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Does Your SSD's File System Affect Performance?

Does Your SSD's File System Affect Performance?
By , Achim Roos

SSDs serve up data quickly, and prices are low enough that some enthusiasts may want SSDs for data storage. Does the file system you use matter? We compare performance between FAT32, NTFS, and the newer exFAT file systems on two popular SSD architectures.

Solid-state drives continue encroaching on the territory ruled for decades by hard drives, and power users swear by the lightning-fast performance, modest power use, and physical robustness of flash-based devices. As more enthusiasts embrace the technology, volumes increase and prices go down, making SSDs even more viable in the mainstream space. Mobile users stand to gain especially from solid-state technology, since shaving 10% from a power budget could translate into hours of battery life or a small savings on a utility bill.

That last point hits home hardest for the folks running systems that stay on all of the time. As capacity needs increase, the number of drives needed to hold all of that data increase, taking power use along for the ride. Take your always-on PC, add a five-drive NAS, factor in an HTPC responsible for recording your favorite shows, and suddenly your house starts mimicking a small business' power profile.

But now you have one or more SSDs. Whether you made the decision to ditch magnetic storage because it was too slow, too loud, or too power-hungry, it's time to consider the next step. 

Almost all of the tests we run emphasize the performance of storage with as many other variables as possible factored out. Only recently did we start folding in the effects of a file system in Intel SSD 520 Review: Taking Back The High-End With SandForce and OCZ Vertex 4 Review: A Flagship SSD Powered By...Indilinx? For this piece, we're going to go into more depth on file systems with a focus specifically on Windows users, since our rigs in Germany are all Windows-based. That means it's going to be a shoot-out between FAT32, NTFS, and exFAT.  But first, you ask...

What’s A File System, Anyway?

We're glad you asked! File systems take care of organizing files by providing the means to store, retrieve, and modify data on a given physical device, such as a hard drive, array of flash memory, or optical disc. The file system is very much the operating system's bookkeeper, and it may interact with or be part of other protocols like NFS or SMB to support network access to mounted file systems. It has to manage storage capacity, data placement, directories and file names, metadata, data integrity, and access permissions. With all of that said, a file system’s features and capabilities should match the device it is being used on, as well as the desired application purpose (journaling and versioning might be useful in different situations where data integrity is stressed).

There is a plethora of different file systems, but only a few are actually relevant for Windows users with flash-based storage devices. FAT32 and NTFS are probably the most popular file systems in the Windows world, but there are numerous other file systems in the wild. Mac users are familiar with HFS+. Ext3 and ext4 dominate the Linux segment. SCO has HTFS. UFS is for Solaris and BSD. HP-UX runs VxFS, and so on.

One of the newest entrants onto the scene is exFAT. It was originally designed by Microsoft as an extension (it stands for "Extended File Allocation Table) of FAT32 for flash-memory devices, but it has also been supported by Mac OS since Snow Leopard 10.6.5. Although Microsoft has a patent on exFAT that could hinder adoption on other systems in the long run, we decided that it’s time for a little shootout between NTFS, exFAT, and the older FAT32, which is still popular because of its cross-system compatibility. One quick note for Mac users: we wanted to give a nod to HFS+ in our run-down of file systems, even though it isn't compared in our tests. If you want a better idea of how HFS+ compares, check out the two previously linked reviews, which include a lot of performance data on a number of popular SSDs!

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Top Comments
  • 18 Hide
    neon neophyte , April 13, 2012 5:16 AM
    I remember the crossing from Fat32 to NTFS. It was significant even back then. Ever since I have craved a new file system offering to rekindle a fading memory of youth and joy. *sniff*
  • 17 Hide
    trumpeter1994 , April 13, 2012 1:30 PM
    MarthisdilHardly no one uses Linux in a home environment, thus, ext4 and linux whiners need to stop.

