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How to partition your hard drive to optimize performance

Marco Chiappetta | May 14, 2012
Solid-state drives are all the rage lately, thanks to their high transfer speeds and ultrafast access times, but most people still use cheap, spacious mechanical hard drives. Unfortunately, mechanical hard drives also constitute one of the most significant performance bottlenecks in modern computer systems. Even when paired with the fastest processors and lots of memory, a slow hard drive will drag down the a system's overall performance and responsiveness, which is why upgrading to an SSD usually yields such significant performance gains.

Solid-state drives are all the rage lately, thanks to their high transfer speeds and ultrafast access times, but most people still use cheap, spacious mechanical hard drives. Unfortunately, mechanical hard drives also constitute one of the most significant performance bottlenecks in modern computer systems. Even when paired with the fastest processors and lots of memory, a slow hard drive will drag down the a system's overall performance and responsiveness, which is why upgrading to an SSD usually yields such significant performance gains.

If upgrading to a solid-state drive isn't the cards for you right no, you can improve the performance of your hard drive through a technique colloquially known as "short stroking." In simple terms, short stroking a drive means partitioning it so as to use its highest-performing sectors. Hard drives perform differently depending on where data is stored on their platters. Knowing where the fastest sections of the drive are and partitioning the drive to take advantage of them are the keys to optimizing it.

Finding the Sweet Spot

Generally, the smaller you make the initial, primary partition on a hard drive, the better that volume will perform. But no one likes to be limited by a tiny volume size, so it's very useful to be able to determine where transfer rates begin to drop off on a hard drive. With that information in hand, you can tune your partition to balance overall performance against volume size.

All you need is a benchmark tool like HD Tune or HD Tach that evaluates performance across an entire drive and graphs the results. We used HD Tune in our tests.

To measure a hard drive's performance, you'll need access to a system that already has a fully functional OS installation on another drive. Connect the drive you want to test to this system as a secondary volume, and then run the benchmark tool. You'll notice that performance starts at a relatively high level and then gradually tapers off. For this article, we tested a 1TB Western Digital Velociraptor drive and initially saw transfer rates in the vicinity of 210 megabytes per second, which gradually slowed to about 116 MBps. Similarly, access times were fastest in the early part of the test and grew slower as the test progressed. This phenomenon occurs because hard drives are fastest when they access data from the outermost tracks on its platters. Given a constant spindle speed (10,000 rpm, in the Velociraptor's case), the drive's read/write heads can simply cover a larger area in a shorter amount of time when positioned over the outer edges of the platter, resulting in better performance.

For optimal system performance, you need to place your OS and all of your most commonly used applications and files in the fastest areas on the drive. Accomplishing this goal involves creating a primary partition of the correct size on the drive and then installing your OS and apps there. You can partition and use the remainder of the drive, too, but you should store only infrequently accessed data there.

 

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