2022 APFS Advent Challenge Day 7 - B-Trees (Part 2)

Friday, December 9, 2022

Mastering the skill of B-Tree traversal is essential in parsing information from APFS. Our last post gave an overview of APFS B-Trees, their layout, and on-disk node structures. Today, we will discuss applying that knowledge to perform enumeration and fast lookups of referenced objects.


Traversal of APFS B-Trees always starts at the root node, which can be identified by having the BTNODE_ROOT bit-flag set in the bt_flags field of its btree_node_phys_t header. Each B-Tree can only have a single root node. Root nodes only differ from the other nodes in that their storage space is slightly more limited to make room for the btree_info_fixed_t structure, which stores information about the entire tree.

You can visualize an APFS B-Tree as a root node on the highest level, branching downward for each generation of children. The nodes at the lowest level (level-zero) are called leaf nodes and have the BTNODE_LEAF bit-flag in their header. Single-level B-Trees consist of a solitary node that is both a root and leaf node. Two-level B-Trees have a single root node whose immediate children are leaf nodes. B-Trees with more than two levels will have intermediary nodes that are neither root nor leaf nodes.

Unique, sortable keys reference each value in a B-Tree. When a B-Tree is created, the key/value pairs (k/v) are sorted in a context-specific manner that is specific to how the tree is used. The pairs are then written to as few level-zero leaf nodes as possible. The leaf nodes are evenly allocated among parent nodes, which reference their children by storing a copy of the first key in the child, which is mapped to the child node’s object identifier (oid). Higher order levels are created, as necessary, until reaching a single root node.

Enumerating B-Trees

APFS B-Tree nodes have three storage areas: the table space, the key area, and the value area. The table space contains the table of contents – the table of contents stores the location of each key-value pair within the node. If the BTNODE_FIXED_KV_SIZE flag is set in the node’s header flags, the table of contents only stores offsets for keys and values. Otherwise, it also stores their lengths.

Identify the location of the table space within the node by reading the btn_table_space member of the node’s header. This table space begins at btn_table_space.off bytes after the node’s header and is btn_table_space.len bytes in length. The remaining storage space in the node is used for the key and value areas. We will refer to this space collectively as the k/v area.

Remember: The k/v area is 0x28 bytes smaller in root nodes due to the btree info stored at the end.

The table of contents is an array of either type kvoff_t (for fixed-size k/v pairs) or kvloc_t elements. Read the size of this array from the btn_nkeys field of the node header. Each array element corresponds to a k/v pair. Key offsets are relative to the beginning of the k/v area and value offsets from the end. Enumerating through this array allows you to locate the data associated with each key and value in the node.

NOTE: B-Trees with the BTREE_ALLOW_GHOSTS flag can sparsely populate values. The value 0xFFFF stored in the offset field of an entry in the table of contents indicates that there is no associated value for a given key stored in the node.

Leaf nodes give direct access to values, so no further effort is required in these cases. For non-leaf nodes, the stored value can be interpreted as an object identifier. The btree info may contain either the BTREE_EPHEMERAL or BTREE_PHYSICAL flags or neither. This indicates whether non-root nodes are physical, ephemeral, or virtual objects. Physical nodes can be directly addressed by their object identifiers. Ephemeral nodes need to be looked up using Checkpoint Maps. Virtual nodes require querying Object Maps (discussed in the next post). In all cases, locate each child node using the appropriate method and continue the enumeration process.

Faster Lookups of Specific Values

We could use enumeration to look up a value by its key as with Checkpoint Maps, but that would require linear time. We can use the copies of the key information stored in non-leaf nodes for much faster logarithmic-time lookups. When analyzing a non-leaf node, identify the key closest to, but not ordered after, the desired key. We can then continue the search by analyzing a specific child node without enumerating the rest of the node’s children. Because APFS B-Tree Nodes are optimized for minimal depth, we can identify a particular k/v pair with minimal enumeration.


Understanding the structure and traversal of APFS B-Trees is crucial for effectively parsing information from this file system. We discuss processes that allow the enumeration of all values in linear time and faster logarithmic-time lookups of specific values.

B-Trees are used in many ways in APFS. In the next post, we will discuss Object Map B-Trees and how they can be used to access virtual objects.

This post is part of my 2022 APFS Advent Challenge

Every weekday in the month of December, I will attempt to post a blog about APFS internals. For each day that I miss a post, I will donate $100 to support humanitarian aid for the Ukrainian people. If you find value in this series, and would like to support this effort, please consider donating to the GoFundMe. Slava Ukraini! 🇺🇦

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