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  PC-Net's PC News - November 1998
 
Don Watkins

Do You Suffer from Hard Drive Fragmentation?

By Don Watkins

 
 
 

 

November 1998--If you've been following my newsletter, you've probably figured out that I'm a little obsessive when it comes to disk hygiene and for good reason. As Steve Gibson says, there are only two kinds of hard drives: Those that are broken and those that are about to break. Unfortunately, that's the sad truth. With all the spinning and whirling, your disk represents the most mechanical, least efficient, and one of the most fragile parts of your computer.

Before we start on the hard drive, let's think about how we humans do things to make them more efficient.

Imagine going to the grocery store. How do you shop? Okay, okay, wrong question: How should you shop? The least efficient way would be to go to the produce section, pick up some vegetables, go to the other side of the store and pick up some cat food, return to the produce section to pick up some fruit and so on. Instead, you'd (hopefully!) pick up all your items from the produce section, hit the next section in your route through the store, pick up the items from that section, and so on. If you're like me, you probably end up running all over the store anyway, but logically, you know that's not the most efficient way to do things.

Hard drive data is stored in "sections" in units called "clusters." The size of each cluster will vary depending on a number of factors including disk size and format (FAT16, FAT32). Each cluster holds a chunk of data. Any one file can be stored in multiple clusters. Your hard drive is full of clusters, all with a unique "address" that identifies its unique location on the disk surface.

Here's the deal: The operating system gets a request to store a file. It looks to the directory, finds the first available cluster, stores the data in that cluster, has more data to store, looks for the next cluster, stores the data, and so on.

The problem is that, like a deranged shopping trip, the operating system acts the same way; it doesn't care where the cluster is, it just grabs the next available cluster and whack, it stores the data there.

The end result of this method is that when your hard drive stores or retrieves data, it can end up jumping around the disk to read or write each cluster. This condition is called "fragmentation." Of course your disk drive is fast, but even so, you can image that having to jump around isn't as efficient as being able to pick up everything in one contiguous area.

Fortunately Windows comes with a utility that allows you to "defragment" your hard drive. This utility is called "Disk Defragmenter" or "Defrag." Defrag runs about and rearranges files so that all the clusters associated with that file are placed next to each other. The next time you load that file all the data clusters are contiguous and the drive doesn't have to jump around the disk to read the various clusters.

If you have Windows 98, new technology was added to the defrag program. By monitoring the order in which a program loads it can arrange files on your hard disk so that they load even faster. For instance, on my computer, Word 97 loaded almost twice as fast. This doesn't translate to a lot of real time--disks are pretty fast--but it can change the way your system "feels" and if it feels faster, you'll probably be happier.

Running Defrag is easy. Because defrag is doing disk writes, I recommend that you not run it with other programs active. Not that this will cause damage, but if defrag recognizes that data has changed, it will restart and take forever to run. Best to just wait and run it during a "calm" time.

Run Defrag in either of two ways: Click the start button, programs, accessories, system tools, and disk defragmenter; or click start, run and type in DEFRAG. Either method will yield the same results.

I run Defrag at least once a week, more if I have the spare time, and would suggest that it become one of your toolbox essentials.

 

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