Warning: this is not a blog about yesterday’s launch of the Apple iPhone. No, it’s about a furore going on in a very different market segment.
Diskeeper’s claim that its recently launched Diskeeper 2007 disk defragmentation utility makes it the first defragmenter that has no impact on the system it is running on has been greeted with derision by rival Raxco Software. But both vendors agree that the disk defragmentation tool bundled with Vista is at best inadequate.
Competition in the market is stiff, as with escalating storage demands being placed on hard disks, defragmentation is as vital as ever. Yet disk fragmentation is a problem often overlooked by enteprise IT departments, if not when it comes to servers then almost certainly when it comes to end users’ workstations.
Fragmentation of hard disks in servers, workstations and storage devices is thought to be a major cause of performance degradation. In the white paper “The Impact of Disk Fragmentation”, the author — security and systems expert Joe Kinsella — claimed that heavy fragmentation can cause applications such as Microsoft Word to slow down by a factor of 15, anti-virus scanners and Outlook by a factor of three, and Internet Explorer by a factor of two.
Disk fragmentation is the fault of the file system, in Windows’ case NTFS. The file system tells the computer where to find specific data on the disk and where there is free space available for new files to be created.
But over time both file fragmentation and free space fragmentation can occur when the file system inadvertently scatters individual files or free space across several locations, instead of keeping them in contiguous chunks. The result can be performance problems, corrupted files or even application or system crashes.
Enter disk defragmentation tools, or ‘defraggers’, which go through the disk and put the pieces back together again. The trouble is, the defraggers themselves can be resource-hungry, so the defragmentation utility vendors have mostly added scheduling options so users or administrators can run them when their systems are not busy doing something else.
But according to Diskeeper, scheduling is no longer necessary as its latest version, Diskeeper 2007, has something called InvisiTasking, making it, “The first truly automatic defragmenter which defragments files on the go without any impact on the system.”
This is a notion that the CEO of rival Raxco Software, Bob Nolan, takes strong exception to: “This approach is based on the utilization of system idle time,” he told me. “In order to determine when the system is idle you need to monitor CPU, disk I/O and memory. The monitor itself uses resources; and of course it runs while the system is doing other work.”
“All disk defragmenters use some CPU, memory and disk I/O to defragment a file; to that extent there is system impact,” Nolan added.
I called Diskeeper. Sales engineer Ergun Kazali told me that the firm stands by its claim. “Yes, Diskeeper 2007 takes advantage of system idle time,” he said. “It taps into unused resources, so there is pretty much no impact on the system, which means there is no need to set a schedule of when to defragment.”
Kazali said that rather than having one large defragmentation engine, Diskeeper 2007 uses several smaller engines that do not take so long to load into memory. The result is the ability to defragment sections of the drive automatically, when Diskeeper notices that there is system idle time available for it to make use of.
But if Diskeeper 2007 has little or no effect on other system resources when it runs in the background, why is it still possible for users to set a schedule of when they do and do not want it to be able to run? “Really that’s just for peace of mind or in case they want to run a technical routine,” Kazali told me.
Raxco’s Nolan remains unconvinced though. “Our enterprise customers like PerfectDisk because they control when it runs,” he said. “PerfectDisk defragments 99-100% of the files and consolidates the free space all in one pass. With single-pass defragmentation there is no need for a monitor or continual defragmentation.”
Nolan’s argument is that rival defragmentation utilities, including Diskeeper’s, need several passes across the disk, each of which improves the state of fragmentation only incrementally. He claims that Raxco’s PerfectDisk is the only one that is a single-pass defragger.
“I think that’s pulling the wool over customers’ eyes,” said Diskeeper’s Kazali.
While he conceded that his firm’s tool does require multiple passes, Kazali argued that, “The key thing is to eliminate defragmentation without causing system degradation. Whether it takes one pass or 50, the number of passes is not the issue. Our tool works automatically in the background without downtime.”
One thing that both vendors can agree on is that standalone defragmentation utilities are far superior to the one bundled free with Windows Vista. “We wrote the defragger for Windows XP and that’s what they bundled with it,” said Kazali. “But [Microsoft] continued to work on it, and we’ve done lots of tests that have found that the defragger that comes with Vista is actually less efficient than the one that was bundled with XP.”
Diskeeper and Raxco both argue that the defragger bundled with Vista lacks many features necessary for the enterprise market, not least flexible scheduling, management and reporting. Diskeeper’s Kazali points out that it also lacks its own InvisiTasking capability to run in the background without affecting other system resources; Raxco’s Nolan notes that it too is a multi-pass defragger unlike Raxco’s.