One of the big new features coming in the High Sierra update to MacOS is a new file system – called the Apple File System (APFS) – to replace the venerable HFS+, which was first released in 1985. Now, more than thirty years later, HFS+ is finally getting replaced with something better.
However, for most of us, the idea of replacing the file system which stores all our media is a scary thing. Because, frankly, we are all paranoid and risk-averse when anything potentially threatens the images we worked so hard to create.
So, this last week, I did some research to learn more about what the new Apple File System is, how Apple plans to implement it, and what it means to us in the future. Here is a Q&A that explains this new system in more detail, from a content creator point of view.
What is APFS?
Apple File System (APFS) is a proprietary file system for macOS, iOS, tvOS and watchOS, developed and deployed by Apple Inc. to replace HFS+. It was first announced at WWDC 2016, rolled out to all iOS devices in the 10.3 update to iOS on March 27, 2017, and available today in a limited form in the High Sierra beta program; with wide-spread availability coming in the fall with formal release of High Sierra (MacOS 10.13.0).
What are some highlights of the new APFS?
To start, it’s the first major rethinking of Apple’s file system architecture since the release of HFS+. For the last 30 years, new features were grafted onto the HFS+ file system. APFS is a complete redesign of how files should be stored, starting from a clean slate.
Apple did not make this decision lightly. When they designed APFS, they focused on compatibility, security, flexibility and extensibility to build a foundation they could grow with for the next 30 years. APFS is specifically designed to take advantage of today’s storage and processor technology. It is a thoroughly modern implementation of a file system, with a particular emphasis on SSD media.
What happens to HFS+?
Nothing. HFS+ is not going away. APFS and HFS+ easily co-exist. In fact, Apple is wisely limiting the roll-out of APFS, which I’ll talk more about in a minute.
HFS+ will be with us for many years to come.
What is a big change I WILL notice?
Duplicating files on the same drive. APFS uses a process called “cloning.” This is analogous to the card catalog in a library. Your data, the “book,” is stored on a shelf, while multiple cards in the card catalog can point to it. When we duplicate a file, we are only duplicating a card in the catalog, not the book itself.
This makes for almost instant file duplication, plus reduces the amount of space wasted by duplicating data. Another benefit is that when we delete a file, we are only deleting the catalog entry, not all the data. This, too, is much faster and more secure.
However, copying files across multiple drives works the same as always.
What’s another big change?
Encryption. Security is now built into the file system.
We’ve all heard the stories that encryption slows things down. The slow-down is not caused by the encrypted file, but the process of encrypting the file. Encryption is CPU-based and, while it is hardware-accelerated, it still takes time.
Just as in days past, encryption should be turned off for your media files.
And, if you use File Vault, it is worthwhile doing a test to see if enabling encryption makes sense for you and your projects. Each of us will have a different definition of “what’s acceptable.”
How about another big change?
The file system is now completely 64-bit. This has many benefits, including:
What happens when I upgrade to High Sierra?
For compatible systems, which currently means SSD boot drives, when we upgrade to High Sierra, our boot drive will be invisibly converted to APFS. For now, Fusion drives will remain HFS+. Fusion drives are still a work in-process and Apple has not announced when APFS will support them.
All external drives will also remain HFS+. This means that all our media and project files are NOT affected by this change. As I mentioned earlier, APFS is designed to be fully compatible with HFS+. In fact, Apple is recommending NOT converting external drives to APFS with the High Sierra release.
What do we need to do to convert our boot drive to APFS?
Nothing. It will happen automatically when we upgrade to High Sierra, provided the boot drive is compatible with APFS. If it isn’t, it will remain HFS+.
Will there be a big performance boost?
No, nothing dramatic. The initial release of APFS is not focused on performance; instead it adds improved encryption, file cloning, improved responsiveness, improved support for sparse files, and better support for low-latency devices (which is a fancy word for SSD drives).
Essentially, we won’t notice a significant performance difference between HFS+ and APFS. A better way to think of this is that APFS and HFS+ have performance parity.
If there’s no performance benefit, why the change?
Because HFS+ was getting really old. It was becoming harder and harder to make changes. The entire system needed to be brought up to date, made more reliable and provide a foundation for future growth.
Can we run both APFS and HFS+ on the same system at the same time?
Yes. In the initial roll-out, APFS will only affect the boot drive. Older systems, and those using boot drives from third-party manufacturers, may not be certified for APFS, which means they will not be changed. Instead, these systems will continue running HFS+.
Does APFS support RAIDs?
The current version of APFS does not support RAIDs, nor does it support creating bootable RAIDs using Disk Utility. This is one of the reasons that HFS+ is not going away.
However, and this is important, if you have an external RAID now, converting to APFS won’t affect it, because APFS is not applied to external drives.
Does APFS support both Windows and Mac partitions?
Yes. However, the Windows file system is not changed nor enhanced by APFS.
What maintenance tools do we need?
This is still a work-in-progress. Some of the tasks that we needed tools such as Disk Utility or Disk Warrior or Tech Tool Pro to perform are no longer an issue with APFS.
For instance, unlike HFS+, APFS verifies that a file is copied or written successfully before it updates the disk directory which reduces corrupt disk directories. File optimization and de-fragmentation are built into the file system. So, some of the regular maintenance tasks that we needed to do are now handled by the file system.
However, this, too, is still in development. We’ll know more closer to the launch of High Sierra.
When should I upgrade?
In years past, I recommended waiting for three months after an OS release. Today, the need to keep our computers secure with the latest OS upgrade is increasingly important. Still, I’m somewhat conservative on when to upgrade – I would prefer someone else catch the first arrows. So, here are my thoughts:
In general, I recommend waiting a couple of weeks after High Sierra is released to give all developers time to verify that they support the released version of the OS. Running beta software gives developers a head start, but too much changes during a beta program. Developers can only certify their software once the final version of the OS is available, which means they need some time to test their products after the OS is released.
If you think about it, waiting a couple of weeks won’t hurt anything except your bragging rights. And this gives the development community time to be sure their software is compatible; or warn us when it isn’t
How concerned should I be about this?
You should always be aware of new features in any operating system, especially if you are running older software such as Final Cut Pro 7, DVD Studio Pro or Adobe Premiere CS6. Older software is never upgraded to support new OS releases.
You should always take time to be SURE that the software you are running is compatible. Nothing is hurt by waiting, while we have all read horror stories of upgrading too soon.
That being said, however, it is good to remember that over one billion iOS devices were upgraded to APFS with no problems. Apple has worked hard to engineer compatibility into the new file system and, the roll-out only affects Apple-branded SSD boot drives.
This incremental roll-out means that we can migrate to a new file system without affecting all the data stored on connected drives, RAIDs and servers that we work with on a daily basis.
What are your thoughts?
I am looking forward to the release of APFS. I think it is a solid step forward and I’m reassured that Apple is taking this in stages. I’m especially glad that they are fully supporting HFS+ for the foreseeable future. I’ll continue to follow this as we get closer to the launch and report back as I learn more.
As always, I’m interested in your opinions.
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