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In The Spotlight: Avoiding fragments

For most computer users, a drop in system efficiency generally happens when the machine has been used for months or years.

Disk fragmentation occurs. The bits of data on a hard drive can become disorganized, forcing the drive to work harder to find the information the user is looking for. This overheats the drive, consumes more electricity and decreases productivity.

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For the people at Burbank-based Diskeeper Corporation, which is celebrating its 30th year in business, defragmented drives are the cornerstone of their business.

“If you think about how computers have evolved over time, they have gotten faster,” said Howard Butler, a vice president at Diskeeper. “But still, they’re not as fast as they possibly could be given the way in which information is stored on the disk drives. Our claim to fame is being able to improve that.”

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Diskeeper’s history can be traced back to 1981, when it was known as Executive Software International Inc. Later renamed Diskeeper, the company moved to Montrose in 1988, then into offices on Brand Boulevard in Glendale in 1991. The company moved to Burbank in 2001.

Diskeeper was the first company to develop defragmentation software for hard drives, said Butler, beginning in 1985. One of the biggest complaints customers had at the time was slow computer performance. But nothing could be done about it until the end of the day or weekend. Most of these complaints would be fielded by now-defunct Digital Equipment Corporation, one of the largest computer manufacturers at the time.

“When a disk defragments, it becomes very slow; it’d be like taking your bedroom of your home and putting it on one block and your kitchen, putting it over several blocks down the street,” said Pacific BMW of Glendale IT Manager Peter Duffy. “So when the disk has to hunt to find those files, they’re not contiguous, they’re fragmented.”

In 1981, to defragment a computer system’s drive, the system would be taken offline. The hard drive’s content would then be backed up onto a pair of reel-to-reel magnetic tapes. Then the hard drive would be reformatted and the backed-up files replaced onto the drive. This process would have to be done late at night or during the weekend by a system administrator.

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“Then you would cross your fingers and hope that when you reload the information from tape, the tape doesn’t fall off the tape drive or the tape doesn’t break,” Butler said. “You’re kind of at a risk point, all for the purpose of restoring the computer system back to the way it should be.”

It wasn’t until Diskeeper developed an online system that administrators could get around the arduous method. Users could now defragment the drive themselves without the assistance of a system administrator, increasing production.

“It became an instant seller,” said Gary Quan, Diskeeper chief technical officer. “It made millions. It gets rid of that performance degradation that fragmentation is causing.”

Microsoft first used Diskeeper’s defragmentation software in 1996 when it released Windows NT 4.0. Diskeeper’s software is the basis of that operating system’s defragmentation tool. Today, the company offers a range of products.

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As computers become faster, said Quan, Diskeeper’s challenge will be to offer better solutions to fragmentation, made even harder by innovations in computer hard-drive space.


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