Understanding Disk Partitions

Learn about disk drive partitions.
Published: Mar 23, 2006
Author: Michael E, Callahan
Related OS: Windows

This question submitted by Alan Watson, Dayna Wells, Steven McKinney, Robert Butterfield, Julie Mortson, and numerous others

Having purchased new computers I can understand why I was asked this question. Today, computer manufacturers send out computers with a hard disk that is not partitioned. This means that if you have a 160 gigabyte hard disk, you have a 160 gigabyte Drive C. In the early days of computers we didn't measure our hard drives in gigabytes, but in megabytes. In fact, there was a time when you couldn't have a hard drive that was larger than 32 megabytes. Once that barrier was hurdled, many users started to partition their hard drives into multiple drives. The first question you might ask is "Why?" and a second question might be "How?" Lets talk about it.

One reason to partition a hard drive is to divide up your disk space. For example, I have my hard disk divided or "partitioned" into three (3) drives. I keep primarily the operating system on Drive C. On Drive D I keep nearly all my data like documents, databases, text files, music, pictures, and so on. Drive E is where I keep all my Internet-related software like FTP programs, newsgroup and email software, and the like. I do this for a couple of reasons.

One reason is habit. In the early days of computers I got used to partitioning my hard disk so I had multiple drives. This made it easy to keep things separate. When I got a 40 megabyte hard drive I partitioned it into two (2) 20 megabyte partitions. Another reason I do it is that I just don't like having everything on one drive. Having a 160 gigabyte Drive C is just something I can't bring myself to do. Many of you might be saying, "What does he mean by partition?" and I'll tell you.

A hard disk is a physical unit that contains so media that has so much available space for storage. When an operating system, like Windows, is installed on the hard drive, it becomes the active partition. There can only be one "active" partition at a time. On dual boot systems there may be more than one drive that is capable of being an active partition, but still only one can be active at a time.

If you want to divide up the space on the physical drive then you have to partition it. Just like putting up a partition in a room, you're walling off one area of space from another. In the early days when DOS (disk operating system) was the main operating, partitioning was done with a little program called FDISK. With this program you'd assign the amount of space you wanted for the primary partition, and the remainder would become an extended partition. Once you had the extended partition you could either divide it up into multiple logical drives, or just one logical drive ... it was up to you. After a partition was created you would exit FDISK, reboot, and then you'd have to format each new drive.

Today I can still partition a hard disk with FDISK, but it's much easier to use a software program like Acronis yada yada. With it's graphical interface it shows you your hard drive, illustrates any changes you plan to make, and makes it much easier to create logical partitions on your hard drive.

Remember, if you have one physical hard drive and divide it up into one primary drive and two logical drives, you still only have one, physical hard disk. You do, however, have three "drives" where you can separate programs and data and keep things organized. Utilizing good software it's an easy matter to partition your physical drive into multiple partitions.

I'd like to thank Alan Watson, Dayna Wells, Steven McKinney, Robert Butterfield, Julie Mortson, and numerous others for asking this question.

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About Michael E, Callahan

Michael E. Callahan, known around the world by the trademarked name Dr. File Finder, is regarded as the world's leading expert on shareware. Dr. File Finder works with software programs and developers full-time, and in the average year he evaluates 10,000 programs. Since 1982 he has evaluated over 250,000 software and hardware products. Mr. Callahan began evaluating software online in 1982 and no one has been at it longer. He currently works doing online PR and marketing for software companies, and is the Senior Content Producer for Butterscotch.Com.

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