Orphaned file detection

James Fisher
2 min readSep 19, 2014

How many old files in your repository could be removed without breaking anything? A significant number, if your repository is non-trivial. Humans are terrible at garbage collection, because orphaning doesn’t break test suites and doesn’t show up in code review. But how about if your CI process was able to tell you:

This commit might have orphaned these files:
- /src/server/baz.py
- /src/client/baz.js

This kind of warning guards against two kinds of failure:

  1. Accidental orphaning. You did not intend to remove the ‘baz’ feature. (This error should also be picked up by your test suite.)
  2. Deliberate orphaning, but accidental failure to remove the orphan. You retired the ‘baz’ feature, but forgot to remove its implementation. (This error is more insidious.)

How might we implement this? Here’s a simple heuristic: if a file is never accessed during your build process or during your tests, then it’s probably orphaned.

There will be false positives, like README files. There will also be false negatives, like compilers following import foo.* instructions. There will be errors, but errors are in the nature of the heuristic. A similar heuristic we use is ‘code coverage’. We also use ‘linting’ tools which are useful but sometimes wrong.

In any case, the absolute list of orphaned files is not too important. The real usefulness is the difference in the orphan list between commits. In each warning, we list each orphan in the current commit which was not an orphan in the parent commits.

One nice thing about this check is that the developer does not have to do anything. The heuristic just exploits the build process and test suites that the developer already writes. All the developer does is tick the check-box, ☑ report orphaned files.

Another nice thing is that this check is language-agnostic. Yes, your static analyser can give you more accurate dead code warnings. But we leave in a complex polyglot world where such tools either don’t exist or are too expensive or too much pain to set up.


So, after running our build and test suite, the unaccessed files should be marked as dead. But how can we detect file accesses? On UNIX, each file has an ‘atime’ attribute, which records the latest time the file was accessed. Lots of operating systems disable the atime feature by default, but we can simply turn it on by using the strictatime mount option. Another way to detect accesses is LoggedFS.

As a first pass, I want a standalone command-line tool. I pass it arguments that run the build and tests. It takes note of the time, runs the build and tests, then prints out a list of all files with an atime less than the start time. Thus:

> orphans make

A bash program for this is actually very short:

start_time=`date +%s`;
"$@" &> /dev/null;
for filepath in `find .`; do
atime=`stat -f %a $filepath`;
if [ "$atime" -lt "$start_time" ]
echo "$filepath";