1 Jan 96

File Systems (FAT, HPFS, NTFS)

At the BIOS level, a disk partition contains sectors numbered 0, 1, etc. Without additional support, each partition would be one large dataset. Operating systems add a directory structure to break the partition up into smaller files, assign names to each file, and manage the free space available to create new files.

The directory structure and methods for organizing a partition is called a File System. Different File Systems reflect different operating system requirements or different performance assumptions. Unix, for example, has the convention that lowercase and uppercase are different in file names, so "sample.txt" and "Sample.txt" are two different files. DOS and the systems that descend from it (Windows 95, OS/2, and Windows NT) ignore case differences when finding file names. Some File Systems work better on small machines, others work better on large servers.

Each partition is assigned a type (in the MBR for primary partitions, in the Extended Partition directory for logical volumes). When the partition is formatted with a particular File System, the partition type will be updated to reflect this choice.

The same hard disk can have partitions with File Systems belonging to DOS, OS/2, NT, and Linux (or other Unix clones). Generally, an operating system will ignore partitions whose type ID represents an unknown file system type. It is fairly easy (given a big enough disk) to install all of the different operating systems and all of the File System types. There are a few rules to make things simple.

Each File System is described in detail in a separate section.

File Systems and Disk Letters

DOS and Windows 95 can only boot from the C: disk. Technically, the C: letter will be assigned to the first Primary Partition on the first hard disk that has a FAT file system. In no case can DOS boot from a second hard disk or a logical volume in the extended partition. However, if as the system comes up, the DOS boot sector and DOS files turn out to be on the second Primary Partition on the first hard disk, then this will not be a problem so long as the first partition has a non-FAT file system. DOS simply ignores primary partitions that are formatted for other operating systems.

Some people exploit this feature. They put an HPFS or NTFS file system on the first Primary Partition, and a FAT file system on the second. This can produce confusion. When the other operating system boots up, it will now assign letter C: to its first partition, and the disk that DOS calls "C:" will become "D:" on the other system. If the two systems share application programs, it becomes very difficult to configure INI files as the drive letter keeps changing back and forth. It is a simpler and safer strategy to accept the view that the first Primary Partition on the first hard disk should be formatted with the FAT file system and should be the C: drive in every operating system.

Choosing a File System

The performance problems with FAT have been greatly reduced by various strategies to use Cache memory and to periodically DEFRAG the disk. FAT is the only system fully supported by DOS and Windows 95. It is also a perfectly acceptable choice under Windows NT and OS/2. FAT systems require the least memory and are the best choice on small machines.

Although it is simpler to manage a few larger volumes, FAT performance degrades with volume size. The distance between the directory and the data increases the disk movement, and larger allocation units waste space. A good rule of thumb would limit FAT volumes to a maximum of 255 megabytes.

FAT proven to be quite reliable and is fairly immune to damage. When the system crashes, FAT can "misplace" disk space that was being allocated to a file. CHKDSK (or Microsoft's newer SCANDISK) will recover the missing space. Less frequently a really serious error could leave the same sector of disk space assigned to two different files. Such "crosslinked" files are damaged, and once this occurs the entire volume is suspect. The preferred recovery would be to back everything up, reformat the volume, and restore the data. Crosslinked files could be produced by a damaged operating system, or by a hardware problem in the disk subsystem itself.

HPFS is supported by OS/2 and Windows NT. Although it is not officially supported by DOS or Windows 95, there are shareware drivers (such as AMOS3) that can provide these systems with at least Read-Only access to HPFS files. Since OS/2 does not support VFAT, it cannot use long file names on a FAT volume. Many OS/2 software packages require long file names. An OS/2 system with enough memory and disk space should have at least one HPFS volume to support such packages.

Only Windows NT can use data on an NTFS volume. NTFS is required to provide full security on an NT File Server, and to support Macintosh datasets. On desktop workstations that run other operating systems as well as NT, NTFS is probably more trouble than it is worth.

A good general principle is to put FAT volumes first on a disk, then HPFS, and finally NTFS. All the systems will see the FAT volumes and will assign them disk letters. With device drivers for DOS, all the system will see the HPFS volumes as well. The NTFS volumes will only be available to Windows NT and will be ignored by the other systems.

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