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Definition

cluster

1) In a computer system, a cluster is a group of servers and other resources that act like a single system and enable high availability and, in some cases, load balancing and parallel processing. See clustering.

2) In personal computer storage technology, a cluster is the logical unit of file storage on a hard disk; it's managed by the computer's operating system. Any file stored on a hard disk takes up one or more clusters of storage. A file's clusters can be scattered among different locations on the hard disk. The clusters associated with a file are kept track of in the hard disk's file allocation table (FAT). When you read a file, the entire file is obtained for you and you aren't aware of the clusters it is stored in.

Since a cluster is a logical rather than a physical unit (it's not built into the hard disk itself), the size of a cluster can be varied. The maximum number of clusters on a hard disk depends on the size of a FAT table entry. Beginning with DOS 4.0, the FAT entries were 16 bits in length, allowing for a maximum of 65,536 clusters. Beginnning with the Windows 95 OSR2 service release, a 32-bit FAT entry is supported, allowing an entry to address enough clusters to support up to two terabytes of data (assuming the hard disk is that large!).

The tradeoff in cluster size is that even the smallest file (and even a directory itself) takes up the entire cluster. Thus, a 10-byte file will take up 2,048 bytes if that's the cluster size. In fact, many operating systems set the cluster size default at 4,096 or 8,192 bytes. Until the file allocation table support in Windows 95 OSR2, the largest size hard disk that could be supported in a single partition was 512 megabytes. Larger hard disks could be divided into up to four partitions, each with a FAT capable of supporting 512 megabytes of clusters.

3) In some products, a cluster is a group of terminals or workstations attached to a common control unit.

This was last updated in April 2006

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