Within just a few months, 64 percent of desktops and 81 percent of servers will be running either NT 4.0 or Windows 2000, according to a survey by San Jose-based Survey.com. This is cause for celebration in Redmond, but it may be bad news for government users if their systems managers fail to deal with a hidden bottleneck that is responsible for gradual performance degradation on Windows-based systems: disk fragmentation.

Analysts from International Data Corp. (IDC) have identified fragmentation as a little-known but costly fact of life in the NT/2000 enterprise environment. The resulting performance slow-downs are causing state and local agencies to lose thousands, if not millions, of dollars each year. An IDC report, "Disk Defragmentation for Windows NT/2000: Hidden Gold for the Enterprise," provides a detailed analysis of total cost of ownership (TCO) and hard-money losses due to curtailed productivity, increases in calls to the help desk, unnecessary hardware upgrades and significantly higher IT staff costs as a result of scattered files on disks.

IDC estimates indicate that corporations and government agencies are losing, "... as much as $50 billion per year as a result of not defragmenting every server and workstation on the network," said Steve Widen, director of IDC's Storage Software Research.

Approximately $6 billion is related to unnecessary hardware upgrades purchased in an attempt to mask the effects of fragmentation.

The Gradual Decline

Many have experienced logging onto a brand new NT or Windows 2000 desktop and being dazzled by its speed and responsiveness. A few weeks or months down the road, however, it doesn't seem quite so powerful. Many users shrug it off, reasoning that they grew accustomed to the speed and now take it for granted. However, the more likely reason is that fragmentation has made the system more sluggish. Over time, productivity is significantly impacted as accessing files and programs takes longer and longer.

"After two or three months, our NT workstation boot time and file access performance deteriorated by about 25 to 35 percent," said Henry Tint of the Department of Defense's Department of Test and Evaluation, which is responsible for a network of 120 NT workstations and six NT servers. "Two to three weeks of backup and data transfer on a server created enough fragmentation to slow it by 30 to 40 percent."

Fragmentation means that files are broken into multiple fragments rather than existing in a contiguous state. As a result, file access takes longer because the pieces of a document must be collected from around the disk, requiring several head movements instead of just one. Backups and reboots can also be delayed by this condition.

"One of our servers took 20 minutes just to shut down during reboot," said Kevin Beaulieu, senior automation manager at the U.S. District Court in Portland, Maine. "System deterioration over time became the reality of the NT world as far as we were concerned."

In a short time, file fragmentation gets into such an advanced state that files can end up in thousands of pieces. According to a recent survey of U.S. businesses by American Business Research of Irvine, Calif., it is far from uncommon for server and workstation files to be splintered into tens of thousands of fragments.

"Some of the partitions on our NT file servers were 70 percent fragmented when we first installed the operating system," said Marsha Perrott, network analyst of Pittsburgh. When users try to access such files, they face long delays while the disk thrashes around during document compilation.

Some system managers seek to minimize fragmentation by keeping a large percentage of free space available. They reason that the condition will only take hold once disks fill up. Unfortunately, this theory doesn't pan out in reality. My NT workstation has 60 percent free space, yet requires defragmentation at least once a week. And any time I load another

Drew Robb  |  Contributing Writer