Is NTFS superior to FAT and FAT32? In most cases, if you're using Windows NT, you probably should use NTFS. Here are some of the issues to consider as you configure your systems.
A brief history of file systems
The File Allocation Table (FAT) file system was first introduced in 1981. You'll find that most of today's operating systems include support for FAT because of its age. FAT is characterized by its lack of support for long filenames. Each file must conform to the 8.3 rule (an eight-character name followed by a three-character extension). Obviously, these rules greatly limit the types of files you can create.
With the introduction of Windows 95, Microsoft incorporated the Virtual File Allocation Table (VFAT) file system. While maintaining backward compatibility with the original FAT file system, VFAT enables you to use up to 255 characters, spaces, and multiple periods within your filenames. In order to accomplish this compatibility, VFAT actually creates two filenames whenever you create a file. The first is the actual long filename visible to Windows 9x and Windows NT systems. The second filename is called the DOS alias. It's really only an abbreviated form of the actual filename created by using the first six characters of the long filename followed by a tilde [~] and a numeric trailer.
Unfortunately, both FAT and VFAT handle hard drive file allocation inefficiently as you increase the size of your hard drive. For example, consider that a FAT partition only allows a certain number of clusters per partition. As your partition size increases, the cluster size must also increase; thus, a 512-MB FAT partition has a cluster size of 8 KB, while a 2-GB partition has a cluster size of 32 KB. Although this doesn't sound like a great problem, remember that the FAT file system only works in single-cluster increments. For example, on a 2-GB partition, a 1-byte file will occupy the entire cluster, thereby consuming 32 KB, or roughly 32,000 times the amount of space that the file should consume. If you apply this rule to every file presently located on your hard drive, you can see how much space is really wasted.
Microsoft developed the FAT32 file system to address this reality. If you were to take the 2-GB partition mentioned above and convert it to the FAT32 system, you could regain perhaps hundreds of MB of free space. This is due to the fact that on 8-GB partitions (and smaller), FAT32 uses a cluster size of 4 KB to store files on your hard drive. Of course, FAT32 does have its limitations. It's not compatible with any operating system except Windows 95 OSR2 and Windows 98. That fact, coupled with a lack of compatible disk utilities, has slowed the file system's acceptance in the corporate environment.
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Now that we've discussed the FAT, VFAT, and FAT32 file systems, let's examine the NTFS file system. NTFS stands for New Technology File System. Microsoft created NTFS to compensate for the features it felt FAT was lacking. These features include such things as increased fault tolerance, greater overall performance, and enhanced security. Now that you know a little about these file systems, let's compare how each performs in various situations.
Before you decide what type of file system to use on a partition, you should consider compatibility. If multiple operating systems will access the partition, you must use a file system that all operating systems can read. Usually, this means using FAT because of its universal compatibility. Only Windows NT supports NTFS partitions.
Keep in mind, however, that this limitation only applies to the local machine. For example, if you have Windows NT and Windows 98 loaded on the same machine, and both operating systems require access to a common partition, you must format that partition as FAT. However, if Windows NT is the only operating system on the PC, you can format the partition as NTFS, even if computers running other operating systems will access the partition across the network.
Another determining factor in your decision is the physical size of your partition. FAT only supports partition sizes up to 2 GB. If your partition size is larger than 2 GB, you must format it as FAT32 or NTFS, or you must break it into smaller partitions. You should also keep in mind that because of its enhanced features, NTFS has more overhead than FAT. If your partition size is smaller than 200 MB, you should use FAT to avoid losing a large amount of disk space to the overhead associated with NTFS. The maximum size of an NTFS partition is 16 exabytes.
Once you've considered your partition size and compatibility issues, you've got some flexibility in determining which file system is right for you. One issue to consider when making this decision is fault tolerance. Windows NT offers software support for several alternate disk access methods that increase speed and/or fault tolerance. These options include things such as disk striping and disk striping with parity. Many of these options require NTFS. If you're planning on using a hardware-based stripe set, you can use either file system.
Even without these advanced fault-tolerant options, NTFS includes built-in fault-tolerant capabilities well beyond the capabilities of FAT or FAT32. For example, when NTFS writes a change to the hard disk, it records the change in a log file. In the event of a power failure or a disk error, Windows NT can use these log files to repair your data.
