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Simple and scalable versioned data storage
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Simple and scalable versioned data storage

Joshua Levy
2012-11-06 (covers Zinc version 0.3.16)


Zinc is a simple, versioned store for files. It operates much like a revision control system for source code, but with an emphasis on scalability and simplicity in managing large or numerous data or configuration files.

The key goals are:

  • Revision control for data: The goal is to manage revisions of data files, including support for atomic commits and metadata such as commit history, commit messages, and tags.

  • Cloud storage: Direct support for S3 (and potentially any other file storage layer).

  • Efficiency and scalability: The ability to manage numerous (millions) and large (multi-gigabyte) files. Support sharding of data to avoid excessive copying.

  • Simplicity: A simple implementation and an easy-to-understand internal storage structure for files, so you have a good understanding of how your data is kept safe.

So why would you use Zinc over other existing systems? What are the alternatives?

  • Revision control systems (such as Subversion, Mercurial, or Git) give a great set of features for versioning but tend to fail with even moderately large files. They also become unmanageable when there are many files. Distributed systems copy the entire repository to every clone, which is prohibitively expensive if you don't have enough bandwidth.

  • Storage systems (such as S3 with versioning support enabled, or enterprise solutions like JCR) do support versioning and larger files, but they do not support the same versioning features, especially atomic commits of many files in a transaction.

  • The closest alternatives are extensions to existing revision control systems to store file contents externally, such as git-annex or Bigfiles. Also Boar has a similar goal. These vary in their features and approach, and may be a better fit for some applications; however, we're not aware of one that has the same emphasis of support for S3, terabyte scale, and some of the additional features below.


Zinc supports both scale and transactionality, making it well suited for managing potentially large sets of data and configuration files. It also does this fairly simply via direct support for S3. Some other nice features:

  • For read-only use, you can copy or access any file or set of files directly, without "checking out" a whole repository. This is key for large repositories, to minimize the amount of data downloaded or copied.

  • You can access the underlying content directly. For example, you may look up the location of a particular file, then point another piece of software, such as Hadoop, to the underlying compressed blobs in S3. (LZOP compression is used for compatibility with Hadoop.)

  • Data is broken into "scopes" to better scale to big data problems. With any large data set, it helps to split your data into shards that can be stored or updated independently. Zinc scopes offer a way to do this. Potentially, you can have thousands of scopes, each with thousands of files, operating independently.

  • Transactionality is flexible -- and not global. Scopes also delineate transactionality. This means you can easily support commits to different parts of your repository in parallel (without the numerous trivial merge operations common to systems like Git or Mercurial).

  • For write use, you need only check out the scope in the repository you are interested in and modify and commit those files. This reduces data copying.

  • The internal format is transparent, consisting of simple text files for metadata, and unmodified or LZOP compressed blobs for all files. It's also designed in a way that it is robust to interrupted transactions; an interruption or other failure cannot leave the shared repository in a state that will ever confuse another client.

  • The full implementation is fairly simple -- just one Python file. Scalability is left to S3 (or any other backing storage layer). Dependencies are minimal: Python, Boto, and lzop.

However, before we get too excited here, there are a number of key limitations:

  • Zinc is a small and basic piece of software, without a lot of the comforts of a mature and complex system like Git or Mercurial. Nor does it support any of the more advanced features of a revision control system, like branching or merging. (The reasoning for this is that with large data files, and especially binary ones, you rarely want automated merge support at this layer.)

  • Zinc does not support advanced compression. Files are compressed individually, not delta compressed, for simplicity and to allow direct access to underlying files from other programs.

  • It is a new and simple piece of software, and lacks a lot of other small and convenient features. See the notes below.



A central repository (on disk or in S3) holds all versions of all files. Versions of some or all of the files can be checked out or directly copied. Items stored are just files and may be of any size (limited only by the backing store, such as S3). They are stored in a global folder hierarchy, just like the filesystem. With a large or distributed filesystem like S3, the set of files could be very large.


Scopes are a way to keep the number of files users deal with routinely to a manageable number and total size, considering that the whole repository may be large. Folders may be specially marked as scopes. Every item has a unique scope, which is the smallest enclosing folder marked as a scope. As with other versioning systems, items are changed via atomic commits that add, remove, or modify files. What is different from other versioning systems is that the files and the transactionality guarantees of a commit are limited to one scope. The reason for this is that with large data sets, it's important to reduce centralized bookkeeping: working in separate scopes reduces synchronization and merging challenges when many files are in the repository. Effectively, Zinc encourages you to partition your data into small pieces that require more limited transactionality, which means fewer merges and less global contention.

