Best practices for partitioning a hard disk

Posted: August 17, 2007 in Technology

I’m often asked, “What’s the best way to partition your hard drive?” Typically, I answer, “What do you mean by ‘best’? Are you looking for the best performance? Best reliability? Best usability?” There’s no single answer to how you should partition hard disks on a computer running Windows XP. What I can offer are some suggestions based on my personal experience.

Depending on your budget and goals, you can choose the solution that works best for your system. In this column, I’ll focus on three areas where your partitioning scheme can really make a difference:

Organizing your work
Safeguarding your data
Boosting your computer’s performance

I’ll describe the partitions I created for my computer and explain the benefits you can gain from dividing your hard disk into more than the single partition and hard drive that it originally came with. These benefits can help you be better organized, more productive, and ensure the integrity of your data.

Overview of my partitioning scheme

Partitioning helps me manage my work, especially on the computer that I use most for my writing. The figure below shows the two physical disks partitioned as follows:

Disk 0 has a System partition (drive C) and a Data partition (drive D).
Disk 1 has an Archive partition (drive E), a Research partition (drive F), an Other partition (drive G), and a Paging partition (drive H).

How I partition hard disks on a computer used for writing

How I partition hard disks on a computer used for writing.

Here’s how you might set up a partitioning scheme similar to mine. You can adapt these steps to meet your own needs:

1. Install Windows on drive C on your first hard disk.

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Organize your work

Whether you use your PC for work or play (or both), partitioning your hard drives appropriately can help you keep organized. Disk partitioning is invaluable to me, because I’m a notoriously disorganized person. My desk tells the tale—piles of paper all over the place, sticky notes attached to monitors and walls, stacks of open books, and leftover crumbs from snacking. You can imagine what my hard drives must look like.

What’s the value of using my partitioning scheme? Installing the operating system and applications on a dedicated partition (System) provides these benefits:

Makes my computer easier to maintain without worrying about losing work when things go wrong.
Need to defragment this partition only after I install a new application, which is rarely because my computer is dedicated to writing and editing work, not fun and games (I have other computers for that).
Can easily use System Restoreif something goes wrong so I don’t lose time from my work.

I store all my active work files on drive D and keep the folder structure on this drive simple: one main folder for each project I’m working on. My Data partition is fairly small at 2 GB. (This small size usually works unless you work in video production or graphic design, in which case your work files may be huge.) The small-sized partition and folder structure help me:

Find my work quickly and keep it organized.
Promptly move suspended or inactive projects to the Other partition until I need them or until they’re ready to be archived to the Archive partition.
Defragment the Data partition more quickly, which further reduces potential downtime.

This last item may not seem like a big issue since you can schedule defragmentation to occur during off hours. But as a writer, I often find myself getting out of bed in the middle of the night to outline an idea. It’s painful to wait for your computer to finish a process before you can use it.

Tip: I also have a Research partition on my second disk. That’s where I save copies of white papers and other background material I find while doing research for a writing project. Most writers are packrats and I’m no exception. Keeping such research separate from my own writing helps ensure I don’t accidentally merge text someone else wrote with my own work.

I’ve tried other partitioning schemes to organize my work and found them wanting. For example, on a previous computer I had six partitions instead of four on the second hard disk. I found out the hard way however that these smaller partitions filled up faster, so I either had to save my work on partitions where it didn’t belong or spend extra time moving whole volumes of data from one drive to another—not fun. So now I keep things simple with just enough partitions to help me stay organized.

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Safeguard your data

The Archive partition on my second physical disk is a large partition that I use for backing up data quickly. This helps protect my work from disappearing should my first physical disk fail.

What I do to protect my work is simple. At the end of each day, whether my current writing project is finished or not, I do the following:

1. Copy its subfolder (for example, D:\Expert Zone\January 2005) from my Data partition to a new subfolder I created in my Archive partition.

But instead of manually copying files like this, why don’t I just run the Backup or Restore Wizard to save incremental or differential backups on my Archive partition? Basically, because I’m impatient—if I need access to old files from a project I’m working on, I don’t want to have to have to restore the data from backup first. I can also usually find what I want faster by browsing for it by YYMMDD-dated folder than by searching through a backup catalog for the right file.

Tip: I do use Archive for one standard backup though. I back up my System partition using Automated System Recovery (ASR) and store this backup on the Archive partition.

My Archive partition tends to fill up pretty fast however because I am always saving temporary versions of my work as I go along. So in addition to having two physical disks on my computer, I also have a CD-R drive that I use to burn CDs for two purposes:

At the end of each month I copy last month’s Archive subfolders to CD, label it by date, and put it somewhere safe. That way I have last month’s backup ready if both my hard disks fail from a lightning bolt hitting my office, or my computer is infected with a virus, or a thief steals my computer.
When my Archive partition is approximately 80 percent full, I copy several months of the oldest backup files to CD and then delete them from the Archive folder to reclaim space.

I also copy my Outlook .pst file to my Archive partition once a month. Like most writers, I depend heavily on e-mail and can’t afford to lose old e-mail messages or contacts. Since .pst files can be fairly big, I usually keep only a few months of them archived this way. And I copy my current .pst file to CD every few months and delete older .pst files from drive E to reclaim space for other backups. Once I’ve safely saved my current .pst file, I go through Outlook mercilessly deleting folders for projects I’m no longer working on.

