Software // Enterprise Applications
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Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: Another Hidden Gem: The Windows Disk Management Tool

Create, delete, and format partitions; change drive letter assignments and paths; help set up disk mirroring and RAID; and more--all with this free Windows tool.

Fred LangaDoes the image in screen one look familiar? You might say "yes" if you've ever used a commercial partitioning tool such as PartitionMagic or Acronis Disk Director. That kind of graphical display of a hard disk's partitions and drives is the heart of those tools, letting you easily access and modify any drive's basic structures.

Screen One
Few users know this kind of graphical tool for hard-drive partitioning, formatting, and related work is built into Windows.

Few users know this kind of graphical tool for hard-drive partitioning, formatting, and related work is built into Windows.

(click image for larger view)

But that image is actually from the Disk Management tool built into all normal versions of XP (see Screen Two). (A very similar tool also exists as part of Windows 2000.) Using that free tool, you can create and delete partitions as you wish, format them, change drive letter assignments and paths, and more. You also have one-click access to the more familiar disk-maintenance tools, letting you clean up, defrag, and check any disk or partition on your system. The tool even gives you easy access to some of XP's more advanced disk-management techniques, such as support for disk mirroring and RAID.

The Windows Disk Management tool is a hidden gem that's worth learning more about.
Screen Two
The Windows Disk Management tool is a hidden gem that's worth learning more about.

(click image for larger view)

Before we get into the details, let me tell you why we're covering this now: Several weeks ago, I received a challenge from a reader who didn't believe me when I said in print that it was possible to put together a brand-new terabyte (1,000 Gbytes) file server for around $500. Well, you can-the example system I put together is humming happily on the other side of my office, with far more storage than I currently know what to do with. A thousand gigabytes is a lot of disk space!

The heart of my terabyte server is four 250 Gbyte drives. In assembling that system, I realized that because large single hard drives are more or less standard in many new PCs, most users have never had to deal with the details of drive installation, initialization, and configuration, either for adding multiple drives to a system or for swapping drives. Both these processes raise questions as to the safest and best ways to set things up, as well as to avoid data loss, especially if you're moving a current PC's setup and files to a new drive and don't want the hassle of having to tear everything down and rebuild the operating system from scratch.

Today we'll look at the part of the process that almost all of us will be able to use from time to time: Windows' little-known, built-in Disk Management tool for creating, formatting, or deleting partitions and drives; changing drive letter assignments and paths; and so on. Next, I'll show you a slightly nonstandard way of adding a drive to an existing, in-use system-a way I find easier and safer for data than the methods recommended by some drive manufacturers. And finally, we'll take a close look at that from-scratch, $500 terabyte server, including complete lists of where I got the parts, and for how much.

Whether you're looking to add new, inexpensive, massive file storage capacity; or want to add or swap a drive in an existing system; or just want to learn more about a powerful tool built into Windows that most users have never even heard of, the next few columns have something very interesting for you. Let's get started!

Windows' Disk Management Tool
You can access the Disk Management tool easily from any Admin-level account. Click "Start/Control Panel/Performance" and "Maintenance/Administrative Tools/Computer Management." When the Computer Management interface opens, look in the left-hand pane under "Storage" and click on "Disk Management." You should see something like what was shown earlier in screen 2, although the details for your system will, of course, be different.

Let me explain what you're seeing in the screen shot: You can see my first hard drive-Disk 0-has seven partitions and six logical drives on it. The tiny 8 Mbyte first partition is for my boot manager, a tool that also gives me access to a self-contained imaging/backup function that runs outside of, and independently of, Windows. Because this partition is outside of Windows' control, Windows shows it as an "unknown partition." If you don't use a boot manager, your display won't show this kind of partition.

My normal C: system drive is a 9 Gbyte NTFS partition, sized because it fits conveniently on two DVDs for backup. Windows and my most important data files live there. The other partitions, D through H, are formatted in FAT32, which yields slightly faster access than NTFS, albeit with a slightly greater risk of data corruption or file errors. My less important files are on these partitions, and they're backed up at less-frequent intervals than my C: drive is. Because FAT32 is marginally faster than NTFS, I've also put XP's pagefile on one of the FAT32 partitions, D. (If you're curious about why I've set things up this way, there's a complete explanation here.)

In Screen Two, also note that my system's two CD/DVD drives are shown. Although our focus today is hard-drive management, the Windows Disk Management tool does give you access to these removable drives as well. This can be very handy when or if, for instance, you need or want to change the drive letter assigned to a CD or DVD drive.

Although the Disk Management tool is useful for working on already installed disks, its best and main use is in adding a new second drive to a system, or temporarily adding a second drive as part of swapping out an older drive for a newer one.

The upper left portion of Screen Three shows what you see when you open Drive Management after adding a new, raw, unformatted hard drive to a system. (For clarity, I've resized the Drive Management window to hide the CD and DVD drive information because we won't be doing anything with them right now.)

Screen Three
When you add a new drive to a Windows system, the Disk Management tool's wizards can walk you through the process of initializing, partitioning, and formatting the drive for use.

(click image for larger view)

When you add a new drive to a Windows system, the Disk Management tool's wizards can walk you through the process of initializing, partitioning, and formatting the drive for use.

You can see the new, unformatted, roughly 400 Mbyte drive shows up as "Disk 1" (remember that the original drive was Disk 0). But we can't use the new drive yet-it's physically and electrically connected to the system, but must be prepared for use before it can hold any files. That's why the Disk Management tool shows Disk 1 as "unknown," "not initialized," and "unallocated."

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