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Partitioning PC Hard Drives For Multi-boot Systems

PC Musician By Martin Walker
Published March 2003

As hard drive sizes rise into the hundreds of Gigabytes, it's crucial to consider the benefits that partitioning can bring.

I've had a lot of requests to write more about hard disk partitioning just recently. I originally covered this area way back in SOS May 1998, and followed it up three years later in May 2001, but quite a bit has changed in the last couple of years. For a start, the typical 20GB hard drive supplied with most PCs in May 2001 has been replaced in most musician's systems by one of 80GB or more, making it even more important to divide it up to make the most sensible use of space. Moreover, many of us have already moved (or are about to move) to Windows XP from 98SE or ME, and as always, it's safer to run both side by side for a few weeks at least until you're sure you have no teething troubles.

Here's my recommended format for multi-boot drives — each one starts with three Primary partitions containing operating systems, while the remainder of each drive is a huge Extended partition containing further Logical partitions for data.Here's my recommended format for multi-boot drives — each one starts with three Primary partitions containing operating systems, while the remainder of each drive is a huge Extended partition containing further Logical partitions for data.Finally, with many of us routinely installing three or more operating systems for whatever reason, this gives me the opportunity to explain more about the restrictions on where they can be placed on each drive, depending on whether you use the various built-in Windows multi-boot options, or dedicated commercial utilities like Partition Magic and Boot Magic, or the shareware Bootit Direct.

Reasons To Split

Under the old FAT16 format, it was often necessary to partition a large hard drive simply in order to use all the space, as DOS 4.0 couldn't address a single partition larger than 2GB in size — and the situation was worse if you used small cluster sizes. Thankfully such restrictions disappeared when the FAT32 and NTFS formats were introduced, and it's now perfectly possible to keep a 120GB drive as one huge partition. The problem is that without a little more organisation, once a vast hard drive like this starts to fill up (as it inevitably will), finding a particular file can become increasingly difficult among all the thousands on the drive. Moreover, keeping regular backups of particular groups of files also requires the use of dedicated backup software to sift them out from the others.

The most important reason to place audio files onto a separate partition from the Windows and application files is so that they can be easily defragmented. Doing this regularly can make an appreciable difference to playback performance when running lots of simultaneous tracks, and of course it's far quicker to defragment a smaller dedicated audio partition than an entire 80GB or 120GB drive. Backing up your audio files is also easier, since you can back up the whole partition en masse.

The final attraction of creating separate partitions for operating system, applications and data is that you can use a smaller cluster size like 4kb or 8kb for Windows and its applications, to minimise wastage with the huge number of tiny files that you typically find there, while formatting the audio-only partition with 32kb clusters, which normally provides marginally better performance. Audio files are always huge, and even if some of them do become slightly fragmented into 32kb chunks between 'defrags', this won't degrade your track count as much as if they ended up split into loads of tiny 4k chunks.

Format & Partition Types

Now that you're hopefully convinced of the benefits of splitting any large hard drive into multiple partitions, let's look a little more closely at the various options and types available, as these still seem to be confusing to a lot of musicians. First, any hard drive must be physically formatted by the manufacturer into tracks, sectors, and cylinders, so that it's recognised by the BIOS of your PC. This is the state in which a new drive arrives.

A brand new drive won't appear inside Windows until it has been logically formatted — here's my new 80GB drive, which appears to Partition Magic 7.0 as Unallocated space. Once formatted, Windows will give it a new volume drive letter, and its storage will become available.A brand new drive won't appear inside Windows until it has been logically formatted — here's my new 80GB drive, which appears to Partition Magic 7.0 as Unallocated space. Once formatted, Windows will give it a new volume drive letter, and its storage will become available.If you boot into Windows at this stage, although the drive will be recognised in Device Manager as a new Disk Drive, it won't show up as a volume with a new drive letter such as C, D or E (see screen shot, below). For this to happen you have to logically format the drive by adding a file system such as FAT16, FAT32 or NTFS, so that Windows or another operating system knows how to use the space to store and retrieve files. This is what is usually known as 'formatting' the drive.

Before you do this you can, if you wish, divide the space into multiple partitions. Each partition can then be logically formatted as you wish, and with a suitable utility like Powerquest's Partition Magic you can even change your mind after Windows and your data are in situ. FAT32 is normally used by anyone running Windows 98, SE or ME, while Windows 2000 and XP users can use either FAT32 or NTFS. I discuss their relative merits in SOS April 2002 as well as in a dedicated PC Music FAQ in the SOS Forums.

