Android sparse image format


Many Android bootloaders implement the fastboot protocol for loading and flashing images to internal memory (there is some background information about how Android boots and boot image formats in these slides: Fastboot is a simple USB protocol using ASCII text strings for commands and responses. In recent versions of the AOSP you can find the specification in system/core/fastboot/fastboot_protocol.txt.

As an example, this is the interchange when using fastboot to write the recovery image using the command "fastboot flash recovery"

Host->Client "download:004ba00"
Client: "DATA004ba000"
Host: Sends 0x4ba000 (4956160) bytes of raw data
Host: "flash:recovery"

You can see this yourself using Wireshark or tcpdump to capture the USB interchange.

Note that there are two stages: first the image is downloaded to the device and then the command "flash" is sent to ask the device to program the data into internal memory. In all bootloader implementations I have seen the image data is buffered in RAM during the download stage and then written out to memory in the flash stage. This means that the image must fit into RAM, which a problem for the system, userdata and cache file system images which are often several times larger than the total amount of RAM. However, these file system images are usually not full, especially in the case of userdata.img which contains very little data initially.

Sparse image format

To make the images smaller, and to reduce transfer time, Android generates system.img, userdata.img and cache.img in sparse format. The image is split into chunks of multiples of 4096 bytes. Any chunks that contain no useful data are marked as "Don't care" and no data is sent.

The format is defined in system/core/libsparse/sparse_format.h and looks like this:

The image begins with a sparse_header of 28 bytes, which contains

magic: the number 0xed26ff3a
blk_sz: number of bytes in a block, always 4096
total_blks: number of blocks in the un-sparse file
total_chunks: number of chunks

Each chunk begins with a 12 byte chunk_header, which contains
chunk_type: see below
chunk_sz: number of blocks

There are three chunk types.
CHUNK_TYPE_RAW, followed by chunk_sz blocks of raw data
CHUNK_TYPE_FILL, followed by 4 bytes of fill data

The last type, CHUNK_TYPE_FILL, fills the chunk with the 4 byte value. I have never seen it used in images produced by a normal AOSP build.

The code for all this is in system/core/libsparse, together with a tool to analyse sparse images: Here is an example:

$ system/core/libsparse/ -v out/target/product/manta/cache.img 
out/target/product/manta/cache.img: Total of 135168 4096-byte output blocks in 24 input chunks.
            input_bytes      output_blocks
chunk    offset     number  offset  number
   1         40       4096       0       1 Raw data
   2       4148       4096       1       1 Raw data
   3       8256     159744       2      39 Raw data
   4     168012       8192      41       2 Raw data
   5     176216    1732608      43     423 Raw data
   6    1908836    8650752     466    2112 Raw data
   7   10559600       4096    2578       1 Raw data
   8   10563708       4096    2579       1 Raw data
   9   10567816       4096    2580       1 Raw data
  10   10571924          0    2581   30187 Don't care
  11   10571936       4096   32768       1 Raw data
  12   10576044       4096   32769       1 Raw data
  13   10580152          0   32770      39 Don't care
  14   10580164       8192   32809       2 Raw data
  15   10588368          0   32811   32725 Don't care
  16   10588380       8192   65536       2 Raw data
  17   10596584          0   65538   32766 Don't care
  18   10596596       4096   98304       1 Raw data
  19   10600704       4096   98305       1 Raw data
  20   10604812          0   98306      39 Don't care
  21   10604824       8192   98345       2 Raw data
  22   10613028          0   98347   32725 Don't care
  23   10613040       8192  131072       2 Raw data
  24   10621244          0  131074    4094 Don't care
       10621244             135168         End

The sparse cache.img is 10621244 bytes (about 10 MiB), but the expanded image is 135168 blocks of 4096, which equals 553648128 bytes (528 MiB), so the sparse file is 1.9% of the size of the full image. Quite a useful saving.

You can tell the AOSP build not to create sparse images by adding this line to your


Sparse images and Android for the BeagleBone Black

I have added support for sparse images to my U-Boot for BeagleBone Black and removed TARGET_USERIMAGES_SPARSE_EXT_DISABLED from the Android device configuration. Now it takes about 2 minutes to flash the system, userdata and cache images whereas before it used to take 5 minutes.

Want to know more about Android?

I have two training courses that will help you:
Android porting:
Android Internals:


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