Every once in a while, I like to “clean house”. What I mean is that I like to re-organize things so that they won’t ever pile up and make a mess as they always eventually do. For my apartment, this means adding new designated areas for things that pile up on me (garbage goes in the garbage can, the garbage can goes here for optimization, bottles go there, etc.). For my computer, it’s similar.

Partitions help “physically” set boundaries within your computer’s hard drives. The advantages to doing this might not be immediately obvious, but if we know a little about how computers work, they should be understandable. I’ll use a random PC with Windows XP on it as an example.

In Windows, there is always a “C” drive which contains the files needed for the operating system (OS). Some of those system files can be placed on another drive with some work, but I’ll assume this computer has one drive for now.

Imagine you’re downloading a lot of things onto your computer, or you’re installing a bunch of new programs. Nothing special right? Well, actually, the files being copied onto your computer are not “solid”. Each file is broken up into little fixed-size pieces called clusters. If there wasn’t a cluster mechanism, each file would fill up a contiguous amount of space on the hard drive, thus creating a landscape that your computer must work around. If one of your files should be deleted, it will free up that space, and your files which may have been contiguous before (file after file after file) now have holes in them. Depending on the size of the hole, you may or may not be able to put an entire new file in that hole. Clusters alleviate the situation by allowing a file that is too big to be split up and put into a number of empty spaces.

The problem with clusters is that your file will be broken up and put into different places. It was good because it allowed the computer to use up all the hard drive space, but it’s bad because now it has to gather each piece when it needs the file. This gathering process (it’s easier to think about it this way) causes your computer to slow down. Instead of being able to simply read the file’s contents in one fell swoop, it has to piece the clusters together first. In computer terms, your file is fragmented.

While the situation is fixable in a way (defragmentation), it’s a hassle to deal with. For Windows systems, defragmentation is an unavoidable hassle (especially on systems that have a large number of large files). However, the problem can be lessened if the pieces of a single file are constrained to a certain portion of the physical hard drive. Instead of having to piece together clusters that are on the opposite ends of the disk, they’ll be placed within a certain range of each other.

This process of placing boundaries within a physical hard drive is called partitioning. Before I even place any files on the computer, I decide how I’ll be organizing those files. These partitions are both helpful in the way described above, but can also be helpful for logical organization. For example, all my music goes here. All my programs go there. And so forth.

By having meaningful partitions, I can place all related files together, and find them all in one place. This is useful for various reasons. The biggest problem is that you must decide how you want to organize your files before you even have them. Eventually the landscape of your hard drive changes so much that you don’t even recognize it anymore. You may have run into cases where you’re not sure where a certain file should go (it could be related to two entirely different categories). Eventually, your system will be logically fragmented (my own term for this situation). While you can defragment a computer to remove physical fragmentation, there’s no easy way to defragment a logical fragmentation (any solution would be a kludge).

Eventually, you may end up thinking that there may be a better organization of files possible. Some other hierarchy must be possible. This logical problem is more easily solvable on a computer with only one physical drive/partition, but that has its own physical problems. So, in between having one partition, and have a great number of partitions, there’s a good number that works best. But, it all depends on your own needs.

Organization of files is tricky. However, unlike your apartment, you can (almost) always just add another hard drive. You can’t just add another room. They’re similar situations, so just remember that in addition to having to clean your room every once in a while, it’s important to defragment your computer every once in a while. Likewise, when you find that your needs have increased, and you’ll need to either move on or add on, do so by buying either a new computer or a new hard drive.

I was going to talk about my own computer’s partitions, but wound up writing something more general. I’ll probably write about my own situation some other time, because that’s just the way I roll.


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