Confusion over partitioning is often due to the historic and arbitrary restriction of the maximum number of partitions to four. This must have seemed generous when it was first introducted, but has since caused a lot of frustration as drive sizes have grown. The solution, as with so many PC standards, was to create a workaround: the Extended partition, the trick being that this can contain further 'Logical' partitions. Even today, you can still create a maximum of only four Primary or Extended partitions on any drive, but if for example you want six partitions on one drive, you could have three Primary ones and one Extended one containing a further three Logical partitions.

Partition Options

Most operating systems are supposed to be installed in a Primary partition. Only one of these can be visible and 'active' at a time, however many drives you have in your PC. Any other Primary partitions remain 'hidden' to the PC after boot-up, so you can't access any data in them. However, this is also the key to creating a multi-boot system: by creating multiple Primary partitions, each containing a different or specially tweaked operating system and applications, you can choose at boot-up time which one becomes Active using a Boot Manager utility, which also forces all the others to Hidden status. Meanwhile, Logical partitions always remain visible, so one obvious use for them is storing commonly used data such as audio, documents, update files, and so on, which can then be accessed from whichever Primary partition is currently active.

If you want to install loads of different operating systems, you could split your first drive into four Primary partitions, and then split a second drive into Logical partitions for data. However, this is likely to waste a lot of space, since modern drives are rarely available under 30GB, and you simply don't need a quarter of this for any Windows installation — 2GB to 3GB is often quite sufficient, particularly when you're not installing all of your applications on each partition. A more sensible approach is to install a maximum of three operating systems per drive, each one in its own sensibly sized Primary partition, and then create an Extended partition with the remaining space, containing however many Logical partitions you want for storing audio data, backup files, sample streaming files, and so on.

Location, Location & Location

However, if you're thinking of setting up a complex multi-boot system, there are various other caveats and restrictions to consider before deciding where to place each operating system. As I've mentioned, all operating systems generally need to be installed into a Primary partition, and ideally on the first drive. However, there's a lot of conflicting information about the details.

Partition Magic, for instance claims that DOS, Windows 3.1, 95, 98 and ME can be installed only on the first drive, but I've found it perfectly possible to use another drive if you temporarily disable the first one, install on the second, and then use the Boot Magic utility (bundled with Partition Magic) with its Advanced feature enabled. I've successfully created loads of Windows 98SE installs like this on second and even third drives, but if you're going to use a different boot manager utility you should check its capabilities.

Windows NT, 2000 and XP must always boot from a Primary partition on the first drive. Don't get caught out by this restriction as I did while researching this feature — after disabling my first drive I ended up with an XP installation that worked fine on the second drive, but only if I disabled the first drive or changed the drive boot order in the BIOS. However, Microsoft have also allowed Windows 2000 and XP to be installed in a Logical partition on any drive. This is handy if you're strapped for space on your first drive, but does require a few vital system files to still be placed on the first drive's Primary partition, while the vast majority of the OS can reside in a Logical partition on any drive. No wonder users get confused!

DOS and Windows NT partitions must also start within the first 2GB of the drive to be bootable, but I doubt that either of these will be required by any musicians nowadays. In most cases, Windows 95/98/ME and 2000/XP partitions must also all start below the 8GB boundary to be bootable. Since few people will be installing more than three operating systems per drive, this isn't normally a problem either: once you split your applications among partitions you're unlikely to need a 98SE or XP partition larger than 3GB. However, if your system supports INT13 extensions then Windows ME, 2000 and XP can be installed higher than the 8GB boundary. Virtually all motherboards do provide this support, to allow drives of greater than 8.4GB to be used.

Finally, before embarking on a complicated multi-boot installation, you should also check the capabilities of your boot manager utility to see if there are any further restrictions. For instance, Boot Magic can only be installed on a FAT or FAT32-formatted partition, not NTFS, although Powerquest provide a workaround on their web support pages.

 Boot.ini Name Syntax 
 If you're going to attempt to edit the Windows XP Boot.ini file by hand (which isn't difficult), you will need to know a little about how each operating system is specified, since a special ARC (Advanced RISC Computer) syntax is used.

The few lines of text contained in the boot.ini file may look simple, but can be a source of great frustration, as well as preventing you from booting into XP at all.The few lines of text contained in the boot.ini file may look simple, but can be a source of great frustration, as well as preventing you from booting into XP at all.First, make a backup, and then open up the original in Notepad. You'll see several lines that include variations on the following parameters: multi(0)disk(0)rdisk(0)partition(3). The first two parameters only apply to SCSI-based systems, and should always end with a '0' with EIDE drives. It's the final two that will need to be tweaked if you clone or move an existing XP partition.

