What’s the Difference Between NFS and CIFS?

Network File System (NFS) and Common Internet File System (CIFS) are file access storage protocols, or rules for efficient file sharing over a network. For any organization’s day-to-day operations, it’s essential to communicate, collaborate, and share files effectively. With NFS, a user (or client device) can connect to a network server and access files on the server. It has rules that allow multiple users to share the same file without data conflicts. CIFS is based on the Server Message Block (SMB) protocol. CIFS allows devices to share files with the server and with other peripheral devices like printers.

How they work: NFS vs. CIFS

You can deploy file access storage protocols like Network File System (NFS) and Common Internet File System (CIFS) across various networks:

  • physical networks, like local area networks (LANs) and wide area networks (WANs)
  • virtual networks
  • cloud storage networks

NFS and CIFS use IP and TCP protocols for file sharing between a server and clients in networked environments. Multiple client machines can access files on a server. And they can create, read, edit, and delete (CRUD) files as if they were local to the client machines. File-locking mechanisms prevent conflicts between multiple clients attempting to change the same file or directory.

How NFS works

NFS was initially developed in 1984 by Sun Microsystems, but it’s now maintained by the Internet Engineering Task Force. NFS is designed for Unix systems, including Linux operating systems and macOS. 

In NFS, a client requests a file or directory from a remote NFS server by using Remote Procedure Calls (RPC). If the file or directory is available and the client has the correct access permissions, the server mounts it on the client. The client performs file operations via a virtual connection. Since NFS version 4, the NFS lock manager for file conflict resolution is no longer a separate service and is part of the protocol.

How CIFS works

CIFS was originally released by Microsoft in the mid-1990s as an extension of the Server Message Block (SMB) file access protocol. CIFS was used widely in Windows operating systems' networked environments, but later versions of SMB have superseded CIFS in modern system implementations.

In CIFS, the implementation and protocol details were not extensively documented at release. This makes complex network administration challenging—particularly in mixed OS environments. 

Key differences: NFS vs. CIFS

Although both Network File System (NFS) and Common Internet File System (CIFS) are file access protocols, they have several differences. NFS is limited to files and directories in its ability to share resources. In contrast, CIFS can also offer shared resource communications with other network devices, such as printers. NFS is still in active development, and you can submit RFCs to the Internet Engineering Task Force. CIFS isn’t in active development.

Here are some other key differences between the two protocols.

Initial target operating system

NFS and CIFS were initially designed for different operating systems. CIFS targets the Windows operating system, while NFS targets Unix. This means they were built to leverage their respective operating system kernels for optimal operations. While it’s possible to use CIFS with Linux-based operating systems (via Samba) and NFS with Windows operating systems (via third-party packages), they aren’t natively supported.


NFS traditionally relies on host-based authentication, where access to shared files is controlled based on the IP address or hostname of the client machine. It has limited built-in security mechanisms, which can be a concern in open networks.

CIFS, on the other hand, provides more advanced authentication and security features. It supports user-based authentication, so individual users can access shared resources with their credentials. CIFS also supports encryption and other security mechanisms, which makes it more suitable for secure environments.

​​File locking

NFS uses a stateless design, which means it does not keep track of open files on the server. As a result, file locking is handled by the client, and conflicts occur when multiple clients attempt to write to the same file simultaneously.

CIFS, on the other hand, supports file locking on the server side. It provides better coordination and avoids conflicts when multiple clients access the same file.


NFS uses a lightweight protocol with less overhead, which results in faster file access and transfer speeds.

Conversely, CIFS has more protocol overhead due to its support for various Windows-specific features. This can impact performance, especially in high-latency networks.

When to choose NFS vs. CIFS

Networked environments can use multiple file access storage protocols at once, so Network File System (NFS) and either Server Message Block (SMB) or Common Internet File System (CIFS) can be used in parallel. However, NFS is almost always a better choice than CIFS. Though, it’s not always the best choice among other protocols, depending on the use case. 

While CIFS is still in use in some legacy applications and network services, it’s no longer in use in the wider systems community. SMB version 2.0 superseded CIFS, and SMB version 3.1.1 is now the current SMB version. For Windows-based file and device-sharing network services, the current version of SMB is now the standard protocol.

Users should only use CIFS if it is the sole option available to work with an existing system. Network administrators should consider upgrading these systems to the current version of SMB for enhanced performance, security features, cross-system compatibility, and an extended feature set.

NFS, on the other hand, remains a preferred network file sharing protocol for Linux environments. Linux is often the operating system of choice for remote server workloads, due to its stability, reliability, flexibility, and cost-effectiveness. NFS remains popular in cloud environments and on-site enterprise data centers.

A note on cloud file access storage protocols 

Both NFS and SMB are popular protocols. However, in cloud environments, cloud providers will often use proprietary protocols, with the implementation and configuration abstracted. This way, users can integrate different devices and operating systems without manual configuration.

In practice, this means administrators can use simple UIs to connect on-site CIFS, SMB, and NFS file shares to cloud servers of any type. The same is true for on-site or remote clients of any type. These hybrid cloud environments simplify the complex network administration tasks previously required in remote network configurations.


Summary of differences: NFS vs. CIFS




What is it?

Network File System.

Common Internet File System.

Current version

NFS version 4.

Superseded by SMB version 3.1.1.

Best suited for

Linux-based network architectures.

Legacy Windows-based architectures when required.

Shared resources

Files and directories.

Files, directories, and network resources like printers.




File locking

Handled by client.

Handled by server.


Low protocol overheads and faster performance.

High protocol overheads and lower performance.

How can AWS help with your file system needs?

Amazon Web Services (AWS) has an extensive range of modern and easy-to-use network administration, file sharing, and storage services. They simplify collaborative work, no matter where files and users are located.

If you want to use cloud-based storage to augment your on-premises file storage systems, AWS Storage Gateway provides a bridge to create your hybrid cloud solution or help migrate to the cloud. With Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), you can migrate on-premises storage to the cloud without reengineering existing applications and processes.

Amazon FSx for Windows File Server is another option for migrating existing Common Internet File System (CIFS) servers to a cloud-based, managed environment. It allows for full integration with existing Windows environments and boasts advanced security features. 

Amazon Elastic File System (Amazon EFS) is a similar AWS service optimized for Network File System (NFS) setups. It has fully elastic storage capabilities—so you can do away with cluster and client status port management.

Get started with file sharing and storage solutions on AWS by creating an account today.

Next Steps with AWS

Start building with NFS

Learn how to get started with NFS on AWS

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Start building with CIFS

Learn how to get started with CIFS on AWS

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