New file system could be blessing and curse

Microsoft Corp. will introduce a new file system with this fall's OEM release of Windows 95.

The release - OEM Service Release 2 - will be installed on new computers. Those PCs already running Windows 95 won't be affected by this release. Or will they?

The new release will include FAT32, a file system that address a frequent complaint: Why doesn't Microsoft develop a system that makes it easier to work with large hard drives? The current 16-bit FAT file system has been around since 1977. This hold-back now is being challenged by very affordable large hard drives. Though SCSI drives have been available in large capacities for some time, the newer Integrated Drive Electronics (IDE) drives haven't. The push into 2G and larger drives on mainstream computers has forced OEMs to partition drives before shipping. This is because Windows 95 can only support a single disk volume up to 2G.

But with the release of FAT32, Microsoft will address this deficiency. FAT32 will recognize drives up to 2 terabytes. Some of the other key features include:

More efficient use of space by employing 4K clusters in drives up to 8G in size.

The ability to relocate the root directory and move the backup copy of the FAT instead of the default copy.

Expansion of the boot record to include a backup of critical data structures, thereby reducing vulnerability to a single point of failure.

On FAT32 drives, the root directory is an ordinary cluster chain, so it can be arbitrarily large and relocatable to anywhere on the drive. FAT mirroring can be disabled, thereby allowing a copy of the FAT other than the first one to be active. This feature will allow dynamic resizing of FAT32 partitions. But Microsoft will not implement dynamic resizing in the first release.

The Flip Side

It sounds like a technological leap from the old file system, but there is a downside. Microsoft has tried to maintain as much compatibility as possible. Naturally there are a few things that won't work. These include block device drivers such as ASPIDISK.SYS, a critical driver for SCSI and DOS compatibility. This also applies to disk utilities as well. I went through the Norton Utilities upgrade process for Windows 95, and now I will have to upgrade again if I get a new machine in the next year with a large hard disk. Microsoft's bundled utilities will be rewritten to function under FAT32.

The one big incompatibility that may cause problems is the inability of DOS, Win 3.1 and the original version of Windows 95 to recognize FAT32 partitions. The FAT32 FDISK utility will detect drives larger than 512M and ask if you want to enable large drive support. If you answer yes, it will create a FAT32 drive or partition. I suspect most OEMs will partition large drives into one big C drive for simplicity. With this in mind, you won't be able to dual boot or access machines with drives (greater than 512M) partitioned with the FAT32 FDISK utility.

Who knows what will happen by the time Microsoft cuts loose OEM Service Release 2. Although there are few changes between FAT16 and FAT32, the things that did change are enough to cause problems for those who are caught unaware. The other question is, how are you going to buy computers? Many laptops come with Windows 95 already installed, and most of those also have drives larger than 512M. Hopefully the OEMs and their government sales departments will come up with a solution, much as they have with the current Windows 95/Windows 3.1 purchase or startup operating system selection choices.

I hate double-edged swords, and this is what FAT32 appears to be. For consumers with one machine, FAT32 may make life simpler. For those who have to work cooperatively in a networked environment with standard configurations, this may be a big headache. Microsoft should be both kissed and kicked for FAT32. It solves the hard disk cluster slack problem and allows users to take full advantage of their hard drive dollar without chopping it into a zillion drive partitions.

The incompatibilities, however, will cause many to spend more money to become operational again.


Dodge is an active-duty Army officer with extensive experience using Windows. His current assignment is at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., with the Training and Doctrine Command System Manager for the Combined Arms Tactical Trainer, as a project officer. This column can be read on FCW Gateway at


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