Working with Disks, Partitions, and Volumes in Vista

9/5/2010 9:31:26 AM

Before you can store data on a physical disk, you must prepare the disk for use by partitioning its space, assigning a drive designator, and formatting the resulting partitions or volumes. Although basic disks can have up to four primary partitions—or three primary partitions and one extended partition, with one or more logical drives in the extended partition—dynamic disks can have an unlimited number of volumes.

After partitioning a disk, you must assign each partition or volume a drive designator. The drive designator can be a letter or a path. You use drive letters to access file systems in various partitions on physical drives. Generally speaking, the drive letters A through Z are available. However, the drive letter A is usually assigned to the system's floppy drive. If the system has a second floppy drive or another removable media drive, such as a Zip drive, the letter B is usually assigned to it (or unassigned otherwise). The drive letter C is usually assigned to the first partition or volume created on Disk 0. The drive letter D is usually assigned to the first CD-ROM or DVD-ROM. Thus, on most systems, the drive letters E through Z are available. If you need additional volumes, you can create them using drive paths.

A drive path is set as a folder location on an existing local disk. For example, you could mount additional drives as C:\Docs1, C:\Docs2, and C:\Docs3. Drive paths can be used with basic and dynamic disks. The only restriction for drive paths is that you mount them on empty folders that are on NTFS-formatted local disks.

Formatting a partition or a volume sets the file system that will be used and creates the necessary file structures. Generally speaking, you can format a partition or a volume as FAT, FAT32, or NTFS. There are restrictions and requirements for the use of each, however.

FAT is a 16-bit file system designed to be used with volume sizes of up to 4 GB and is also referred to as FAT16. FAT uses a boot sector that stores information about the disk type, the starting and ending sectors, and the active partition. FAT gets its name from the file allocation table it uses to track the cluster locations of files and folders. There is a primary table and a duplicate table. The duplicate is used to restore the primary table if it becomes corrupted. FAT also has the capability to mark clusters (sections of disk containing data) as unused, in use, bad, or reserved. This helps to make FAT a fairly robust file system. FAT is best with volumes of 2 GB or less, and it has a maximum file size of 2 GB. FAT can be used with floppy disks and removable disks.

FAT32 is a 32-bit version of FAT16, with some additional features and capabilities. Like FAT16, FAT32 uses a primary and a duplicate file allocation table. FAT32 can also mark clusters as unused, in use, bad, or reserved. FAT32 can also be used with floppy disks and removable disks. Unlike FAT16, FAT32 has a minimum volume size of 33 MB, a maximum volume size of 32 GB, and a maximum file size of 4 GB. This means FAT32 can be used with considerably larger partitions and volumes than FAT16.


It is important to note that the 4-GB maximum file size limitation for FAT32 is specific to Windows 2000 and later versions of Windows. Using FAT32, some earlier versions of Windows can create volumes of larger size, as can other operating systems.

NTFS is very different from FAT16 and FAT32. Instead of using a file allocation table, NTFS uses a relational database to store information about files and folders. This database is called the Master File Table (MFT), and it stores a record of each file and folder on a volume as well as additional information that helps to maintain the volume. Overall, the MFT makes NTFS much more reliable and recoverable than either FAT16 or FAT32. This means that NTFS can recover from disk errors more readily than FAT16 and FAT32 can, and that NTFS generally has fewer disk problems.

NTFS has a maximum volume size of 2 TB (terabytes, or trillion bytes) or higher (depending on disk configuration) and a maximum file size that is limited only by the volume size. Although you can't use NTFS with floppy disks, you can use NTFS with removable disks. Additionally, unlike FAT16 and FAT32, which have limited security features (namely that you can mark a file only as read-only, hidden, or system), NTFS has advanced security (meaning that you can use permissions to set very specific file and folder access). NTFS supports many other advanced features as well, including compression, encryption, and disk quotas.


Several versions of NTFS have been implemented. NTFS 4 was first available with Windows NT. NTFS 5 was first available with Windows 2000. NTFS 5.1 was first available with Windows XP. Because most current computers have NTFS 5 or later, I focus on NTFS 5 and later in this book. It is also worth noting that if you upgrade a system with a version older than the current version, you are given the opportunity to convert existing NTFS volumes to the latest version during installation. In most cases, you want to do this because it ensures support for the latest NTFS features.

  •  Partitioning Disks and Preparing Them for Use in Vista
  •  Moving a Dynamic Disk to a New System
  •  Troubleshooting Common Disk Problems
  •  Managing Offline Files in Vista
  •  Configuring Disk Quotas
  •  Installing Networking Components in Vista
  •  Configuring Local Area Connections
  •  Managing Local Area Connections
  •  Troubleshooting and Testing Network Settings
  •  Detecting and Resolving Windows Vista Errors
  •  Scheduling Maintenance Tasks in Vista
  •  Backing Up and Recovering a Computer with Vista
  •  Troubleshooting Startup and Shutdown
  •  How an Access Control List Is Used
  •  Silverlight Tools: XML Editors
  •  Algorithms for Compiler Design: STACK ALLOCATION
  •  Algorithms for Compiler Design: ERROR RECOVERY IN LR PARSING
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