Rdisk is the hard drive number for EIDE drives, so '0' designates Drive 1, '1' is Drive 2, and so on. Although as explained in the main text you can boot from drive 1 but install the majority of XP files on another drive, in most cases it's far easier to keep XP installs on the first drive, so this will remain at '0'. The final parameter is the partition, which is counted from 1 upwards, so your XP install is likely to be 1, 2, or 3 if situated on drive 1. While you're editing, you might like to change the text description that will appear within the quote marks at the end of each line under the [operating systems] heading. This can be anything you like, although if there's only one option you won't see the boot loader screen options at all.

However, if like me you get an extra rogue 'Windows' option in the Microsoft boot menu that prevents you jumping straight into XP from your choice of boot utility, replace the 'default=c:' line in boot.ini with the full ARC syntax, such as 'default=multi(0)disk(0)rdisk(0)partition(2)\WINDOWS' (see screen shot), exactly as seen in the line further down, but minus the text description and load option — the next time you boot you'll bypass the XP boot menu.


Partitioning In Practice

The best way to explain the various partitioning options is for me to work through a practical example, so I took advantage of this opportunity to make some major changes to my PC system. I recently needed more storage space, as my two existing 30GB drives were nearly full, and I wanted to create both a much larger Gigs partition, and to install a new XP partition for my music making alongside the existing Windows 98SE one. I chose a popular drive model for musicians, the 80GB Seagate Barracuda IV ST380021A, which has an excellent reputation for reliability, performance and low acoustic noise.

I still had a spare IDE connector on my system, so I could have plumbed this in as a third drive. However, this would have resulted in two drives sharing an IDE controller, with a disastrous drop in performance should both ever be accessed simultaneously, so I instead decided to stick with two drives, using the new 80GB one to replace one of my two existing 30GB models.

I did initially connect up all three drives so that I could shuffle data between them. Moving the existing data across from my other two drives was incredibly easy thanks to Powerquest's Drive Image software, which I already use for backup purposes. Running this from DOS, I could use its Disk To Disk option to copy the current incarnations of various Primary Windows and Logical data partitions straight across to the new drive without having to do any pre-formatting. In most cases I retained the existing partition size, and chose the Drive Image option labelled 'Leave remaining unused space', although you can if you prefer select 'Automatically resize partitions proportionally to fit' the destination drive's unallocated space. Where I needed more space, such as in my Gigs partition, I just added some using the 'Resize partitions manually to fit' option before the data was copied over.

The biggest potential time saving came with the creation of my new 'XP Music' partition to run alongside the existing one labelled '98 Music'. As I'd carefully saved my existing 'XP Review' partition as an image file immediately after installing the OS, adding the latest hardware drivers, and then Activating it, I just used Restore Image to copy this directly to a new partition — why bother to install an OS from scratch more than once?

The only time I hit a problem was once I'd copied across three Primary Windows partitions and one Logical one inside a new Extended partition — each time I then tried to copy across some additional Logical ones Drive Image insisted that it couldn't create more than four Primary partitions on a single drive, even though I wasn't asking it to. The solution was to launch Partition Magic, create appropriately sized dummy Logical partitions on the new drive, and then return to Drive Image and use Disk To Disk to copy my data over the top of the dummy partitions. After some very lengthy data shuffling, largely due to transfers between Secondary Master and Secondary Slave drives on the same IDE buss, I ended up with a total of 20 partitions across three drives, and was ready for the next stage.

After The Event

Once all the partitions were in place on the new third drive, I rebooted, and after running the Boot Magic configuration utility to recognise the three additional Windows partitions on the new drive, I now had a total of seven choices on the next boot-up: five 98SE and two XP.

As expected, all my cloned Windows 98SE partitions worked fine, although I had to manually enable Bus Master DMA for the new drive and reboot for it to take effect. I next investigated which of the various challenge/response protected music software on my cloned '98 Music' partition still worked after being installed in a new location, with mixed results. All the Waves plug-ins still worked perfectly, since their Pace copy protection is associated with a particular drive partition, and this partition still existed. The Prosoniq Orange Vocoder also worked — its key disk install was obviously still recognised despite the change of venue for host application and plug-in files.

However, my TC Works Native Bundle 2.0 plug-ins didn't recognise their key disk install, and none of the other challenge/response protected software worked, including AAS's Lounge Lizard and Spectrasonics' Atmosphere, both of which seem to rely on a unique hardware fingerprint. This seems to prove that there are no hard and fast rules when moving partition locations, so don't be tempted to do it in the middle of an important project. As a double-check, I booted into my original '98 Music' partition, and thankfully all my plug-ins and soft synths were still authorised, despite the new hardware configuration.