Working with data

Data for any file or folder can be read or copied from the repository directly. To modify data, you must check out a working directory, then modify files, and make a commit.


To use, make sure is in your path as zinc (copy or symlink it -- it's just one file).

If you plan to use Zinc with S3, you should put your S3 credentials in your environment variables S3_ACCESS_KEY and S3_SECRET_KEY. Alternately, as a convenience for folks who already use s3cmd, Zinc will by default "borrow" your access keys from s3cmd's configuration file in ~/.s3cfg, if it is present and readable.

Common Commands

Some commands work directly with the repository, with no local state on the filesystem. Others require a working directory.

Below is a quick summary of sample commands and what they do. For illustration, we'll assume you have a repository in S3 at s3://my-bucket/zinc/my-repo and that this holds lots of data of data. In these examples we'll assume data is sharded by customer, each within paths like customer/acme.

These are setup commands you'd only run occasionally:

# Create a new repository -- do this only once ever:
zinc init s3://my-bucket/zinc/my-repo

# Create a new scope (log message username is supplied) -- do this for each new scope (customer in this case):
zinc newscope -R s3://my-bucket/zinc/my-repo -u levy customer/acme

Now some routine commands:

# Get help:
zinc -h
# Make our own working copy:
zinc checkout -s customer/acme s3://my-bucket/zinc/my-repo
# (Or, can use --all option to check out all scopes at once, though this may be way too much data, for large repositories.)
cd customer/acme
# (Now add some files to this directory.)
# View what files have changed:
zinc status
# Now commit them; all files will be added:
zinc commit -u levy -s customer/acme -m "Changed some stuff."
# View history:
zinc log -s customer/acme
# Add a tag for this scope, operating directly on repository:
zinc tag -s customer/acme deploy-20110806
# View tags:
zinc tags -s customer/acme
# For this scope, or each scope we have checked out, remember what revision we have:
zinc id
zinc ids
# Update or working copy, in case someone else has made changes:
zinc update -s customer/acme
# Or, update all scopes
zinc update --all
# Update to a particular revision or tag
zinc update -r l9q43b51f2kht -s customer/acme
zinc update -r my-tag -s  customer/acme

(Once you're done, if you're curious, you can see the actual internal structure of the repository within s3://my-bucket/zinc/my-repo at any time. It's very simple and holds all version of all the files along with various pieces of metadata.)

You can also work directly on the repository, without a working directory. This is good for scripts or situations where you only want to examine a few files.

# List recursively (-a) all files within a scope, for current tip:
zinc list -a -R s3://my-bucket/zinc/my-repo -s customer/acme
# Or for a previous revision:
zinc list -a -R s3://my-bucket/zinc/my-repo -s customer/acme -r l9q43b51f2kht
# Tag names work for this too:
zinc list -a -R s3://my-bucket/zinc/my-repo -s customer/acme -r deploy-20110806
# Copy recursively (-a) all files within a scope:
zinc copy -a -R s3://my-bucket/zinc/my-repo -s customer/acme related my-acme/related
# Other commands work directly on the repository too:
zinc tags -R s3://my-bucket/zinc/my-repo -s customer/acme my-acme
zinc log -R s3://my-bucket/zinc/my-repo -s customer/acme my-acme

Limitations and Notes

Unfortunately, the program is really simple right now and has a lot of limitations, including:

  • There are no commands to explicitly add or remove files from within the working directory (like git add or git rm). All files are added or removed exactly as they appear, so use caution and check zinc status before committing.

  • Merging of changes to the same file is not supported. If someone commits to the same scope as you, between your last update and your current commit, to the same file, you have to save your work somewhere, revert, merge manually yourself, and commit again.

  • There is a file cache at the top of any working directory, in .zinc/cache. This can grow large over time, and can be deleted with rm -rf .zinc/cache at any time. Or use --no-cache to avoid caching altogether.

  • Simultaneous commits by different clients to different scopes is always handled correctly. Simultaneous commits to the same scope requires some sort of global locking service. By default this is not enabled. What this means is that if two users commit to the same scope at once, and no locking service is used, one user's commit may be lost without an error.

  • There is no support for deleting tags or removing or rolling back commits in the repository. (But you can always just make a new commit.)

  • The working directory is not designed to be used by many clients at once (it does not use file locks). For multiple clients, use multiple working directories.

For more details, see the long list of TODOs the end of

Further Information

  • See for example commands.

  • Read pydocs on the Repo class in for documentation on the internal repository format.

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