Although most Windows storage is formatted using the Windows file system, this isn't always the case. For some applications you leave one or more partitions or disks unformatted.

The most notable examples are DBMSs such as Oracle. Since they have their own file systems tuned to the needs of the database, they can run on unformatted partitions.

The decision to format or not format usually comes down to whether performance or manageability is more important in your application. Applications that don't go through Windows will have better I/O performance, but they are considerably harder to manage. For example, the partitions usually won't autoextend the way a Windows partition can. (The exception would be for an application that has its own autoextend function.)

In this era of low-cost hardware and high-cost expertise, it generally only makes sense to use raw partitions in extreme cases.

If you decide to use unformatted partitions, Microsoft provides methods to name unformatted partitions so they can be used by applications through Windows.

  • Windows names raw devices using the physical drive number and an optional partition identifier. The disk identified as Disk 3 in the Disk Administrator can be accessed as \\.\PhysicalDrive3, for example. If there is more than one partition on the raw disk, the partitions are accessed in the format \\.\PhysicalDrive3\Partition1.

  • If you assign drive letters to

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  • the raw partitions using the Disk Administrator, they can be accessed using the format \\.\ {drive letter}.

  • You can use the DOSDEV.EXE utility in the Windows Resource Kit to assign symbolic link names to unformatted partitions. Thus, \\.\PhysicalDrive3\Partition1 can be named \\.\transactions.

  • Before you decide to use raw partitions, read the applicable sections of the application's documentation and make sure you understand any limits or requirements the application may impose. Remember, the application will be providing the file system for the partition and it may not do things exactly the Windows way.

If you are not going to use raw partitions for an application like Oracle, you should format the partitions in NTFS, the Windows standard file system, for better performance and manageability.

About the Author:
Rick Cook has been writing about mass storage since the days when the term meant an 80 K floppy disk. The computers he learned on used ferrite cores and magnetic drums. For the last 20 years he has been a freelance writer specializing in storage and other computer issues.

This was first published in October 2005

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