The subject of disk fragmentation will almost always draw heated arguments but
seldom gets treated in its entirety. I'm going to try to do that
here, but will probably miss a point or two: this is an extraordinarily
complex subject and honestly there aren't any easy answers.
The basic idea is this: if a file's disk blocks are contiguous, following
one after another on the physical disk drive, the disk heads won't
have to move very much (perhaps not even at all) when reading the file.
As moving those heads obviously takes more time than not moving them,
fragmentation is undesirable.
Yes, but that doesn't mean your disk needs defragging. The
first thing you need to know is that many modern file systems
defrag themselves "on the fly". For example, the HFS+ file system
currently used in Mac OS X defrags some files automatically (from
When a file is opened on an HFS+ volume,
the following conditions are tested:
* If the file is less than 20 MB in size
* If the file is not already busy
* If the file is not read-only
* If the file has more than eight extents
* If the system has been up for at least three minutes
If all of the above conditions are satisfied, the file is relocated --
it is defragmented on-the-fly.
Modern file systems tend to use a "worst fit" algorithm when trying to
decide where to put a file initially - that is, rather than looking for
the smallest block of free space that will fit the new file and jamming it
in between other files, they'll look for a big unused chunk of space
and put the new file far away from any other files - and it certainly
helps that we often have very large, mostly unused disks now!
This Why doesn't Linux need defragmenting? post
attempts to show that graphically. I have a little quibble with that:
Linux has many possible filesystems and not all approach defragmentation
the same way, but it can help visualize the basic concept.
Multi-user vs. Single-user
Before we get too excited about the various techniques to
avoid defragmentation, consider a Linux or Unix system supporting a
few dozen programmers and web developers. Obviously they'll mostly
be working on different files, so those disk heads are going to
be jumping around from file to file constantly. Fragmentation is
of less concern on such a system, so you'll often hear people
arguing that fragmentation has nothing to do with multi-user
But what about a large multi-user system where there's a big
database and the users are all accessing that. Wouldn't that
need to worry about fragmentation? Well, perhaps more so than
the system where everybody is doing different things, but
even so it's still likely that the users will be asking for
different sections, so the disk heads will be fluttering
about just the same.
Well maybe not. Instead of just asking the drive to give you
the block Joe wants, why not wait a little bit and see what Sarah
and Jane might need? If you do that, and Jane's next requested
block is close to where the heads are now, why not get that first?
Indeed, that's a common optimization technique.
But wait: modern disk drives are pretty smart. Why couldn't
they optimize requests the same way? In fact, they can. And
probably need to..
LBA and reassignment
Logical block addressing throws a new wrinkle into this. The
block numbers the OS wants to access are translated into
real physical addresses. On the face of it, that shouldn't
necessarily affect fragmentation: Logical block 1 is likely
to still be physically right beside logical block 2 or at least
close by. But not
if there has been bad sector reassignment: in that case, the
supposedly contiguous data may in fact have a chunk that has
been moved far, far away. The data is contiguous as far as the
OS knows, but in fact it may not be. If the disk drive
itself implements elevator seeking, it might be able to
intelligently work around that up to soften the effect.
Note that disk caching also tends to destroy any value from
OS based anticipation and reordering: the drive heads may not
have to move at all because the data you want is already in
the drive's own on-board cache, but OS based reordering may
actually cause movement when none was necessary!
Partitioning can help fragmentation. For example, if you
put /tmp and other frequently used file systems in their
own partitions, files coming and going won't have to compete
for disk blocks with more stable files. The other way to look
at that is that a heavily accessed file like that multi-user
database mentioned above might benefit from its own separate
partition and filesystem.
Virtual Files Systems
that royally. Again, it's reasonable to assume that when
first created, a LVM file system is likely to be built from
contiguous blocks. But if it is extended, who knows where the new
blocks came from?
Let's just pause for a second: imagine an LVM filesystem on
a disk capable of elevator seeks that also has a large on-board
cache and is being used on a multi-user system with hundreds of
users all charged with different responsibilities.. how much
do you think you need to worry about fragmentation?
Back to single user
Ok, but MY system is single user. Well.. sort of. Actually,
whether it's Linux or OS X or Windows XP, it isn't really
single user anymore. There's a lot of "system" stuff constantly
going on - logging, daemons checking their config files, downloading
OS updates and patches.. it's not just you asking for disk blocks,
I just ran "sar -d 5 30" on my Mac and walked away.. Here
are the results, stripped of the lines where there was no disk activity at
New Disk: [disk1] IODeviceTree:/PCI0@0/USB7@1D,7/@3:0
New Disk: [disk0] IODeviceTree:/PCI0@0/SATA@1F,2/PRT2@2/PMP@0/@0:0
13:05:08 device r+w/s blks/s
13:05:13 disk0 1 11
13:05:23 disk0 1 9
13:05:33 disk0 1 9
13:05:38 disk0 4 85
13:05:43 disk0 1 9
13:05:53 disk0 1 9
13:06:03 disk0 1 9
13:06:08 disk0 2 39
13:06:13 disk0 1 11
13:06:23 disk0 1 9
13:06:33 disk0 1 9
13:06:38 disk0 186 19165
13:06:43 disk0 52 13837
13:06:53 disk0 1 9
13:07:03 disk0 1 11
13:07:08 disk0 3 82
13:07:13 disk0 1 9
13:07:23 disk0 1 9
13:07:33 disk0 1 9
13:07:38 disk0 2 34
Average: disk1 0 0
Average: disk0 9 1113
I wasn't doing anything, but OS X found plenty of reason to
access my disk, didn't it? If I had been reading files, my
reads would have had to compete with system reads.. what
does that do with the carefully managed defragmentation mentioned
If Windows says I need it, I need it
The other thing I often hear is "What the heck - it only takes
a few minutes and it can't hurt anything". Well, it can hurt: if the
defrag gets interrupted midstream, that could hurt a lot. Defragging
also obviously adds more wear and tear: you are reading and rewriting
a lot of stuff and that does add up. But let's look at it
from another slant: what file or files is the defragger worried
That is, are the files that cause the defrag utility to want to
rearrange our whole disk anything that we are going to be accessing
sequentially? The answer might be "yes", but it also might be "no".
The defragger may see a system log file scattered willy-nilly here and
there.. do we care? No, because we certainly are not reading that
front to back on a daily basis and the OS itself is only adding
to the end of it - it may be horribly fragmented, but that's never
going to cause a disk head to move anywhere unusual.
Big database revisited
But no, the fragmented file is that big database we mentioned
earlier - this time on a single user system. The stupid thing
is all over your drive, here, there, everywhere.. surely a good
defragging is in order?
Maybe. But often large databases use indexes.. your access
probably involves reading that index (which may remain sitting in
cache after the first read) and jumping out to particular
sections of the big file from there - no sequential access at all.
If that's the case (and it often is), the fragmentation of the big
file is completely irrelevant: defragging it won't speed up
I'm sure I missed something..
As I said at the beginning, it's a big, complicated subject
and I'm sure I've missed something. Feel free to add your thoughts
to the comments.
Got something to add? Send me email.
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