Partitioning is one of the best kept secrets in the world of computing. For those of you who are new to the concept, partitioning is the idea of splitting a single physical hard drive into sections in order to keep files more organized, and to facilitate backups. In this article I’ll talk about my personal partitioning system and my rationale behind it — as well as a two software programs that will help you create and manage partitions.
Let’s assume you have a 100GB physical hard drive. Most of you have drives that are 250GB or more (drives this large usually come with new machines) — and I’ve been partitioning drives as small as 5GB for a long time – so 100GB is a good round number to work with.
First I create an operating system partition. A C: drive that has around 20GB of space. This partition serves to hold the operating system (Windows) only, as wells as the files that are associated with Windows. There will be some exceptions — for example, Internet Explorer cannot be moved from the C: drive so there’s no point trying. Also, certain program are happier running from C: (e.g. I let my WAMP server run off the C: drive), but for the most part I only leave the OS on the C: drive. By creating this C: drive as a 20GB partition, you are leaving plenty of space of the OS to run (hopefully you have plenty of RAM so you won’t need the hard drive space for performance), as well as room for the OS to grow with all of the updates and patches that are needed for a healthy Windows installation.
The next partition I create is the D: drive. This is the drive that will contain all of your program files. I usually create a 20GB partition for this drive though your individual size depends on what software you install. Adobe Creative Suite takes up a ton of space — Firefox doesn’t.
So at this point you have a C: drive that is reserved for the OS only (for the most part) and a D: drive that’s reserved for Program Files. The first two benefits you will see at this point are that (1) your OS is separate from your program files so things will feel more organized and (2) you’ve saved yourself a ton of backup space. And in case you are wondering, you’ve saved backup space because you don”t generally need to backup your OS (C) or your Program Files (D) because if you reinstall your operating system you will need to use the Windows disk to reinstall Windows, and you will need to reinstall all of your program files to this new install of Windows. You’ll appreciate this more as we talk about your data drive(s) next.
The next partition I have is an E: drive that I use for MyDocuments and iTunes. This is generally the largest partition that I have. In our 100GB example here, let’s take the remaining 60GB and make it into our E: data drive. On this data drive I will store the contents of MyDocuments (which as you will recall includes MyMusic, MyVideos, and MyPictures and more). By having this E: drive setup as to be holding all of your data, you can easily backup this E: drive only to make sure you have a copy of all of your important files. At this point, however, you must get into the habit of saving your data on the E: drive and make sure your all of your programs store the data on this E: drive. The only exception to this setup on my machine is the /www directory that’s there as a part of wampserver, which is happiest having everything on the C: drive. So I know that when I run my backups that I include C:/…/www.
Note now that if you did need to reinstall windows, you’d be able to reinstall it on the C: drive, (you’d still have to reformat the D: drive to reinstall all of your programs) but your E: data drive would remain intact. Note that depending upon your installation of Windows and your media, you may NOT be able to install Windows without reformatting the entire drive. For example, many recovery DVDs that come with a new computer will reformat your entire drive and also DESTROY and partitions you had previously made. So if you do reinstall the OS, make sure that you backup your data first — just in case your reinstall process truly reverts to factory settings. But now backing up your data is easy because it’s all on the E: drive.
Now while the basic scheme above works well for many people, you can break things down more as you need. In my case, I split the E: drive even further. On the E: (data) partition I store the MyDocuments folder that includes MyPictures and the rest of my regular data. But because my iTunes library is huge, I have a separate partition, an F: drive that I use for media. One of the reasons for this separation is that I don’t need to backup my music library as often as I backup my everyday data. Also, note that the more data and files that you backup in a backup (or a mirror or a sync operation) the longer the process will take. So if I’m just backing up my E: data drive, there’s no reason for my mirroring program (syncback) to have to copy over (and check the sync status of) thousands and thousands of music files. So it makes sense to separate out data partitions based on the frequency of your backups. And as it were, I personally keep an additional partition solely for virtual machines. Because VM files are gigantic, it makes no sense to have to include them in a sync process unless you need to.
The best way to setup partitions is with a clean install, but as you may not always have a clean install in front of you, you may elect to partition an existing system. When you partition an existing system — before you do anything else — make sure you backup your data. I usually will install the OS first, load the partitioning software, and then create my partitions. But if you are partitioning an existing setup, MAKE SURE you leave the OS drive (e.g. the C: drive in the above example) with plenty of room. In fact — OVERESTIMATE. You do not want to be in a situation where you have a partitioned drive/system and you run out of space on the OS drive. You can get out of this mess but it’s better not to be there in the first place.
For many, many years I was a big fan of Symantec (Norton) Partition Magic. The software was (is) reasonably priced and (unlike much of Norton’s newer products) has never failed me. In my travels, however, I came across a free partitioning utility that I really like. The program is the EASUS Partition Master Home Edition, and I’ve found it to be a worth replacement for Partition Magic (sorry Symantec). I’ve used the program with Windows Vista and Windows 7 and I have had success.
In this article I introduced you to the world of partitioning and reviewed some of the advantages of having a partitioned system. Remember that whenever you partition a drive, however, you may lose data. So be sure to BACKUP you system prior to performing partition operatiosn.