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[ The PC Guide | Systems and Components Reference Guide | Hard Disk Drives | Hard Disk Logical Structures and File Systems | Clusters and File Allocation ]

Fragmentation and Defragmentation

Since each file is stored as a linked list of clusters, the data that is contained in a file can be located anywhere on the disk. If you have a 10 MB file stored on a disk using 4,096-byte clusters, it is using 2,560 clusters. These clusters can be on different tracks, different platters of the disk, in fact, they can be anywhere.

However, even though a file can be spread all over the disk, this is far from the preferred situation. The reason is performance. As discussed in the section describing performance, hard disks are relatively slow devices, mainly because they are mechanical (they have moving parts--your processor, chipset, memory and system bus do not). Each time the hard disk has to move the heads to a different track, it takes time that is equivalent to thousands and thousands of processor cycles.

Therefore, we want to minimize the degree to which each file is spread around the disk. In the ideal case, every file would in fact be completely contiguous--each cluster it uses would be located one after the other on the disk. This would enable the entire file to be read, if necessary, without a lot of mechanical movement by the hard disk. There are, in fact, utilities that can optimize the disk by rearranging the files so that they are contiguous. This process is called defragmentation or defragmenting. The utilities that do this are, unsurprisingly, called defragmenters. The most famous one is Norton's SpeedDisk, and Microsoft now includes a DEFRAG program for DOS and a built-in defragmenter for most versions of Windows as well.

So the big question is: how does fragmentation occur anyway? Why not just arrange the disk so that all the files are always contiguous? Well, it is in most cases a gradual process--the file system starts out with all or most of its file contiguous, and becomes more and more fragmented as a result of the creation and deletion of files over a period of time.

To illustrate, let's consider a very simple example using a teeny hard disk that contains only 12 clusters. The table below represents the usage of the 12 clusters. Initially, the table is empty:

(1)

(2)

(3)

(4)

(5)

(6)

(7)

(8)

(9)

(10)

(11) (12)

OK, now let's suppose that we create four files: file A takes up 1 cluster, file B takes 4, file C takes 2, and file D takes 3. We store them in the free available space, and they start out all contiguous, as follows:

A

B

B

B

B

C

C

D

D

D

   

Next, we decide that we don't need file C, so we delete it. This leaves the disk looking like this:

A

B

B

B

B

   

D

D

D

   

Then, we create a new file E that needs 3 clusters. Well, there are no contiguous blocks on the disk left that are 3 clusters long, so we have to split E into two fragments, using part of the space formerly occupied by C. Here's what the "disk" looks like now:

A

B

B

B

B

E

E

D

D

D

E

 

Next, we delete files A and E, leaving the following:

 

B

B

B

B

   

D

D

D

   

Finally, we create file F, which takes up 4 clusters. The disk now looks like this:

F

B

B

B

B

F

F

D

D

D

F

 

As you can see, file F ends up being broken into three fragments. This is a highly simplified example of course, but it gives you the general idea of what happens. Since real disks have thousands of files and thousands of clusters, the fragmentation problem with real disks is much greater than what I have illustrated here. What a defragmentation program does is to rearrange the disk to get the files back into contiguous form. After running the utility, the disk would look something like this:

B

B

B

B

F

F

F

F

D

D

D

 

Note that the exact order of the files after defragmentation is not guaranteed; in fact, a classical defragmenter won't pay much attention to the order in which files are placed on the disk after defragmenting. Some newer, more capable defragmenters include special technology that will put more frequently-used files near the front of the disk, where performance is slightly faster. They can also move the operating system swap file to the front of the disk for a slight speed increase.

Next: FAT File System Errors


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