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What is a File Allocation Table?

By Adrem Siratt
Updated May 16, 2024
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A File Allocation Table (FAT) is a system used by computers in order to store file information. Where this information is stored can range from an internal hard drive to a flash memory card. The File Allocation Table system is used primarily for the storing of information on portable media, such as flash memory cards. In the past, it was used for internal hard drives as well.

There are many kinds of computer file system architecture. The File Allocation Table was developed in 1976-1977 by Bill Gates and Marc McDonald. Over the years, several advances were made to the system. The original FAT system was limited to storing no more than 32 megabytes of information, but later versions added support for several gigabytes and even several terabytes of storage.

Most internal hard drives require computers to move a needle within the drive to a specific position and read off a small segment of information. The wear and tear involved in this process meant that a method of storing file information on the hard drive needed to be developed. The FAT system was designed to minimize the amount of seeking that a drive was required to do.

The FAT system stores information in a series of clusters. The File Allocation Table itself is the area on the hard drive that stores information concerning every cluster on the drive. By storing this information in a single area, the operating system can find the nearest free sections of memory without searching the entire drive. This helps to avoid major wear and tear on the memory device.

In addition to a File Allocation Table, there are directory tables. These special files store information concerning where on the drive the files within them are located. The directory tables also include information concerning the name and properties of the file. Some of the properties stored are the file extension, file attributes and the date and time of creation. Other properties also might be stored, depending on the particular version of the FAT system and the operating system that is being used.

The File Allocation Table system ensures that files can be found and accessed anywhere on a drive with minimal time spent seeking. This not only helps to minimize the wear on the physical components of the drive, it also ensures that files can be accessed quickly. This leads to increased performance and efficiency. The simplicity and availability of the FAT system make it ideal for use on memory devices that are accessed by many different operating systems.

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