As memory and processors increase in speed and decrease in price, tuning hard disks is becoming important to achieving optimal Windows NT system performance. An often-overlooked aspect of hard disk performance is fragmentation. Hard disk fragmentation (i.e., noncontiguous cluster placement on the hard disk) is a problem that provokes endless debate but has few clear-cut solutions. Microsoft acknowledges that fragmentation occurs on NTFS partitions but gives no absolute method to detect fragmentation. Furthermore, Microsoft's supported solution to combat excessive fragmentation is to back up the system and reinstall the OS, applications, and data—an inconvenient solution at best. Because excessive fragmentation is detrimental to hard disk performance, several vendors have released disk-defragmentation tools.
Symantec's Norton Speed Disk 5.0 for Windows NT is a hard disk defragmentation and optimization tool for NT Server 4.0 and NT Workstation 4.0. Speed Disk defragments FAT- or NTFS-formatted hard disks and optimizes a hard disk's file structures in a manner that theoretically enhances performance beyond what basic defragmentation yields. The Server version is identical to the Workstation version except that the Server version's installation program includes an option to install the Norton System Center software. Norton System Center is a Microsoft Management Console (MMC) plugin that provides software distribution, management, and control of Norton products, including Speed Disk. You can also use Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) for Speed Disk distribution and control, but you still need to install Norton System Center on the SMS server. Unfortunately, Speed Disk doesn't support Windows 2000 (Win2K), NT 3.51, or Windows 9x. In addition, the software runs only on NT 4.0 with Service Pack 3 (SP3) or later.
The Speed Disk for NT Server CD-ROM contains the Server version and Norton System Center. The Workstation version is available separately. I installed the Server version and Norton System Center on my test system. The online documentation was helpful in the installation process. To install the correct Speed Disk distribution packages, you must install Speed Disk after Norton System Center. If your server doesn't already have the MMC installed, Norton System Center installs MMC 1.1. I had to reboot the server after I installed Norton System Center and again after I installed Speed Disk.
Using Speed Disk
Familiarizing myself with the Speed Disk interface's various views, which Screen 1 shows, took a few minutes. Curiously, the hard disk view doesn't display the FAT or NTFS format type. After you get used to the interface, analyzing and optimizing hard disks is easy.
The software uses an intriguing optimization routine that places frequently accessed files on the disk's outside tracks and rarely accessed files on the disk's innermost tracks. This optimization approach works well on single-user workstations. However, performance gains are unlikely on servers because multiple users can access files on a server anytime. Although some users will have faster file access after optimization, other users might experience slower file access. Another feature lets you specify which files (based on filenames, extensions, and wildcards) to place closest to the disk's outside tracks for quicker access. The software also has a basic scheduler component that lets you initiate optimization at regular intervals based on a set time or disk-fragmentation threshold. Finally, the program can move and optimize the NT paging file, directory structure, and Master File Table (MFT) without crashing the system or forcing a reboot.
Speed Disk optimized my test server's 2.8GB hard disk, which was 98 percent fragmented, in 45 minutes. The software took 23 minutes to optimize a 34-percent fragmented 1.08GB hard disk on a similarly equipped server. Fragmentation levels vary depending on system hardware and usage. Ten percent to 40 percent fragmentation is common even on healthy systems, but 98 percent fragmentation is uncommon—you might find this level of fragmentation on a disk that you use heavily and have neglected for a couple of years. As I expected, an optimization that I ran later in the week on the 2.8GB disk took only 10 minutes.
In addition to defragmenting the disk effectively, Speed Disk moved the paging file closer to the beginning of the disk. The software didn't require me to stop existing services (e.g., virus protection, backup agents), and it ran with a relatively small memory footprint of 4MB to 6MB during optimization. The optimization process didn't heavily tax the CPU (1 percent to 10 percent Speed Disk utilization during optimization). However, because optimization causes heavy disk usage, you need to schedule your optimizations carefully in production environments. Although you can use the Global Options settings to configure the priority and memory usage options to use more or less system resources, I found that the settings made little difference in overall optimization performance.
Using Norton System Center
Norton System Center is a software distribution and management utility that plugs into the MMC. This utility lets an administrator roll out Speed Disk functionality to an NT enterprise and control the software from a central location.
The Norton System Center server and target machines must be running the remote procedure call (RPC) locator and RPC services. In addition, the Norton Agent is necessary on the target machines. When you run the first optimization job, Norton System Center installs an agent on each target machine that doesn't already have one.
I started Norton System Center on my test server and saw the familiar MMC GUI. The utility's interface, which Screen 2 shows, is easy to use. The interface lets you set up jobs and specify when the jobs will run on your target workstations and servers. I set up a job to install the GUI-less Speed Disk program on my remote test workstation. (You can also install the full version.) My test workstation was on the same network as my server but in a different trusted domain. I connected to the ADMIN$ share to make sure I had administrative rights on the workstation, then started the job.
When the job failed, I suspected a domain security problem with Norton System Center. To simplify the test environment, I moved the target workstation into the same domain as the test server. The job failed again. Symantec technical support suggested that I try specifying the target workstation by IP address instead of choosing the name from the Norton System Center browse list. This action let me successfully install Speed Disk and the Norton Agent to the remote test workstation. Although the program didn't require me to reboot my test workstation after installation, Symantec recommends rebooting after you install Speed Disk. The software includes a job that will reboot a remote machine after installation.
I started an optimization job and audited the job's results successfully. I was able to connect to and distribute Speed Disk to other test servers and workstations by name with no problem. But neither I nor Symantec's technical support found the source of the workstation connection problem I encountered.
The moderate learning curve associated with Norton System Center is worth the trouble when you compare the utility's added functionality in large NT environments with competing products' (e.g., Executive Software's Diskeeper) built-in network scheduling features. After I learned the plugin's nuances, I set up elaborate distribution schemes and disk-optimization schedules to fit various servers' and workstations' needs.
An Enterprise Tool
Speed Disk is a solid product, and with the addition of Norton System Center and SMS, the software is ready to roll out to large NT enterprises. Although the software's frequently used file optimization routines will likely offer minimal benefits on servers, the product's advanced features and options (i.e., page file, directory, and MFT optimization) are impressive. Despite criticism of Symantec's radical approach to hard disk optimization, the company has gained attention with its ability to move and optimize key NT system files without reboots or crashes. However, I found the forced reboots after installation and the software's somewhat clumsy interface disappointing, and I'd like to see support for NT 3.51 and Win9x.
The product is a reasonable choice for large, strictly NT 4.0 environments already using SMS or other Norton products. But for medium or small environments or mixed NT 3.51 and Win9x shops, you need to consider other disk-defragmentation products, such as Diskeeper (http://www.executive.com), O&O Software GmbH's O&O Defrag 2.0 (http://www.oo-software.com), or Raxco Software's PerfectDisk 2000 (http://www.raxco.com).
|Norton Speed Disk 5.0 for Windows NT Server|
Contact: Symantec * 541-334-6054 or 800-441-7234
Price: $33 per node for 100 workstations; $249 per node for 10 servers
Pros: Innovative and non-OS-disruptive background optimization routine; option to install command-line version; enterprisewide control with Norton System Center
Cons: Cluttered interface; forced reboot after installation; no built-in network scheduling unless using Microsoft Systems Management Server or Norton System Center; no support for Windows NT 3.51