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How NTFS File System Works: NTFS Physical Structure

September 17th, 2009

The following information describes how clusters and sectors are organized on an NTFS volume, how the boot sector on the volume determines the file system, and how the Master File Table (MFT) organizes structures on the volume.

Clusters and Sectors on an NTFS Volume

A cluster (or allocation unit) is the smallest amount of disk space that can be allocated to hold a file. All file systems used by Windows Server 2003 organize hard disks based on cluster size, which is determined by the number of sectors (units of storage on a hard disk) that the cluster contains. For example, on a disk that uses 512-byte sectors, a 512-byte cluster contains one sector, whereas a 4-kilobyte (KB) cluster contains eight sectors.

Computers access certain sectors on a hard disk during startup to determine which operating system to start and where the partitions are located. The data stored on these sectors varies depending on the computer platform.

Sequence of Clusters on an NTFS Volume

Clusters on an NTFS volume are numbered sequentially from the beginning of the partition into logical cluster numbers. NTFS stores all objects in the file system using a record called the Master File Table (MFT), similar in structure to a database.

On NTFS volumes, clusters start at sector zero; therefore, every cluster is aligned on the cluster boundary. Contiguous clusters for file storage allow for faster processing of a file.

Note: Floppy disks do not use NTFS and are always formatted as FAT.

Limitations of Cluster Sizes on an NTFS Volume

Because NTFS uses different cluster sizes depending on the size of the volume, each file system has a maximum number of clusters it can support. The smaller the cluster size, the more efficiently a disk potentially stores information because unused space within a cluster cannot be used by other files. And the more clusters a file system supports, the larger the volumes you can create and format by using a particular file system. NTFS uses smaller cluster sizes, which makes it a more efficient file organization structure.

The table Default NTFS Cluster Sizes lists NTFS volume and default cluster sizes.

Default NTFS Cluster Sizes

Volume Size NTFS Cluster Size
7 megabytes (MB)–512 MB 512 bytes
513 MB–1,024 MB 1 KB
1,025 MB–2 GB 2 KB
2 GB–2 terabytes 4 KB
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