Beware ‘Soft’ Partitions

1998 – Long ago, as it has been mentioned, some companies used soft partition software.1 This was an overlay of the hard partitioning format. In some cases, this worked okay, but in most cases, it worked just like Stacker or eDisk2 (for more on these ancient utilities, see Miscellaneous Macintosh FAQ) – sooner or later it turned into a disaster.

Problems with Soft Partitions

This primarily happened because sooner or later the soft partitions would have the same problems as hard partitions – bad blocks, b-tree errors, bad catalog files, or simply corruption due to an improper shutdown or software crash that would write data improperly, and suddenly there were two levels of utilities necessary to repair – if a repair was possible at all.

The problems with software partitions are simply due to the nature of the driver interface. The true hardware driver was often optimized or customized on install to improve caching, disk performance, retrieval cycles, etc., and placing another software level driver on top of this tended to severely decrease drive performance, since the software driver also attempted to do these things. In addition, these drivers also included compression, auto-optimization in the background, or b-tree optimization, which required using the original program for disk fixes, and often lacked in the ability to fix severe problems.

Choose Hard Partitions, Not Soft Ones

Hard partitions always work better. Because of the customization of the driver, because of the simplified interface between the partitions and the drive itself, multiple partitions – no matter the size of the drive or the size of the partitions – often increase the level of security against software damage to the hard drive and partitions.

Separating the System Folder from applications, and separating internet downloads and scratch areas for Photoshop significantly reduce the capability of these programs to destroy each other in crashes. B-tree errors due to improper restarts are often found only on the system partition, where a reinstall of system software can be performed without having to re-register applications or reinstall applications because of damage.

Fixed, dedicated partitions can also increase CD burning reliability, since optimization of data on the fly is no longer necessary when the data is finally copied to a clean partition.

The last real advantage is that programs that require large blocks of contiguous space for their files – Photoshop/Illustrator, or even Virtual PC, can be partitioned off into their own “drives”, giving the programs fixed, special, always clean places for scratch files or drive files without fear of bad fragmentation or problems with b-tree errors that would be caused by anything but the programs on those partitions.

Partitioning for Browser Caches

Additionally, the subject of partitioning vs. non-partitioning comes up from time to time, and on smaller drives partitioning doesn’t really have that much of an effect, but in a rare case partitioning on any size drive has it’s advantages.

Lately the concept of Netscape partitions has come up, and I strongly encourage anyone who has to hard format their drive anyway to carve off at least 10 MB as a partition from the main drive and make their Netscape/Internet Explorer/AOL browser partition reside here. All of these browsers like to store their cache files in the Preferences folder of the System Folder – a place where problems can occur on Macintoshes simply because of the common recommended number of file limits to a folder.

Quite often, after months of use, the Netscape Cache folder can become corrupted, and once corruption begins, it very easily spreads to the rest of the system folders and system software. If you’re already corrupted, fighting this with Norton Utilities doesn’t often solve the problem, since files are already damaged and at least a partial system restore is usually needed.

If the cache is offloaded to a separate 10 MB partition, then the cache can blow up completely, and only a reformat of this dedicated partition is in order to fix the cache and Netscape problem.

Scott L. Barber <>
Pres/CEO, SERKER Worldwide, Inc.
Providing Hardware/Networking/Telecomm for 13 years

Scott L. Barber first posted this to Quadlist, the listserv for users of 68040-based Macs. It is reprinted with his permission.

These footnotes were not part of the original article, but because “soft partitions” are almost unknown nowadays, and because the utilities mentioned are long forgotten, this information helps you understand what some Mac users were dealing with “way back when”.

Scott Barber has covered the idea of a Netscape/browser partition elsewhere, particularly in RAM Disk vs. Disk Cache, ShrinkWrap, a RAM Disk Alternative, and Hard Drive Partitioning. Setting up a RAM disk or using a disk image are two good ways of working without repartitioning your hard drive and avoiding the problems common with soft partitioning. (With Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard through OS X 10.10 Yosemite, Disk Utility allowed you to resize disk partitions without destroying the data on them or removing other partitions. Beginning with OS X 10.11 El Capitan, that feature has been replaced by one that allows you to make a partition bigger by removing the next partition. This is technically non-destructive for the partition you are expanding, but destructive for the next partition.)

  1. Soft partitioning was unique to the Macintosh. “Soft partitioning . . . does not physically affect the disk at all, but it fools the Finder into believing that the disk is partitioned. The advantage of this is that you can partition the disk without affecting the data on it.” (webopedia)
  2. Utilities such as Stacker for Macintosh, eDisk, and TimesTwo not only worked with soft partitions but also had built-in data compression for an entire partition. Kind of frightening….

Keywords: #softpartition #harddrivepartition #netscapepartition #scratchpartition #cachepartition #browserpartition

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