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file allocation table (FAT)

Contributor(s): Scott Andring

Also see: fat Mac and Virtual File Allocation Table.

A file allocation table (FAT) is a table that an operating system maintains on a hard disk that provides a map of the clusters (the basic units of logical storage on a hard disk) that a file has been stored in. When you write a new file to a hard disk, the file is stored in one or more clusters that are not necessarily next to each other; they may be rather widely scattered over the disk. A typical cluster size is 2,048 bytes, 4,096 bytes, or 8,192 bytes. The operating system creates a FAT entry for the new file that records where each cluster is located and their sequential order. When you read a file, the operating system reassembles the file from clusters and places it as an entire file where you want to read it. For example, if this is a long Web page, it may very well be stored on more than one cluster on your hard disk.

Until Windows 95 OSR2 (OEM Release 2), DOS and Windows file allocation table entries were 16 bits in length, limiting hard disk size to 128 megabytes, assuming a 2,048 size cluster. Up to 512 megabyte support is possible assuming a cluster size of 8,192 but at the cost of using clusters inefficiently. DOS 5.0 and later versions provide for support of hard disks up to two gigabytes with the 16-bit FAT entry limit by supporting separate FATs for up to four partitions.

With 32-bit FAT entry (FAT32) support in Windows 95 OSR2, the largest size hard disk that can be supported is two terabytes! However, personal computer users are more likely to take advantage of FAT32 with 5 or 10 gigabyte drives.

This was last updated in September 2005

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