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FAT | File Allocation Table


fatFAT- File Allocation Table (FAT) is a computer file system architecture now widely used on many computer systems and most memory cards, such as those used with digital cameras. FAT file systems are commonly found on floppy disks, flash memory cards, digital cameras, and many other portable devices because of their relative simplicity. Performance of FAT compares poorly to most other file systems as it uses overly simplistic data structures, making file operations time-consuming, and makes poor use of disk space in situations where many small files are present.


File Allocation Table (FAT) is a computer file system architecture now widely used on many computer systems and most memory cards, such as those used with digital cameras. FAT file systems are commonly found on floppy disks, flash memory cards, digital cameras, and many other portable devices because of their relative simplicity. FAT was also commonly used on hard disks throughout the DOS and Windows 9x eras, but its use on hard drives has declined since the introduction of Windows XP, which primarily uses the newer NTFS.

The name originates from the usage of a table which centralizes the information about which areas belong to files, are free or possibly unusable, and where each file is stored on the disk. To limit the size of the table, disk space is allocated to files in contiguous groups of hardware sectors called clusters. As disk drives have evolved, the maximum number of clusters has dramatically increased, and so the number of bits used to identify each cluster has grown. The successive major versions of the FAT format are named after the number of table element bits: 12 (FAT12), 16 (FAT16), and 32 (FAT32). Each is still in use. The FAT standard has also been expanded in other ways while generally preserving backward compatibility with existing software.


The FAT file system is technically simple and supported by virtually all existing operating systems for personal computers. This makes it a useful format for solid-state memory cards and a convenient way to share data between operating systems.

File Allocation Table

A partition is divided up into identically sized clusters, small blocks of contiguous space. Cluster sizes vary depending on the type of FAT file system being used and the size of the partition, typically cluster sizes lie somewhere between 2 kB and 32 kB. Each file may occupy one or more of these clusters depending on its size; thus, a file is represented by a chain of these clusters (referred to as a singly linked list). However these clusters are not necessarily stored adjacent to one another on the disk's surface but are often instead fragmented throughout the Data Region.

The File Allocation Table (FAT) is a list of entries that map to each cluster on the partition. Each entry records one of five things:

    the cluster number of the next cluster in a chain
    a special end of clusterchain (EOC) entry that indicates the end of a chain
    a special entry to mark a bad cluster
    a zero to note that the cluster is unused

The first two entries in a FAT store special values: The first entry contains a copy of the media descriptor (from boot sector, offset 0x15). The remaining 8 bits (if FAT16), or 20 bits (if FAT32) of this entry are 1.

The second entry stores the end-of-cluster-chain marker. The high order two bits of this entry are sometimes, in the case of FAT16 and FAT32, used for dirty volume management: high order bit 1: last shutdown was clean; next highest bit 1: during the previous mount no disk I/O errors were detected.

Because the first two FAT entries store special values, there is no cluster 0 or 1. The first cluster (after the root directory if FAT 12/16) is cluster 2.

Note that FAT32 uses only 28 bits of the 32 possible bits. The upper 4 bits are usually zero (as indicated in the table above) but are reserved and should be left untouched.

Each version of the FAT file system uses a different size for FAT entries. Smaller numbers result in a smaller FAT table, but waste space in large partitions by needing to allocate in large clusters. The FAT12 file system uses 12 bits per FAT entry, thus two entries span 3 bytes. It is consistently little-endian: if you consider the 3 bytes as one little-endian 24-bit number, the 12 least significant bits are the first entry and the 12 most significant bits are the second.

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