Product Reviews

Keep Your Hard Drive Healthy

Diskeeper helps keep today's monster hard drives neat and organized.

Diskeeper 10
Documentation 20%
Installation 20%
Feature Set 20%
Performance 20%
Management 20%
Overall Rating:

1: Virtually inoperable or nonexistent
5: Average, performs adequately
10: Exceptional

There's no end to an admin's to-do list. The top three tasks these days are invariably running anti-virus and anti-spyware checks, installing software updates and patches and defragmenting hard drives. While the latest virus and the headaches of "Patch Tuesday" grab more headlines, the health of your hard drives is no less deserving of attention. Not running a regular defrag has a huge impact on system performance.

In a perfect world, hard drives would store every file contiguously and arrange them so each file would be quickly accessible. This would save on hard disk access time, which translates to time saved and less wear and tear. However, that's rarely the case.

When you save, the file system breaks files into blocks so they can fit in a contiguous space. As you add or delete files, you end up mixing up blocks of data because the file system will start using the first free space it finds.

Because you have no real control over where or how it gets stored on the disk, the OS ends up making generally inefficient decisions and your data ends up scattered across the drive. This causes your hard disk heads to thrash around looking for chunks of data, which takes time. While we're only talking milliseconds of access, if you're accessing a couple thousand files, that adds up.

Figure 1
[Click on image for larger view.]
Figure 1. Diskeeper shows you fragmentation levels on a time-stamped chart.

Some users thought bigger hard disks would alleviate the problem, but it only made things worse. People store larger files and more data in larger volumes. Improved hard drive seek times, faster processors and vast quantities of RAM have helped, but the hard disk is typically the slowest component in a computer. Fragmented files can grind performance into the ground.

Defrag Veteran
Diskeeper has been a mainstay since the days when it filled the void for Windows NT 4 (NT 4 had no defragmentation utility). Even today, Windows XP ships with a scaled-back version of Diskeeper 6, paving the way for Diskeeper 10 to impress you with some of its more advanced features.

At the core of the suite is the product we all know and love, the defragmenter tool. Diskeeper 10 has five editions, each suited for systems with increasingly larger file volumes: Home, Professional, Professional Premier, Server and Server Enterprise. Professional will defrag a 768GB volume, whereas Server operates in the terabyte range. Server Enterprise is virtually unlimited. As with previous versions, Diskeeper 10 does an excellent job of quickly sorting through your disk and aligning your data.

Diskeeper reports the average number of file fragments per file, the fragmentation of your master file table (MFT) and the response time you would potentially gain by reading a fully defragmented volume. All the machines upon which I ran Diskeeper showed me nearly a 50 percent gain in seek time performance by executing the defrag. In most cases, I found my MFT to be more fragmented than what Diskeeper was calling acceptable. In each case, I noticed a modest performance increase after defragging.

What's really cool here is version 10 sports a boot time defragmentation sequence. This lets you defragment the paging file rather than deleting it. It turns it off in Windows, performs the defragmentation and then re-creates the page file.

Apart from the defragmenter utility itself, Diskeeper Administrator is a great interface that lets you control your enterprise defragmentation efforts. From the console, you can roll out the appropriate versions of Diskeeper to machines across your network, schedule primary and secondary policies of when to run defrag operations on groups of machines, and even let non-administrator logins access the defragment utility.

I did have one hang up with the Admin tool. You have to make sure TCP/IP is turned on as a protocol if you opt to use SQL Server 2005 Express as your database engine. I'm told Diskeeper will update this info as part of the documentation/installation in subsequent versions. While this is certainly not a failing of Diskeeper, but rather a change in how MSDE/SQL provides surface exposure, it can throw you for a loop if you're not ready.

Intelligent Defragmentation
Diskeeper 10 contains a number of features designed to conduct defrags in an intelligent way. I-FAAST adapts to the changes in your file storage habits based on your disk geometry. This makes the product adaptive because it essentially analyzes a volume to determine what type of volume it is and how often you're actually retrieving "commonly accessed files." It then arranges the files on the drive in such a way that the most common files are within the easiest reach.

It used to be that if you were going to defragment your system, you had to wait until later at night to ensure that disk activity would be at its lowest. If the computer had to read or save to the hard disk while a defrag routine was in process, the integrity of the data would often be in question and the software would begin the process again. It could also end up running so slowly that performance would be heavily affected.

Diskeeper created I/O Smart so the tool could continue working through accesses by halting the defrag process and allowing the file activity to continue and complete before resuming defrag. This is powerful because the system takes advantage of idle time when it would otherwise have to do maintenance.

What's Next

As this review went to press, Diskeeper was just preparing to ship a new version of its defrag tool. Diskeeper 2007 automates many defragmentation and disk maintenance tasks. Here's a look at the significant upgrades coming in Diskeeper 2007:

  • InvisiTasking technology performs true real-time defragmentation, automatically handling fragmentation as it occurs.
  • I-FAAST 2.0 speeds file access through intelligent monitoring. It learns which files are needed most and accelerates access to those files by anywhere from 20 percent to 80 percent. (This feature is available in Professional Premier, Server and Enterprise Server versions.)
  • The Frag Shield maintains system stability and reliability by preventing fragmentation of critical system files.
  • The Terabyte Volume Engine 2.0 (TVE) provides thorough real-time defragmentation of large volumes (more than 60GB).
  • The improved interface provides flexible and intuitive controls, simplified configuration, and reports on disk health, real-time performance and fragmentation statistics.
  • Automatic online directory consolidation boosts antivirus scans, back-ups and file searches.
  • Diskeeper 2007 now has native 64-bit support for Windows operating systems.

Depending on the level of file activity on the disk, the size and types of files used, and the amount of free space available, Diskeeper can use the Smart Scheduling feature to figure out what the period between defrags should be. This is pretty cool, as your system doesn't kick off a defrag cycle when there's little to defrag.

In Professional edition, Diskeeper has a power-saving function that works for notebooks. It cuts down on power consumption while quietly cranking away on those pesky fragments.

You can just use the Windows Defragmenter, which works reasonably well for most situations. You'd still be using a proven version of Diskeeper, albeit several versions earlier than the current version. Diskeeper's key selling point is that it's a huge improvement over the packaged Windows version.

It all comes down to how you use your storage, what your read/write activity is and whether your drives are getting fragmented. You can run an analysis in Windows and begin measuring how fragmented your data has become.

If it's truly getting thrashed around on a regular basis, and you're able to determine that it's due to drive fragmentation, latching onto a tool like Diskeeper is probably a good idea. Diskeeper has been at it a long while, so it's worth a long look if you need an enterprise-level defrag solution.

About the Author

Rick A. Butler, MCSE+I, is the Director of Information Services for the United States Hang Gliding Association.


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