NTFS also repairs hard disk errors automatically without displaying an error message. When Windows NT writes a file to an NTFS partition, it keeps a copy of the file in memory. It then reads back the file to make sure it matches the copy stored in memory. If the copies don't match, Windows NT marks that section of the hard disk as bad and won't try to use it again. It then uses the copy of the file stored in memory to rewrite the file to an alternate location on the hard disk.
The FAT and FAT32 file systems don't offer any of these safety features. While FAT and FAT32 do maintain two different copies of the file allocation table in case one copy is damaged, these systems are incapable of automatically fixing errors. Instead, you must run a utility such as ScanDisk.
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As we mentioned before, NTFS has its own built-in security system. You can grant various permissions to directories and to individual files. These permissions protect files and directories locally and remotely. For example, if someone were to try to access the restricted files, NTFS would protect those files.
If you're using FAT or FAT32, you depend on share permissions for security. Share permissions will protect a file across the network, but they offer no local protection. A person trying to access restricted files could simply sit at the local PC and gain full access to these files. Another disadvantage to share permissions is that they can be messy to manage. If you have hundreds of users on a server, each with his or her own directories, you could potentially end up with hundreds of shares, some of which may overlap, thus creating additional complications.
Another advantage to NTFS is native support for file compression. If you ever used the compression program that came with MS-DOS 6.22, you may be groaning right now. As you may recall, the MS-DOS compression utility required you to compress your entire partition. The compression process took a long time and, when completed, drastically slowed your PC's file access. Another disadvantage was that a minor disk problem could potentially trash the entire partition. FAT32, on the other hand, offers no compression capabilities at all.
The NTFS compression is much better than its predecessors. It offers you the chance to compress individual files and directories of your choice. Because it compresses individual files, if you have a minor hard disk problem, it won't screw up your compression scheme and make you lose everything. Another advantage to compressing individual files and directories is that you can compress only seldom-used files. By doing so, you won't slow down your operating system by making it decompress files each time it needs to access them.
The system partition
After reading this article, you may have decided that NTFS is far superior to FAT and FAT32. In most cases, if you're using Windows NT, you should use NTFS. However, this isn't always the case.
As we mentioned, NTFS partitions are only accessible via Windows NT. If you have a fatal error with Windows NT, you can't simply boot a system disk to a command prompt and fix a problem on an NTFS partition. To get around this problem, Microsoft recommends installing a second copy of Windows NT on your hard disk and using this copy to repair problems that occur on NTFS partitions.
Unfortunately, this method has some serious drawbacks. For starters, a second copy of Windows NT could consume up to 150 MB, depending on which options you choose to load. Second, during the boot process, both copies share common files. Therefore, if your system partition (the partition your PC boots from) is formatted as NTFS and has a problem, you may not be able to boot either copy of Windows NT to fix the problem. While you may think the odds of a system partition error may be slim, just remember that many of the changes you may make to your disk partitions result in having to manually update the Boot.ini file. If you incorrectly update this file, Windows NT will become unbootable. Since this is an initial boot file on the system partition, every installed copy of Windows NT would share this file.
A better solution is to format your system partition as FAT. If you're concerned about security, simply make the system partition small and don't place anything other than the Windows NT system files on it. Remember that a FAT partition is safe from a security standpoint, as long as no unauthorized person has physical access to the machine.
Converting to NTFS
If you're running Windows NT and want to use NTFS on some of your partitions that already contain data, you can easily convert a partition to NTFS. To do so, open an MS-DOS prompt window and type the following command:
CONVERT drive: /FS:NTFS
For example, if you wanted to convert your D drive to NTFS, you'd replace the word drive with the letter D, as shown below:
CONVERT D: /FS:NTFS
Converting to FAT32
Converting to FAT32 is even easier than converting to NTFS. To convert a FAT partition to FAT32 (within Windows 98), simply click Start and go to Program Files | Accessories | System Tools | Drive Converter (FAT32). When you do, you'll see a wizard that will allow you to select the partition you wish to convert and begin the conversion process. Before you convert a partition, however, remember that on older systems or systems with very full drives, this process can take several hours.
Brien M. Posey is an MCSE and a freelance technical writer. He is the director of information systems for a large healthcare company. Brien has also worked as a network engineer for the Department of Defense. If you'd like to contact Brien, send him an e-mail. (Because of the large volume of e-mail he receives, it's impossible for him to respond to every message. However, he does read them all.)This article originally appeared on TechRepublic's TechProGuild, the subscription Web resource for IT administration and support professionals. For more information, sign up now for a FREE 30-day trial of our TechProGuild service.