I have a bunch of disk images, made with ddrescue, on an EXT partition, and I want to reduce their size without losing data, while still being mountable.

How can I fill the empty space in the image's filesystem with zeros, and then convert the file into a sparse file so this empty space is not actually stored on disk?

For example:

> du -s --si --apparent-size Jimage.image 
120G Jimage.image
> du -s --si Jimage.image 
121G Jimage.image

This actually only has 50G of real data on it, though, so the second measurement should be much smaller.

This supposedly will fill empty space with zeros:

cat /dev/zero > zero.file
rm zero.file

But if sparse files are handled transparently, it might actually create a sparse file without writing anything to the virtual disk, ironically preventing me from turning the virtual disk image into a sparse file itself. :) Does it?

Note: For some reason, sudo dd if=/dev/zero of=./zero.file works when cat does not on a mounted disk image.

  • 3
    Writing zeroes into a file will not create a sparse file. It's a different concept. As you seek/read a sparse file when the OS discovers the block of data isn't really there (the block list is empty for data in that region) it (the OS) auto magically fills the read buffer with zero bytes.
    – hotei
    Commented Jul 31, 2010 at 20:27
  • 2
    Note: sudo cat /dev/zero > zero.file doesn't work because your bash (running as you, not root) does the redirection before executing the sudo command. See unix.stackexchange.com/questions/1416/…
    – Fritz
    Commented Sep 16, 2016 at 15:12
  • I've started using qcow2 format instead because it doesn't get expanded when images are moved around to different drives, etc.
    – endolith
    Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 22:18

7 Answers 7


First of all, sparse files are only handled transparently if you seek, not if you write zeroes.

To make it more clear, the example from Wikipedia

dd if=/dev/zero of=sparse-file bs=1k count=0 seek=5120

does not write any zeroes, it will open the output file, seek (jump over) 5MB and then write zero zeroes (i. e. nothing at all). This command (not from Wikipedia)

dd if=/dev/zero of=sparse-file bs=1k count=5120

will write 5MB of zeroes and will not create a sparse file!

As a consequence, a file that is already non-sparse will not magically become sparse later.

Second, to make a file with lots of zeroes sparse, you have to cp it

cp --sparse=always original sparsefile

or you can use tar's or rsync's --sparse option as well.

  • 1
    According to Wikipedia, writing zeros with dd will create a sparse file. Can you explain what "seeking" means?
    – endolith
    Commented Jul 31, 2010 at 19:33
  • 1
    What about cat then? There is nothing in the man page about sparse files, so I assume cat /dev/zero > zero.file is perfectly OK to fill empty space with zeros? Commented Aug 1, 2010 at 8:03
  • 2
    @endolith: Updated my answer to make clear what the difference is to use dd for writing zeroes or for seeking.
    – mihi
    Commented Aug 1, 2010 at 11:54
  • 2
    @Ludwig Weinzierl: Yes, that cat command will fill your entire disk (or at least the amount not reserved for root or by quotas) with "real" zeroes, and create no sparse files.
    – mihi
    Commented Aug 1, 2010 at 11:58
  • 1
    @endolith you will need extra space, yes. but since you can compress the tarball, you will only need space for the original file and a compressed version of the sparse file.
    – mihi
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 16:16

Perhaps the easiest way to sparsify a file in place would be to use fallocate utility as follows:

fallocate -v --dig-holes {file_name}

fallocate(1) is provided by util-linux package on Debian.

  • 3
    For some reason, fallocate --dig-holes resulted in 103GiB file from 299GiB original, while cp --sparse=always gave me 93GiB — all with the same SHA1 sum (sizes checked via du -B1G vs du --apparent-size -B1G). So fallocate seems to give inferior results.
    – Ruslan
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 9:08

Editing my answer for completeness:

  1. Balloon empty FS space with zeroes (WARNING: this changes your disk image):

losetup --partscan --find --show disk.img

Assume it gives /dev/loop1 as the disk and there is only one partition, otherwise we need to repeat this for every partition with mountable FS in it (ignore swap partition etc.).

mkdir -p /mnt/tmp mount /dev/loop1p1 /mnt/tmp dd if=/dev/zero of=/mnt/tmp/tempfile

Let it finish to failure with ENOSPC.

