If ever there were an IT administrative function equivalent to eating broccoli, it would be disk defragmentation.
But experts say that the mundane chore of defragging files and consolidating free space on a server is crucial to maintaining high performance levels in critical application environments.
Defragmentation can be more of a problem today than ever. While CPU speeds have increased 100-fold, disk-seek time -- the time it takes for the read/write heads to move between the tracks over the surfaces of the platters -- has only improved about 30% to 40%, according to David Goebel, president and CEO at Balder Technology Group Inc., a Seattle consulting firm.
Performance problems caused by fragmentation vary according to the application. Exchange Server, for example, creates a lot of small log files, so if you don't put some of the Exchange database files on partitions, you can get a lot of fragmentation, Goebel said.
And administrators need to recognize that free space consolidation is just as important as defragmentation of files because it postpones the refragmentation of a file system, Goebel said.
Third-party tools most effective
All of the vendors that make tools for defragging have sample copies that administrators can download. The major suppliers are Symantec Corp. with Speed Disk, Executive Software with Diskeeper, Sysinternals with Defrag Manager and Raxco Software with PerfectDisk. Microsoft's own freebie tool is based on the Executive Software technology.
The products all have the same aim, but do not perform equally, Goebel said. Administrators should look to see whether the disk is truly defragging. "It's easy to compare the products," he said. "When they are done, just see how many fragments are left."
To defrag or not is also a consideration. It's not always necessary. If end users change their PCs every three years, it could be hard to see the benefit of purchasing a third-party device to defrag.
But the impact of a badly fragmented system could easily be felt in a computing environment where there are online transactions, a lot of reading and writing of large files or the use of a data store for a lot of flat files, said Kent Smith, a consultant and chairman of the Boston Area Windows Server User Group. "It makes sense to fix that on a server level," he said.
Despite the unglamorous nature of defragmentation, many administrators recognize its importance. In a recent reader poll on SearchWin2000.com, 49% of the respondents said defragging is a "top maintenance item."