Wednesday, December 3, 2008

File Systems for New Hard Drives

The Alpha 900's large files will eventually take its toll on every owner's data storage strategy.  (Really, it's a good problem to have).  Recently I went out and purchased not one but THREE 1 terabyte external drives for my desktop computer: one to act as my primary drive, one to act as a backup, and the third to act as an offsite backup, which I will swap with Drive number two on a weekly basis.  At $130 for each drive, it is probably the best dollar-per-megabyte deal in the history of the planet.  (Actually, so is the Alpha 900.)

But be sure to read the fine print before you actually hook up these drives and start to use them!  Read on for the reason...

For maximum compatibility, many of these drives were formatted at the factory using Microsoft's older (and less reliable) FAT32 file system which can be read by newer (Vista, XP, Win2000) as well as older (Windows 98, 98SE, Windows ME, and some editions of Windows 95) machines.  It can also be read by most Macintoshes, so it makes sense that this be the default, lowest-common-denominator format for the always-elusive "just plug it in and it works!" experience.

BUT, for data sets as large as a terabyte, the default FAT32 format is a poor choice.  File sizes are restricted to being 4 GB or less, and you can't create partition sizes larger than 32 GB (but if it's already created for you, as are these disks, then your operating system will read them just fine).  Real problems concerning reliability start to surface when the inevitable bit-errors occur during the normal process of reading or writing your data, which all disks encounter on a daily basis (but are fixed automatically, unbeknownst to you, by sophisticated error-detection-and-correction codes).

I'll skip over the technical stuff, but I offer you this sincere word of advice: If you're purchasing a large external hard drive, read the enclosed instructions on how to reformat it in either NTFS (if you're running Windows 2000 or later) or HFS+ (Mac OS 9 or later).  Your data will be more stable, secure, and you will experience less data loss (due to data corruption) than with FAT32.

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