I was particularly interested to see if the two Windows XP partitions would run normally, since one of them would immediately detect a new hard drive (which I was hoping it would accept without requiring a new Activation), while the other was a post-Activation clone of the first. My initial findings were encouraging: my existing 'XP Review' partition was happy to accept the new drive and booted up perfectly, with the added advantage over the 98 installs that it correctly selected UDMA Mode 5 for it without prompting. However, the cloned XP partition on the new drive refused point-blank to play ball, rebooting my PC from cold if I tried to choose it using Boot Magic. As I've already mentioned, this was partly because it wasn't installed on the first drive, but there's good news to come shortly.

The Big Switch

Resigned to a fresh installation of XP, I next wanted to shuffle the drives, removing the existing Secondary Master (an IBM Deskstar 30GB drive that gave me a few problems documented in PC Notes June 2002), moving the existing Primary Master to Secondary Master, and making the new 80GB drive my new Primary Master.

This is probably a bigger upheaval than most musicians will face, but it gave me the opportunity to test whether the Activation on my working XP partition would still be happy when shifted to the other IDE controller, and after a second change of drives within a short period of time, and also whether the existing Windows 98SE copy-protected software would once again survive the move.

Thankfully, all my music applications and plug-ins still ran perfectly after my '98 Music' partition moved from Primary to Secondary IDE controller. This isn't guaranteed, since although after booting the drive the various files still appeared to be on volume C, I suspect some of the hidden copy-protection files now appeared on a differently placed volume. I later confirmed this for the Waves plug-ins, which became deauthorised after I temporarily hid my original Gigs partition, and worked perfectly again after making it active. At least two files named redir.sys and maxmeg.sys are involved, so don't alter or delete these, but I deleted everything else on the partition and defragged it with no problems. Waves even claim that you can reformat the authorised partition and your original response will work, although I didn't take this drastic step.

My '98 Review' partition had now been cloned from the removed IBM drive to the new Seagate drive, and this now had various problems when launching previously well-behaved applications. Wavelab 4.0, Sounge Forge 6.0 and Plex all declared themselves 'not properly installed', but a few quick 'over the top' updates cured this. I also had to insert a couple of original plug-in CD-ROMs that became suspicious. The only full-blown casualty was Lounge Lizard, which decided it wasn't authorised after all; AAS were quick to issue another response to the new challenge, so I wasn't too worried.

My biggest surprise was that the cloned XP partition, despite refusing to boot while located on a partition on the Secondary Slave drive, now booted up perfectly when the drive was installed as Primary Master. This was excellent news, for two reasons. First, it shows that XP Activation will survive two hard drive changes within 24 hours. Second, and a far more important point for the PC musician, is that my tests prove that you can successfully clone a pre-Activated XP installation on the same PC, even onto a new drive. Just as satisfying was that my subsequently installed Waves plug-ins also worked first time, still recognising their disk authorisation: this means you can install them on as many partitions as you like, as long as you don't remove the original drive.

 Microsoft Multi-boot Options 
 If you don't want to spend any money on dedicated utilities, Microsoft do provide a multi-boot option so that you can install Windows 2000 or XP alongside an existing version of Windows, keeping both functional, and choose between them at boot-up. If you want one of your operating systems to be Windows 95 or NT 4.0 you'll need to start with a FAT16-formatted partition, but for the most common combinations of 98/SE/ME and 2000/XP, your boot volume will need to be formatted as FAT32.

Each version of Windows will need its own dedicated partition, so your life will still be a lot easier using a utility like Partition Magic to split up your drive, since even using Microsoft's various Setup Wizards you won't get the option to resize them at any subsequent time. Moreover, unlike the total freedom provided by hiding every partition but the one you're currently installing, using the Microsoft multi-boot system imposes various restrictions. First, you'll need to install the operating systems in the order in which they were released, so that each recognises those already installed. Just use the CD-ROM setup, and choose 'Install a new copy' so that it doesn't do it over the top of each previous installation.

Failure to do this may result in your drive's boot sector being overwritten, so for instance, if you install XP and then 2000, or ever need to reinstall 2000, you may be unable to boot into XP without some repairs. I've also come across reports of problems with XP upgrading the 2000 NTFS-formatted partition to its slightly newer version, so that 2000 is no longer able to read it. Moreover, Windows 95, 98 and ME can't be installed in any combination, since their boot files will always overwrite each other. Microsoft also warn that Windows 98 might reconfigure some hardware settings the first time you use them, which may cause configuration problems when starting Windows XP.

