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                                                                     File Fragmentation and Computer Performance

Depending on when you arrived on the computing scene, and also depending on your level of technical involvement in computing, you may or may not have heard of file fragmentation and its effect on computer performance.

For those that don’t know what it is, a quick primer: Over time, files saved on a hard drive become split into parts, or fragments. In later Windows operating systems, this can get fairly drastic – a single file can be split into hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of fragments. This condition can cause file access to slow dramatically, and of course overall performance will slow down accordingly.

If you go back fifteen years or so, file fragmentation was a serious problem for all computers, mainly due to the smaller sizes of hard drives and the fact of trying to store as much data on them as possible. They tended to fill up fast, and file fragmentation would slow them to a crawl. Hence, defragmenting became an importance for many of the top operating systems, including DOS and Windows.

When hard drives began to get gigantic, fragmentation became less of a problem on machines that weren’t constantly accessing their local drives. For example, a user in a corporate network environment who stored most of their working files on a server would not greatly benefit from defragmentation of their local hard drive. And many home users, when drive sizes regularly exceeded 1 gig, would see little to no benefit from it, either, unless they ran applications which created and/or deleted files quite a lot, or for some reason had overly-full hard drives.

 For a home user, or for anyone who wishes to see if fragmentation is a problem on a single machine, it’s simple enough to find out: Run the defragmenter and see if there’s a performance difference. Since Windows 2000, Microsoft has included a disk defragmenter as part of the operating system, and it can be found in Windows XP by accessing Programs, then Accessories, then System Tools (for earlier Windows versions, such as 9x and NT, you have to obtain a third-party defragmenter. The same is true for Linux and Macintosh). It’s best to run the defragmenter when you’re not using the computer. Although you can use your computer while running the defragmenter, it does slow down performance considerably. Easier just to go do something else while it’s running.

  In Windows XP, you can also schedule defragmentation to run when by adding it to Scheduled Tasks. You do this by going to Control Panel, then Scheduled Tasks, and using the wizard to schedule the task. When the wizard prompts you for the task to be scheduled, click “browse”, and go to WINDOWS/system32/defrag.exe. You can then set the defragmenter to run daily, weekly, monthly, when you log on, one time only, or when the computer starts up. If you wish a more precise schedule, you’ll need a third-party tool or script.

When you move into a corporate environment, fragmentation’s effects present more of a problem, especially on servers which are constantly accessed. File servers especially benefit from regular defragmentation, and it should be scheduled to run when users are not accessing the system. This is normally scheduled and done off-hours. Depending on your server operating system, the defrag utility included in Windows may not be able to be readily scheduled. You can script a schedule – you can do an online search, and many people have posted scripts to use to schedule defragmentation. You may also wish to purchase a third-party defragmenter for this purpose – there are several available which can be easily scheduled and run. Most of these defragmenters are also available in home versions.

NOTE: If you’re trying to improve the performance on a database server, you may find that defragmentation doesn’t cut it. This is because the operating system sees the database as one large file instead of many records included in the database. The condition of database record fragmentation is known as internal fragmentation, and some database vendors provide a defragmenter for this purpose. If you want to defragment your database server disk, make sure you try one of the free methods above, or a trial version of a defragmenter before you spend money and find out you get little to no performance gain.

And for Linux and Macintosh: You can search the internet and find free defragmenters for Linux. You can also search for Mac, but Mac defragmenters aren’t free, at least as I was able to find. As someone who has used a Mac in the past, I can say they definitely benefit from regular defragmentation.