Data defragmenting hailed

Companies and e-businesses that have been meeting the growing demand for network performance by purchasing newer and faster hardware could save billions of dollars on unnecessary hardware upgrades and still get improved system performance by simply defragmenting the disk drives they already have in use, according to an International Data Corp. (IDC) report.

Defragmenting is the process of re-linking data that has been spread out across a disk during data modifications. Even though a manual defragmenting utility ships as a standard feature on many Microsoft operating systems, including Windows 95, 98, and 2000, "[defragmentation] is one of those things that a lot of people don't know about," said Steve Widen, director of client infrastructure storage software research at IDC.

IDC estimates that the use of defragmenters could save companies and e-businesses $US6 billion a year in unnecessary hardware upgrades. Moreover, the impact from service delays caused by systems handicapped by fragmented disk drives could reach as high as $50 billion, according to Widen.

As network administrators wrestle with the burden placed on their networks by increasingly data-rich applications, data collected on the drives begins to fragment with each operation, gradually robbing the overall network of valuable performance that can be mistaken for the need to add hardware, according to Phil Proffit, the director of La Crescenta, California-based Broadcasters Network International, a market research group.

Drive fragmentation takes place on a disk when a string of data is modified, making it larger than the space it previously occupied on the disk. When this happens, the added data must be laid out on the disk where there is available room, resulting in the data being "fragmented" across the disk, adding additional searches that drain the performance of the system. Defragmentation resets all the data, allowing for file recovery with one search.

"The key really here is to get as much performance utilization out of the current system you have, rather than just adding on new hardware," IDC's Widen said.

Randall Grandstaff, the MIS director at Cincinnati-based Cooper & Company, knows this scenario firsthand. With more than 250 stores spread across the United States, the Fortune 500 watch-seller uploads daily inventory and sales records from each store to a central server network.

"We were running [Windows NT-based] severs and workstations and they all got to be very slow, so I thought about upgrading all the equipment," Grandstaff said.

Instead, Grandstaff decided to try defragmenting all the disks on the network, but he faced two additional challenges.

First, Windows-based defragmenting utilities are manual applications, meaning a user has to defragment each disk manually, box by box, which IDC says "is both impractical and cost-ineffective."

Second, NT is one of the few Microsoft operating systems not pre-loaded with a defragmenting utility, sending Grandstaff looking for a third-party defragmenting solution that could be set to run automatically, such as Diskkeeper from Glendale, California-based Executive Software.

According to Grandstaff, an increase in performance was immediately noticeable, and Cooper & Company now runs a daily defragmentation routine, transparent to daily operations.

"I think it's a matter of education," Proffit explains. "When viruses started making news, enterprises didn't practice many virus policies, and the same [situation occurred] with the firewall issue.

"Defragmentation just isn't as dramatic and sexy as the virus issue, and the immediate impact of fragmentation isn't noticeable because system degradation takes place gradually, not like a virus attack, Proffit added. "Fragmentation is being addressed for the most part, but only on a reactive basis rather than a proactive basis."

Dan Neel is an InfoWorld reporter.

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