Copy-on-write (sometimes referred to as “COW”) is an optimization strategy used in computer programming. The fundamental idea is that if multiple callers ask for resources which are initially indistinguishable, they can all be given pointers to the same resource. This function can be maintained until a caller tries to modify its “copy” of the resource, at which point a true private copy is created to prevent the changes becoming visible to everyone else. All of this happens transparently to the callers. The primary advantage is that if a caller never makes any modifications, no private copy need ever be created.
The COW concept is also used in virtualization/emulation software such as Bochs, QEMU, Linux vserver, UML and VirtualBox for virtual disk storage. This allows a great reduction in required disk space when multiple VMs can be based on the same hard disk image, as well as increased performance as disk reads can be cached in RAM and subsequent reads served to other VMs out of the cache. This is usually the case.
COW is also used outside the kernel, in library, application and system code. The string class provided by the C++ standard library, for example, was specifically designed to allow copy-on-write implementations:
The COW concept is also used in maintenance of instant snapshot on database servers like Microsoft SQL Server 2005. Instant snapshots preserve a static view of a database by storing a pre-modification copy of data when underlying data are updated. Instant snapshots are used for testing uses or moment-dependent reports and should not be used to replace backups.