Overall, Microsoft's multi-boot option can certainly be useful when creating a dual 98SE and XP installation, or one with Windows 2000 and XP, but if you've already got Partition Magic (and therefore Boot Magic), I really can't see the point in using it, and it still occasionally gets in the way even then.


XP Boot Errors

Not everything was rosy, however. My 'XP Review' installation, which had been working fine on the first drive, now refused to boot after finding itself on Drive 2, giving an 'invalid Boot.ini file' error. As I've mentioned, I subsequently discovered that XP installs want to find themselves booting from Drive 1, so the obvious solution seemed to be to move one of my Windows 98 installs to the second drive, and transfer 'XP Review' back to the new Drive 1. It still refused to boot, this time giving me a missing hal.dll file error.

Partition Magic 8.0's new File Browser lets you access and organise files in hidden partitions, although sadly you can't view their contents or paste them elsewhere.Partition Magic 8.0's new File Browser lets you access and organise files in hidden partitions, although sadly you can't view their contents or paste them elsewhere.This provided me with a clue, since I've come across this error before. XP accesses a hidden file named Boot.ini during boot-up to present you with a list of valid operating systems if you're using Microsoft's own multi-boot option (see box). Each valid operating system is designated by a line in the file with various parameters including drive and partition number, and of course these had now changed for 'XP Review', but had coincidentally been correct for the final placement of the 'XP Music' partition. All I now had to do was to edit the Boot.ini file to point to its new destination, and all should be well.

Although the offending file can easily be edited in Notepad, you can't get at it inside a hidden partition, and you can't boot into this partition because the file's contents are now incorrect — a Catch-22 situation. One way to break out of the loop is to temporarily enable the offending partition alongside a working version of Windows. First, you need to temporarily disable your boot manager utility, and then force the non-working XP partition to be Active using Partition Magic or a similar utility. After rebooting into your working Windows installation, you'll now be able to see the XP partition and access all its files — the Boot.ini file can be found in the root folder, but since it's a hidden file you'll need to make sure that Folder options are set to 'Show all files'.

And the results of all your efforts? You can boot into however many individually tweaked versions of Windows you require, safe in the knowledge that none will interfere with the others.And the results of all your efforts? You can boot into however many individually tweaked versions of Windows you require, safe in the knowledge that none will interfere with the others.The second method is to launch Microsoft's official Recovery Console, bundled with XP, since this also provides you with various tools to fault-find a non-working XP installation. First, boot the Windows XP CD-ROM. Don't worry when it starts loading loads of files, since nothing is being altered on your hard drives. Once the 'Welcome to Setup' screen appears, press R to launch the Recovery Console. If you have multiple XP or 2000 installations, you'll next have to choose one to log into.

Despite the misleading name, the Recovery Console is essentially a DOS-like command line interface that doesn't use DOS. You can get an overview of the available commands by typing 'help', and more details on each one by typing its name followed by ' /?'. One useful command for our purposes is 'map', since this displays a list of all the drive volumes on your system, along with partition sizes. Even better is 'map arc', which instead displays them in Arc format, exactly as they'll need to appear in the Boot.ini file (see box earlier in this article).

The 'bootcfg /rebuild' command will scan your system for valid NT, 2000 or XP installs, and let you add any it finds to an existing Boot.ini file, although annoyingly it still leaves incorrect entries in place (if necessary you could use Partition Magic 8's File Browser to delete the offending boot.ini file before you start, and it will then create a new one). After accepting any installation, you'll also need to enter a Load Identifier (your choice of descriptive text), and finally a Load Option, which is always '/fastdetect'. An updated Boot.ini file is then created, and you can hopefully now boot into your new XP install.

Final Thoughts

I hope you now understand enough about partitioning to manage your own PC hard drive storage more efficiently, and to create your own multi-boot installation with the minimum of fuss. If you find yourself forgetting which partition you've booted into, give each boot a different desktop colour, and rename each My Computer icon with the boot name.

I'm pleased to discover that a Windows XP partition can be Activated and then cloned on the same PC without further Activation being required. Copy-protected software can be a problem when shuffling partitions, but as I've shown, most will retain its information as long as you take a few precautions, and any using Pace Interlok protection can normally be installed as many times as you like on different partitions once the first has been correctly authorised. Remember when installing an additional version of USB dongle-protected software like Cubase SX in a new partition that the dongle may need to be temporarily removed, and then reinserted after the application has been installed.