BSD Disklabel Partitioning Scheme

Two weeks ago we encountered a blast from the past in the form of a rather old NAS unit that had failed requiring data recovery. The device was an Iomega NAS A300u and amongst other issues, the partitions had been damaged via a previous retrieval attempt (before it arrived at TRC, naturally).

The NAS was running a software RAID 5 and two of the three disks had failed due to degradation of their media. The prior recovery attempt had caused some data overwriting but the media seemed to be in fairly good condition. Having done a brief scan with some in-house developed tools, structures indicating UFS partitions was located but for some reason Disklabel partition tables were never added to our tools - I cannot even begin to figure out how or why UFS file system plugins were developed but we were unable to parse the partition table! 

Having dealt with BSD Disklabels many moons ago, I decided that I needed to refresh my memory on their structure and update our tools to fully support Disklabel for future cases. This idea developed into the brief article before you, two weeks from now it will probably be forgotten again but at least my notes will be a little more comprehensive! As an initial stage, I created a Winhex template file which will enable you to investigate and manually edit Disklabel sectors; I have linked to at the bottom of the article, if you feel it might be of any use you are welcome to download it.

How it works – BSD disklabel

BSD Disklabel (which is also known as ‘bsdlabel’ in later verisons of FreeBSD) is a partitioning scheme for computer storage media. On modern BSD systems the Disklabel will normally be located at sector 1 within a 'slice'.

Slices within BSD are actually Master Boot Record (MBR) partitions (often known as DOS partitions in the BSD world), which contain the actual BSD partitions which are managed through Disklabel. The usage of a widely recognised scheme like MBR is a protective measure, preventing MBR aware utilities from misrecognising and repartitioning or otherwise damaging a BSD disk. Without MBR, DOS, Windows and other operating systems would not know that the BSD disk was partitioned and in use, something which could easily lead to user confusion and potentially damage.

Disklabel Quick Facts

  • Location: Sector 1 (relative to disk start or start of MBR partition or ‘slice’)
  • Size: 1 sector (512 bytes)
  • OS usage: BSD variants and derivatives
  • Max partitions: Up to 16 (earlier versions only 8)
  • Identifying features: WEV offset 0
  • Strengths: Supports more partitions than MBR
  • Weaknesses: Little support outside BSD although many Linux distros can read Disklabel

On-Disk structure of the BSD Disklabel

So let's get down to the nitty-gritty. A Disklabel will take up 1 x 512 byte sector of a storage media. Bootcode normally surrounds the Disklabel sector, this boot code is located at sector 0 of the slice or partition but can then extend to sector 2 if necessary. The basic structure of the Disklabel sector is as follows:

A table describing the offset, size and content of the key areas of Disklabel can be found below, followed by a deeper look at the contents of the header and the structure of individual partition entries.

Structure of a 16 partition Disklabel sector
Address Description Size
Hex Dec
0x00 0 Header 148
0x94 148 Partition entry 1 Disklabel Partition entries 16
0xA4 164 Partition entry 2 16
0xB4 180 Partition entry 3 16
0xC4 196 Partition entry 4 16
0xD4 212 Partition entry 5 16
0xE4 228 Partition entry 6 16
0xF4 244 Partition entry 7 16
0x104 260 Partition entry 8 16
0x114 276 Partition entry 9 16
0x124 292 Partition entry 10 16
0x134 308 Partition entry 11 16
0x144 324 Partition entry 12 16
0x154 340 Partition entry 13 16
0x164 356 Partition entry 14 16
0x174 372 Partition entry 15 16
0x184 388 Partition entry 16 16
0x194 404 Unused   108
Total size (bytes): 512

The header of the Disklabel is necessary as it identifies characteristics and features of the media onto which the Disklabel is written, 

The table below shows the BSD Disklabel header which takes up the first 147 bytes of the Disklabel structure. The header contains a Disklabel signature which aids in it’s visual identification, it also contains details of the type of media that it is written to and the physical geometry of that media. Much of this information is not relevant for modern ATA drives and will therefore be left blank. The table below highlights the purpose of each entry within the header but falls short of explaining each one as this is rarely relevant for modern systems.

Structure of a Disklabel header area
Address Description Size
Hex Dec
0x00 0 Signature Hex: 0x57455682 ASCII: WEV 4
0x4 4 Drive type indicator byte   2
0x6 6 Drive subtype indicator byte   2
0x8 8 Drive type name   16
0x18 24 Pack identifier name   16
0x28 40 Size of a sector (bytes) eg: Hex: 0200 Dec: 512 4
0x2c 44 Number of tracks per sector   4
0x30 48 Number of tracks per cylinder   4
0x34 52 Number of cylinders per unit   4
0x38 56 Number of sectors per cylinder   2
0x3C 60 Number of sectors per unit   4
0x40 64 Number of spare sectors per track   2
0x42 66 Number of spare sectors per cylinder   4
0x44 68 Number of alternate cylinders per unit   2
0x48 72 Disk rotational speed   2
0x4A 74 Hardware sector interleave   2
0x4C 76 Track Skew   2
0x4E 78 Cylinder skew   2
0x50 80 Head switch time   4
0x54 84 Track to track seek time   4
0x58 88 Flags   4
0x5C 92 Drive specific information   20
0x70 112 Reserved   20
0x84 132 Disklabel signature Hex: 0x57455682 ASCII: WEV 4
0x88 136 Checksum   2
0x8A 138 Number of partitions Little endian 2
0x8C 140 Size of boot area   4
0x90 144 Maximum size of file system super block   4
Total size (bytes): 148

Structure of an individual Disklabel Partition entry

Beginning at offset 0x94 (148 decimal), are the individual partition entries. There can be up to 16 in total and any unused entries are simply left blank.

An individual entry will be 16 bytes in length and take the following form:

Structure of an individual Disklabel partition entry, values written to disk are actually little endian
(relative to entry start)
Description Size
0 Size of partition ( in sectors, sector size is defined in header) - little endian 4
4 First sector - little endian 4
8 File system fragment size - not required 4
12 File System type - normally used but not required 1
13 File system fragments per block - not required 1
14 File system cylinders per group - not required 2
Total size (bytes): 16

BSD partition types

As shown in the table above, just like with an MBR based partition table, each Disklabel entry will also contain a system type flag. This is not always used and when it is it is often not specific to a file system type. A table of known partition types can be found below:

ID (Hex) Description
0x00 Unused
0x01 Swap
0x02 V6
0x03 V7
0x04 SystemV
0x05 4.1BSD
0x06 Eighth edition
0x07 4.2BSD fast file system (FFS)
0x08 MSDOS (FAT variants)
0x09 4.4BSD (LFS)
0x0A ?
0x0B OS/2 (HPFS)
0x0C CD-ROM (ISO9660)
0x0D Bootstrap
BSD Disklabel partition type list

To aid with reading a BSD Disklabel, we have created a Winhex template file which you can download and use for free. Click the button below to get access and enjoy :-)

Access your free download

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