25.1.2. Partitions: Turning One Drive Into Many

25.1.2. Partitions: Turning One Drive Into Many

As disk drive capacities soared, some people began to wonder if having all of that formatted space in one big chunk was such a great idea. This line of thinking was driven by several issues, some philosophical, some technical. On the philosophical side, above a certain size, it seemed that the additional space provided by a larger drive created more clutter. On the technical side, some file systems were never designed to support anything above a certain capacity. Or the file systems could support larger drives with a greater capacity, but the overhead imposed by the file system to track files became excessive.

The solution to this problem was to divide disks into partitions. Each partition can be accessed as if it was a separate disk. This is done through the addition of a partition table.

Note

While the diagrams in this chapter show the partition table as being separate from the actual disk drive, this is not entirely accurate. In reality, the partition table is stored at the very start of the disk, before any file system or user data. But for clarity, they are separate in our diagrams.

Disk Drive with Partition Table

Image of an unused disk drive with a partition table.

Figure 25.5. Disk Drive with Partition Table

As Figure 25.5, “Disk Drive with Partition Table” shows, the partition table is divided into four sections or four primary partitions. A primary partition is a partition on a hard drive that can contain only one logical drive (or section). Each section can hold the information necessary to define a single partition, meaning that the partition table can define no more than four partitions.

Each partition table entry contains several important characteristics of the partition:

Let us take a closer look at each of these characteristics. The starting and ending points actually define the partition's size and location on the disk. The "active" flag is used by some operating systems' boot loaders. In other words, the operating system in the partition that is marked "active" is booted.

The partition's type can be a bit confusing. The type is a number that identifies the partition's anticipated usage. If that statement sounds a bit vague, that is because the meaning of the partition type is a bit vague. Some operating systems use the partition type to denote a specific file system type, to flag the partition as being associated with a particular operating system, to indicate that the partition contains a bootable operating system, or some combination of the three.

By this point, you might be wondering how all this additional complexity is normally used. Refer to Figure 25.6, “Disk Drive With Single Partition”, for an example.

Disk Drive With Single Partition

Image of a disk drive with a single partition.

Figure 25.6. Disk Drive With Single Partition

In many cases, there is only a single partition spanning the entire disk, essentially duplicating the method used before partitions. The partition table has only one entry used, and it points to the start of the partition.

We have labeled this partition as being of the "DOS" type. Although it is only one of several possible partition types listed in Table 25.1, “Partition Types”, it is adequate for the purposes of this discussion.

Table 25.1, “Partition Types”, contains a listing of some popular (and obscure) partition types, along with their hexadecimal numeric values.

Partition Type Value Partition Type Value
Empty 00 Novell Netware 386 65
DOS 12-bit FAT 01 PIC/IX 75
XENIX root 02 Old MINIX 80
XENIX usr 03 Linux/MINUX 81
DOS 16-bit <=32M 04 Linux swap 82
Extended 05 Linux native 83
DOS 16-bit >=32 06 Linux extended 85
OS/2 HPFS 07 Amoeba 93
AIX 08 Amoeba BBT 94
AIX bootable 09 BSD/386 a5
OS/2 Boot Manager 0a OpenBSD a6
Win95 FAT32 0b NEXTSTEP a7
Win95 FAT32 (LBA) 0c BSDI fs b7
Win95 FAT16 (LBA) 0e BSDI swap b8
Win95 Extended (LBA) 0f Syrinx c7
Venix 80286 40 CP/M db
Novell 51 DOS access e1
PPC PReP Boot 41 DOS R/O e3
GNU HURD 63 DOS secondary f2
Novell Netware 286 64 BBT ff
Table 25.1. Partition Types


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