    I don't run linux, but since it has such a dominant presence in the servers you connect to every day...... yes it is relevant
  • 16 Hide
    haplo602 , April 13, 2012 8:35 AM
    any other than windows/mac filesystems ? zfs ? btrfs ? ext3/4 ? jfs ? xfs ?
Other Comments
  • 9 Hide
    aznshinobi , April 13, 2012 4:14 AM
    Those SSD drives.... *drool* Wish I could afford them.
  • 18 Hide
    neon neophyte , April 13, 2012 5:16 AM
    I remember the crossing from Fat32 to NTFS. It was significant even back then. Ever since I have craved a new file system offering to rekindle a fading memory of youth and joy. *sniff*
  • 0 Hide
    hmp_goose , April 13, 2012 5:31 AM
    [misses HPFS]

    [wonders what sectors per cluster means to an SSD]
  • 1 Hide
    aicom , April 13, 2012 6:15 AM
    hmp_goose[misses HPFS][wonders what sectors per cluster means to an SSD]


    NTFS was heavily based on HPFS (when MS and IBM were both working on OS/2). It even shares the same MBR partition type code.
  • -5 Hide
    confish21 , April 13, 2012 6:26 AM
    get article ty so much!
  • 16 Hide
    haplo602 , April 13, 2012 8:35 AM
    any other than windows/mac filesystems ? zfs ? btrfs ? ext3/4 ? jfs ? xfs ?
  • 14 Hide
    lorfa , April 13, 2012 8:41 AM
    Agree with haplo. Wanted to see ext4 at least.
  • -6 Hide
    Anonymous , April 13, 2012 9:56 AM
    billafuEnjoyed the article. Sadly, I am still unable to justify spending nearly a dollar per gigabyte for an SSD when HDDs are less than a dime per gig. Maybe when that price difference is a little bit closer.

    120gb for a 120$ and HUGE performance increase and you still complain? How about you get a job.
  • -4 Hide
    Badelhas , April 13, 2012 10:14 AM
    doctorpink120gb for a 120$ and HUGE performance increase and you still complain? How about you get a job.

    Mega LOL!
  • 9 Hide
    ojas , April 13, 2012 11:17 AM
    lostmyclantoms is partner of micosoft I want some linux test =) 2012 and nothing about linux ?

    I wonder what it means when they say
    Quote:
    For this piece, we're going to go into more depth on file systems with a focus specifically on Windows users, since our rigs in Germany are all Windows-based.
  • 10 Hide
    baynham , April 13, 2012 11:40 AM
    ext4 please


  • 6 Hide
    AndrewJacksonZA , April 13, 2012 11:45 AM
    Thanks for the article. It answered some questions that I'd been pondering for a while. I'm a bit disappointed that you missed ReFS which has debuted in Windows 8/Server 8 - even though the OSes are still in beta.

    And ext3/ext4. And yes, I read that your German labs are Windows based, but still, it would've been nice. How many enthusiasts and admins that read this use ext3/4 is another question. :-)

    Thanks.
  • 12 Hide
    jclambert1 , April 13, 2012 1:12 PM
    I use linux at home regularly - in my primary laptop and file server
  • 17 Hide
    trumpeter1994 , April 13, 2012 1:30 PM
    MarthisdilHardly no one uses Linux in a home environment, thus, ext4 and linux whiners need to stop.

    I don't run linux, but since it has such a dominant presence in the servers you connect to every day...... yes it is relevant
  • 7 Hide
    Anonymous , April 13, 2012 2:26 PM
    I think these tests could also include popular Linux filesystems, such as ext4 and BTRFS, as they seem to have some optimizations for SSD-based drives... from some tests (you can find them on Phoronix), they swiftly beat NTFS/FAT filesystems...
  • 4 Hide
    Vatharian , April 13, 2012 2:31 PM
    Most of MLC-based SSDs around are used as a boot drive. On Windows there is completely no choice on which FS to install on. FAT32 is too dangerous, since it offers no protection/detection of corrupt writes. So for casual windows users article holds no meaning. People who use SSD for workstation based work, eg. video processing or databases are forced to use NTFS, because FAT32 can't handle 4GB+ files and exFAT holds no protection, since there are very little repair/recovery tools for it (especially freeware ones). Also portability suffers. Mac users are pretty much forced to use HFS+. For other uses, non-raided ones, data serving can be done on ext4 or xfs, and I think the last one would need to be thrown in, following optional ext4. Other question is how OS handles the FS. I'd want to see HFS+ partition mounted under Windows and NTFS mounted on Mac (ntfs-3g works!). I even use linux installed on same ntfs volume as my Win7). About WinRE - does all the benchmarking tools work with it? And last, but not least - what about testing these drives in raw mode and comparing this to overhead thrown in by FS?
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