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Boost performance

Although a PC used for writing doesn’t need to be a high-performance computer, its performance can be improved by a good partitioning scheme. The biggest boost comes from my Paging partition on drive H, which is found on my second physical disk. I use this partition to boost performance in the following ways:

Move the paging file there. A well-known method for improving performance on a Windows-based computer is to move the paging file (pagefile.sys) from its usual location on drive C to its own separate partition on a separate physical drive.
Keep the Paging partition small (4 GB). By default the initial size of your paging file is 1.5 × RAM and its maximum size is 3 × RAM. So if your computer has 1 GB of RAM, which is pretty good for a desktop productivity computer, then setting your Paging partition to 4 GB gives you more than enough room for your paging file without wasting disk space that could be used for other purposes like storing data.
Format it using the FAT32 file system. Although the version of NTFS in Windows XP has features that make it perform better than earlier versions of NTFS, you can still eek out some performance gains for small volumes by formatting them as FAT32 instead of NTFS. I’m not overly concerned about the lack of security from not having pagefile.sys protected by NTFS permissions since it’s an unreadable binary file. If someone hacked into my system, they wouldn’t need to bother with the paging file anyway.
Replace old 5400 rpm drives with newer 7200 or 10000 rpm drives. If you have the budget, you can speed performance of disk activity by installing one of these faster drives.

If you have IDE drives, you can also boost file system performance by setting both physical disks as masters on separate channels. That way data can flow freely and simultaneously between both disks and the system bus. This setup allows Windows to access and load system files while simultaneously paging to disk. The end result—increased performance. Of course, Paging isn’t the only partition I have on my second disk. But since I only access the Archive and Other partitions only a few times per day, the disk is pretty much dedicated to paging activity. But overall the biggest performance gain is usually achieved by moving your paging file to a partition on a separate drive as described above, especially on a system that has limited physical memory. Buying more RAM is of course another way to boost performance.

Tip: NTFS tweaks can also help squeeze some additional performance as I describe in NTFS Performance Hacks, an article I wrote for O’Reilly’s

Whether you spend most of your time working or playing on your system, partitioning your disks appropriately can help you keep your work organized, your data safe, and your system humming along. Of course, don’t forget to back up all your data before you start partitioning your disks!


Mitch Tulloch is a consultant, trainer, and author based in Winnipeg, Canada. He has written over a dozen books including the Microsoft Encyclopedia of Networking (2nd edition, Microsoft Press, 2002) and the Microsoft Encyclopedia of Security (Microsoft Press, 2003). Mitch frequently writes on topics like Windows optimization and troubleshooting, network troubleshooting, and security and is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) in the area of Windows Server Setup/Deployment.

  1. Jenny says:

    One way of mitigating a risk of disaster is to have an online backup service.

    I have been reading about the online backup and storage industry for a while now. It is becoming a commonly accepted technology these days.

    For online backup news, information and articles, there is an excellent website:

    This site lists more than 400 online backup companies and ranks the top 25 on a monthly basis.

    It also features a CEO Spotlight page, where senior management people from the industry are interviewed.


  2. rewinder says:

    I have used a single partition ( or unpartitioned ) drive and got everything so fragmented, it was almost like a fast spreading disease that just messed everything up one after another. I would always recommend the OS on a separate partition to avoid this uncontrollable chaos.

  3. Great breakdown for organizing your system storage.

    One thing I notice is that my laptop only has one drive.

    Hopefully, if your laptop has a big enough drive, you can quickly reformat it into two partitions for the OS/DATA scheme above.

    If you lucky, the laptop has done this for you already, or has two separate drives to begin with.

    One thing I was hoping you would mention is how even if you have a separate partition on one drive, what would be the pros and cons of moving the pagefile.sys to the other partition? I don’t believe this would be wise, because its really the same disk, and to have the disk heads flying from one “partition” to the other during pagefile.sys procedures, and other data access procedures was an inefficiency not welcomed. I think I read that a long time ago in one of Norton’s books – a book I know, not online – thats how long ago.

    In any case, because I work off my laptop as much as my desktop station – I do media/photo/video, I am pretty much working off separte USB/1394 drives in a concept as outlined above. So instead of partitioning for each aspect of the Archives, Research, etc. I have different drives dedicated for those files. Like – video raw – chron files – like the archive, then I have a project disk, then I have a personal files disk – nothing to do with video/photo, then I even dedicate external harddrives for projects themselves or even for client work. At the price of hard drives these days, you could buy two 1TB drives one to work, and one to archive the data for a video project, which in an ideal way I would do if it commanded it.

    I also would separate projects on their own drives for liability and security purposes. That way, if there is any problem, you can reach up grab the drive and hand it over if there is an issue such as legal copyright, or privacy due to the content, etc. Where if this material was combined with my personal stuff, then I’d be exposing my personal stuff to any type of intrusion either it be a subpoena, or theft, or an angry client who just wants all their raw files “NOW” – of course, if they are entitled to it. But that is off topic, and my point here is –

    I am basically using multiple external drives for each partitioning organization scheme referred to inthis article. above.

    (c) 2008 11/27/08 06:08 am.

  4. Maaruthi says:

    Nice info Mike 🙂 Thanks for sharing your practices…..

  5. Do not copy says:

    Please be fair and give due to credit to the person who actually wrote this.
    It’s good to share, but share fairly.

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