute positions are useless: in fact, they are converted to offsets relative to the effective end of the segment.

Hopefully an example will clarify this.

Let’s suppose that you are reading from a segment whose size is just 128 bytes. Let’s also suppose that you want to read a record from the position 0xFFF8. The problem is that the position 0xFFF8 was computed on a logical segment size of 256 KiB (or 0x40000 bytes), so you have to convert the position 0xFFF8 into an offset that can be used with the segment you are reading from. First of all, the two least significant bits were stripped away from the position, so you have to rotate 0xFFF8 two places to the left to obtain a proper position of 0xFFF8 << 2 = 0x3FFE0. How far was this position from the logical size of 0x40000 bytes? It is easy to compute that the referenced record is 0x40000 - 0x3FFE0 = 0x20 = 32 bytes before the end of the segment.

Given that the size of the current segment is only 128 bytes, you can use an absolute position of 128 - 32 = 96 in the segment to read the record you are interested in.

Record types

As stated before, there are many types of records. It is necessary to make a distinction between logical and physical records, where the former are an idealized representation of a data structure, and the latter are used to encode the data structures in the segments as sequence of bits.

Usually there is a one-to-one mapping between logical and physical records, like in block records, value records, template records and node records. Other types of logical record, like map records and list records, use more than one physical record to represent the content.

Let’s give a brief description of the aforementioned records.

Block records

A block record is the simplest form of record, because it is just a plain sequence of bytes. It doesn’t even contain a length: it is up to the writer of this record to store the length elsewhere.

The only adjustment performed to the data is the alignment. The implementation makes sure that the written sequence of bytes is stored at a position that is a multiple of four.

Value records

Value records are an improvement over block records, because they give the possibility to store arbitrary binary data with an additional length and optional references to other records.

The implementation represents value records in different ways, depending on the length of the data to be written. If the data is short enough, the record can be written in the simplest way possible: a lento field and the data inlined directly in the record.

When the data is too big, instead, it is split into block records written into block segments. The reference to these block records are stored into a list record, whose identifier is stored inside the value record.

This means that value record represent a good compromise when writing binary or string data. If the data is short enough, it is written in such a way that can be used straight away without further reads in the segment. If the data is too long, instead, it is stored separated from the repository content not to impact the performance of the readers of the segment.

List records

List records are a general-purpose list of record identifiers. They are used as building blocks for other types of records, as we saw for value records and as we will see for template records and node records.

The list record is a logical record using two different types of physical records to represent itself:

  • bucket record: this is a recursive record representing a list of at most 255 references. A bucket record can reference other bucket records, hierarchically, or the record identifiers of the elements to be stored in the list. A bucket record doesn’t maintain any other information exception record identifiers.

  • list record: this is a top-level record that maintains the size of the list in an integer field and a record identifier pointing to a bucket.

List records are useful to store a list of references to other records. If the list is too big, it is split into different bucket records that may be stored in the same segment or across segments. This guarantees good performance for small lists, without loosing the capability to store lists with a big number of elements.

Map records

Map records are a general-purpose maps of strings to record identifiers. As lists, they are used as building blocks for other types of records and are represented using two types of physical record:

  • leaf record: if the number of elements in the map is small, they are all stored in a leaf record. This covers the simplest case for small maps.

  • branch record: if the number of elements in the map is too big, the original map is split into smaller maps based on a hash function applied to the keys of the map. A branch record is recursive, because it can reference other branch records if the sub-maps are too big and need to be split again.

The implementation of the map record relies on the properties defined by an external data structure called HAMT (Hash Array Mapped Trie), capable of combining the properties of hash table and a trie.

Map records are also optimized for small changes. In example, if only one element of a previously stored map is modified, and the map is stored again, only a “diff” of the map is stored. This prevents the full storage of the modified map, which can save a considerable amount of space if the original map was big.

Template records

A template record stores metadata about nodes that, on average, don’t change so often. A template record stores information like the primary type, the mixin types, the property names and the property types of a node. Having this information stored away from the node itself prevents to write them over and over again if they don’t change when the node changes.

In example, on average, a node is created with a certain primary type and, optionally, with some mixin types. Usually, because of its primary type, a node is already created with a set of initial properties. After that, only the value of the properties change, but not the structure of the node itself.

The template record allows Oak to handle simple modifications to nodes in the most efficient way possible.

Node records

The node record is the single most important type of record, capable of storing both the data associated to the node and the structure of the content tree.

A node record always maintain a reference to a template record. As stated before, a template record defines the overall structure of the node, while the variable part of it is maintained in the node record itself.

The variable part of the node is represented by a list of property values and a map of child nodes.

The list of property values is implemented as a list of record identifiers. For each property in the node, its value is written in the segment. The record identifiers referencing the values of the properties are then packed together in a list record. The identifier of the list record is stored as part of the node record. If the value of some properties didn’t change, the previous record identifier is just reused.

The map of child nodes is implemented as a map of record identifiers. For every child node, its node record identifier is stored in a map indexed by name. The map is persisted in a map record, and its identifier is stored in the node record. Thanks to the optimizations implemented by the map record, small changes to the map of children node don’t create a lot of overhead in the segment.


There were a lot of information to assimilate in this post, and it was just a high level overview of how segments are implemented.

Hopefully, as incomplete as it is, this post helped you understand the advantages and limitations of the segment store in Oak. In my opinion, it is important to understand the data structures employed when your data is written to disk. Having a clue about the internals of Oak could give you an idea of the asymptotic performance of the operations you perform on the repository.