NTFS or not to NTFS—that is the question. But unlike
the deeper questions of life, this one isn't really
all that hard to answer. For most users running Windows
XP, NTFS is the obvious choice. It's more powerful
and offers security advantages not found in the other
file systems. But let's go over the differences among
the files systems so we're all clear about the choice.
There are essentially three different file systems
available in Windows XP: FAT16, short for File Allocation
Table, FAT32, and NTFS, short for NT File System.
The FAT16 file system was introduced way back with
MS–DOS in 1981, and it's showing its age. It was designed
originally to handle files on a floppy drive, and
has had minor modifications over the years so it can
handle hard disks, and even file names longer than
the original limitation of 8.3 characters, but it's
still the lowest common denominator. The biggest advantage
of FAT16 is that it is compatible across a wide variety
of operating systems, including Windows 95/98/Me,
OS/2, Linux, and some versions of UNIX. The biggest
problem of FAT16 is that it has a fixed maximum number
of clusters per partition, so as hard disks get bigger
and bigger, the size of each cluster has to get larger.
In a 2–GB partition, each cluster is 32 kilobytes,
meaning that even the smallest file on the partition
will take up 32 KB of space. FAT16 also doesn't support
compression, encryption, or advanced security using
access control lists.
The FAT32 file system, originally introduced in Windows
95 Service Pack 2, is really just an extension of
the original FAT16 file system that provides for a
much larger number of clusters per partition. As such,
it greatly improves the overall disk utilization when
compared to a FAT16 file system. However, FAT32 shares
all of the other limitations of FAT16, and adds an
important additional limitation—many operating systems
that can recognize FAT16 will not work with FAT32—most
notably Windows NT, but also Linux and UNIX as well.
Now this isn't a problem if you're running FAT32 on
a Windows XP computer and sharing your drive out to
other computers on your network—they don't need to
know (and generally don't really care) what your underlying
file system is.
Advantages of NTFS
The NTFS file system, introduced with first version
of Windows NT, is a completely different file system
from FAT. It provides for greatly increased security,
file–by–file compression, quotas, and even encryption.
It is the default file system for new installations
of Windows XP, and if you're doing an upgrade from
a previous version of Windows, you'll be asked if
you want to convert your existing file systems to
NTFS. Don't worry. If you've already upgraded to Windows
XP and didn't do the conversion then, it's not a problem.
You can convert FAT16 or FAT32 volumes to NTFS at
any point. Just remember that you can't easily go
back to FAT or FAT32 (without reformatting the drive
or partition), not that I think you'll want to.
NTFS file system is generally not compatible with
other operating systems installed on the same computer,
nor is it available when you've booted a computer
from a floppy disk. For this reason, many system administrators,
myself included, used to recommend that users format
at least a small partition at the beginning of their
main hard disk as FAT. This partition provided a place
to store emergency recovery tools or special drivers
needed for reinstallation, and was a mechanism for
digging yourself out of the hole you'd just dug into.
But with the enhanced recovery abilities built into
Windows XP (more on that in a future column), I don't
think it's necessary or desirable to create that initial
to Use FAT or FAT32
If you're running more than one operating system on
a single computer (see Dual booting in Guides), you
will definitely need to format some of your volumes
as FAT. Any programs or data that need to be accessed
by more than one operating system on that computer
should be stored on a FAT16 or possibly FAT32 volume.
But keep in mind that you have no security for data
on a FAT16 or FAT32 volume—any one with access to
the computer can read, change, or even delete any
file that is stored on a FAT16 or FAT32 partition.
In many cases, this is even possible over a network.
So do not store sensitive files on drives or partitions
formatted with FAT file systems.