/bin/rm -f /mnt/tmp/tempfile umount /mnt/tmp losetup -d /dev/loop1

  1. Copy into a sparse image:

'dd' has an option to convert a file with zeroes to a sparse file:

dd if=disk.img of=disk-sparse.img conv=sparse

  • as of 2012 git.savannah.gnu.org/cgit/coreutils.git/commit/…
    – endolith
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 0:23
  • 2
    Yes, this option is not from the time when OP asked. This was more of "leave a bread crumb for other searchers"...:-)
    – Lam Das
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 2:02
  • 2
    depending on filesystem type, zerofree may be faster than mounting and writing zeroes to the filesystem, and making the disk image grow less if it already contained lots of zeroes.
    – mihi
    Commented Sep 6, 2018 at 19:19
  • Under newer kernels, you can now fstrim a filesystem in a file, which appears to make the file sparse too, and is likely to be much quicker than writing zeros then copying the file as sparse. (Again, a bread crumb for other searchers.)
    – Soruk
    Commented May 6, 2021 at 8:44

Do you mean that your ddrescue created image is, say, 50 GB and in reality something much less would suffice?

If that's the case, couldn't you just first create a new image with dd:

dd if=/dev/zero of=some_image.img bs=1M count=20000

and then create a filesystem in it:

mkfsofyourchoice some_image.img

then just mount the image, and copy everything from the old image to new one? Would that work for you?


PartImage can create disk images that only store the used blocks of a filesystem, thus drastically reducing the required space by ignoring unused block. I don't think you can directly mount the resulting images, but going:

image -> partimage -> image -> cp --sparse=alway

Should produce what you want (might even be possible to stick the last step, haven't tried).

  • 1
    Unfortunately the images created by partimage are not mountable without expanding them out again, making them suitable only for archival purposes.
    – Perkins
    Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 18:28

There's now a tool called virt-sparsify which will do this. It fills up the empty space with zeros and then copies the image to a sparse file. It requires installing a lot of dependencies, though.


I suspect you'll require a custom program written to that spec if that's REALLY what you want to do. But is it...?

If you've actually got lots of all-zero areas then any good compression tool will get it down significantly. And trying to write sparse files won't work in all cases. If I recall correctly, even sparse files take up a minimum of 1 block of output storage where the input block contains ANY bits that are non-zero. For instance - say you had a file that had an average of even 1 non-zero bit per 512 byte block - it can't be written "sparsely". By the way, you're not going to lose data if you compress the file with zip, bzip, bzip2 or p7zip. They aren't like mpeg or jpeg compression that is lossy.

On the other hand, if you need to do random seek reads into the file then compression might be more trouble than it's worth and you're back to the sparse write. A competent C or C++ programmer should be able to write something like that in an hour or less.

  • Interesting - a downvote yet I notice there's no refutation of what I wrote. If it's accurate but unhelpful that's not a reason to downvote. If it's not accurate and not helpful then it does deserve it.
    – hotei
    Commented Jul 31, 2010 at 16:03
  • I see elsewhere that the OP had a question relating to mounting compressed images. I'm assuming this is a continuation of that thread. Knowing that I can now see why my suggestion of compression wasn't accepted. A simple C program is still an easy way to create sparse files. BUT - will the (unspecified) OS let you mount a sparse ISO. As picky as the Ubuntu ISO mounter is I'm not 100% sure that's going to work either... but best of luck in any case.
    – hotei
    Commented Jul 31, 2010 at 16:35
  • 5
    why reinvent the wheel? cp --sparse=always does the work fine
    – mihi
    Commented Jul 31, 2010 at 18:36
  • @mihi: That's a good idea. I didn't know about the sparse option as it's not available in BSD flavors (freebsd.org/cgi/…) and I have never had the requirement to look at a Linux man page for cp (until today).
    – hotei
    Commented Jul 31, 2010 at 20:23
  • One way to have your compressed images and mount them too is to simply store them on a filesystem that supports native compression. Makes data recovery awful if you have a drive crash, but that's what backups are for, right?
    – Perkins
    Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 18:31

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