Aug 03 2021

File Storage Types: NTFS vs. FAT32

These file storage formats share a common creator but have evolved to serve different modern-day use cases.

With so many emerging technologies changing the way organizations do business, one of the most crucial digital tools is also one of the most basic: file storage.

It may seem like a simple concept, but there are many ways to store files on a given device. Two of the most common formats are the New Technology File System (NTFS) and File Allocation Table (FAT), the latter most commonly seen as FAT32. Both were developed by Microsoft more than a quarter century ago and are heavily used in computing. Over time, different advantages for each file storage type have emerged, and both IT teams and end users will likely interact with each type — especially those who primarily use Microsoft Windows devices.

How Do Disks Manage File Storage?

Hard drives, flash drives and solid-state devices (SSDs) rely on a variety of tactics to manage file storage, and these tactics often differ. SSDs, for example, can extend their usable lifespan through a process called TRIM, which internally erases portions of the drive that are no longer in use. Hard drives, on the other hand, run into issues with fragmentation over time, requiring the occasional defrag; the added sophistication and speed of SSD and other types of flash storage, like USB drives, make this process largely unnecessary.

File systems act as a layer of data to manage the information on the disk. A file system like NTFS or FAT works as something of a script for the computer to tell it how to manage data on a disk. With FAT, the disk manages data using a set of clusters based on a fixed-bit system, with FAT32 relying on a 32-bit structure. NTFS, meanwhile, expands on the cluster idea by adding a file system called journaling, which effectively offers a script to record metadata onto the volume so changes can be tracked throughout the drive.

This potentially makes file access faster by not requiring the disk to search for data, and means the layout of an NTFS drive can be more detailed and nuanced, whereas FAT32 maintains a more basic structure. Those factors offer different benefits, based on use case.

REGISTER: Learn more about how data can power modern IT with the weekly CDW Tech Talk Series. Click the banner below to register.

File Storage Types: What Is NTFS Format?

NTFS is the primary file storage format for modern versions of Windows. It was initially developed for Windows NT, the business-oriented operating system Microsoft first developed in 1993 that is the basis for all modern-day Windows versions.

NTFS had a big advantage over many file systems of its era because of to its journaling capabilities, including organizing data in complex ways and internally managing corruption issues.

As Microsoft notes, the system also has a lot of other advantages, including the ability to handle large files and limit access controls to certain types of folders and files based on user permissions — a handy feature for system administrators.

This format, which has origins in the early collaborative work between Microsoft and IBM on the operating system OS/2, has become dominant on Windows platforms and is required for booting into all modern versions of Windows.

NTFS continues to evolve. The upcoming Windows 11 will require machines to support BitLocker, a form of full-drive encryption that relies on the Trusted Platform Module technology as well as NTFS. Microsoft states that the technology will help to lower the risk of malware and ransomware by tying security to hardware-based encryption.

MORE FROM BIZTECH: Sorting fact from fiction when it comes to defending your data with SASE.

File Storage Types: What Is FAT32 Format?

FAT32 dates back much further than NTFS, with earlier versions of the format predating the IBM PC. FAT first came about in the late 1970s as a way to organize data stored on a floppy. It was developed by early Microsoft employee Marc McDonald, with some input from Bill Gates, and evolved with the IBM PC and the Microsoft Disk Operating System (MS-DOS) to include hard drive storage and CD-ROM drives. But as use cases grew, limitations began to emerge. Perhaps the best-known roadblock that early PC users might remember was the limit on the length of file names: eight characters, plus three for the file extension. Microsoft resolved this issue with the Virtual File Allocation Table (VFAT), a Windows device driver that allowed for longer names.

The most common FAT version, FAT32, was first developed by Microsoft in 1996 for use with a service release of Windows 95. In 1996, InfoWorld noted that FAT32 theoretically allowed for drives as large as 140 terabytes, and that hard drives of the era could benefit from the smaller file cluster size, making it possible to store more data on a smaller drive.

“Windows 95B’s most important feature allows Windows users to stop wasting 40 percent of the space on their hard disks,” writer Brian Livingston explained.

For modern-day end users, FAT32 has evolved into something of a default file format for nonboot drives, largely because it’s a compatible format that can easily be read and written to by Windows, Linux and Mac computers. This has made it a common choice for such things as SD cards and USB drives, where compatibility with a wide array of devices is imperative and simpler file organization makes more sense.

File Storage Types: What Is ExFAT Format?

With age, FAT32 has had to adapt to the times. When it was first released, many users were using 4GB hard drives, but now it’s not uncommon to see individual video or audio files that are more than 4GB apiece. As a result, an updated FAT format, exFAT, was released in 2006. Many large SD cards, commonly used in professional cameras or as additional storage for smartphones, now come formatted as exFAT by default.

NTFS Format vs. FAT32 Format: What’s the Difference?

For many reasons, these two file formats have maintained their specific use cases — NTFS for Windows system drives and server storage, and FAT32 primarily for external or legacy storage.

The most important difference between the two is the use of journaling, which allows for more complex storage styles in NTFS, along with more sophisticated file permissions and security capabilities. But these additional features can make the drives more complicated to manage in non-Windows settings, requiring the use of software such as Paragon NTFS to ensure compatibility across platforms.

But cross-platform compatibility is where FAT32 shines. As Chris Hoffman of How-To Geek explains, many of the security and file-permission strengths of NTFS do not make sense for external drives that are designed to transfer information between multiple computers.

“For example, the files might be set to only be accessible by a specific user ID number,” he says. “This would work fine if the drive stayed inside your computer. However, if this was a removable hard drive that you moved to another computer, anyone with that user ID on the other computer could then access the files. In this case, file permissions don’t really add security — just additional complexity.”

WATCH: Learn how to release the bottlenecks in your infrastructure. 

While NTFS can support file sizes larger than 4GB, its added capabilities need to be weighed against the use case. For one thing, as famed Microsoft blogger Raymond Chen notes, you can’t remove an NTFS-formatted USB drive on the fly like you can a FAT32 drive.

What File Storage Type Is Right for Your Data?

Many organizations and end users work with each of these formats in different ways throughout the day. When storing your data, you might prefer the security of NTFS, but if you’re exchanging a lot of data among physical devices, you would likely rather use FAT32 or exFAT.

Thanks in part to its lack of journaling or security support, FAT32 is probably not a fit for the server room, where it’s long been superseded by NTFS and even more advanced file storage formats that have gained popularity with Linux and BSD-based operating systems, such as Oracle’s ZFS.

And, of course, if your employees are not using Windows machines as their primary desktop device, you may not want either FAT32 or NTFS; macOS, for example, uses the fairly new Apple File System (APFS) for its boot drives, while Linux tends to use the ext4 journaling file system for boot drives (or more esoteric formats for specific security needs or use cases).

But despite the many forms of modern file storage available, the one hiding in your pocket or in your bag might still be good old FAT32, with roots going back more than 40 years.

Rawf8/Getty Images