Case Study: Defragging Delivers Big Performance Boost

Long a trendsetter in government IT circles, the Social Security Administration has used system defragmentation technology to improve performance and reduce crashes and downtime.
Posted February 28, 2003

Drew Robb

Drew Robb

As part of a national campaign to reinforce and upgrade its overall level of service delivery to the public, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has incorporated system defragmentation technology on 120,000 of its servers and workstations nationwide. While this has resulted in improved performance, it has also brought a sharp reduction in system crashes and computer downtime problems.

"Before we installed defragmention technology, performance would get pretty bad and we frequently experienced the blue 'death screen' as well as machines freezing," said Daniel Gibson, information manager specialist at the SSA. "Diskeeper has been a reliable tool for increasing the efficiency and stability of our PCs. I would quantify the overall performance improvement at 85%."

Service Vision

The Social Security Administration has a well-deserved trendsetter reputation in government IT circles. During the '50s, it became the first civilian agency to embrace computers -- it harnessed an IBM system to record wage information. In the '80s, it was ahead of the curve in the use of toll-free numbers, becoming the first agency using this technology to answer consumer complaints.

When it came to the Y2K bug, the SSA earned distinction having begun to address the problem as early as 1989. While other government entities struggled to deal with the massive amount of 11th-hour recoding involved in Y2K fixes, the SSA earned top marks from federal watchdogs.

After the completion of a massive Y2K undertaking, the SSA's national computer center in Woodlawn, Md., has invested a good portion of its annual $600 million IT budget upgrading its servers and workstations from Windows NT to Windows 2000. This project encompasses a vast network of offices and personnel spanning every state and major city throughout the U.S., and a total of 120,000 individual computers.

This upgrade task, though huge, is just one facet of the SSA's strategic plan known as "2010 Service Vision." To keep its systems first-rate and service levels high, "2010 Service Vision" calls for the agency to implement the latest technological advances in readiness for an expected 50% explosion in the next decade in one of its most important customer groups -- senior citizens. Stability and high performance of servers and workstations, therefore, is paramount. And that's where the selection of third-party defragmentation technology came in.

Manufactured by Burbank, Calif.-based Executive Software, Diskeeper is the leading defragmenter, accounting for 99% of the defragmenters sold in the enterprise market. Gibson said the agency began using this tool five years ago. With the onset of the "2010 Service Vision" strategy, its use has now spread across every department and section within the entire SSA.

The machines themselves cover the spectrum -- Dell, HP and Compaq boxes of varying processor, RAM and hard drive specs. On the software side, a wide range of client/server, Web-based and e-government applications are used throughout the agency.

"We work with thousands of files, graphics and complicated software applications that require higher performance each day from our PCs," said Gibson. "However, the Web-based applications software we use and computing activities we perform daily cause a great deal of fragmentation."

Recent defragmentation performance studies were carried out by National Software Testing Labs (NSTL) on Windows 2000 servers and workstations running various combinations of routine applications such as Excel 2000, SQL Server 7.0, Outlook 2000 and Exchange 5.5. In this test series, performance jumped as high as 219.6% on workstations and 83.5% on servers.

Built-in versus Third Party

Gibson isn't too complimentary about the built-in defragmenter that comes with Windows 2000. Known as the Microsoft Disk Defragmenter (MDD), it is a scaled-down, manual defragmenter that was built into the operating system.

"We experienced problems with the thoroughness and speed of defrag using the built-in tool," said Gibson.

He recommends that other organizations use Diskeeper instead of MDD due to ease of operation. He further explained that as MDD has to be operated manually, its deployment seriously interferes with mission-critical activities.

Gibson's tests and experiences are supported by a comparison study of the built-in defragmenter and Diskeeper conducted by NSTL on Windows 2000. This investigation covered two key areas: speed and effectiveness. In all, four common enterprise configurations were used in the testing.

System Configurations          Diskeeper	            Windows 2000 Disk Defragmenter

         9 GB            32 min., 15 sec.                  1 hr., 34 min., 9 sec.
        30 GB            3 hrs., 13 min., 38 sec.         14 hrs., 42 min., 58 sec.
       150 GB            6 hrs., 19 min., 48 sec.         21 hrs., 49 min., 44 sec.
      2x60 GB            3 hrs., 9 min., 44 sec.           9 hrs., 23 min., 30 sec.

"After extensive testing, NSTL found that Diskeeper was 300%-500% faster than the Windows 2000 Disk Defragmenter," said Lloyd Holder, chief executive officer of NSTL. The study also underscored significant shortcomings in thoroughness with the built-in defragmenter. A copy of the NSTL Report, "Comparison Testing: Diskeeper vs. the Windows 2000 Disk Defragmenter" is available on the NSTL Web site.

The SSA schedules defragmentation runs daily on most of their machines, sometimes several times a day. Every few weeks, Gibson also schedules a boot-time defrag run to take care of defragmentation of certain system files that cannot be addressed while a machine is online due to safety concerns.

"If you let your machines run for a while without using boot-time mode, you end up with compromised performance, freezing and crashes," said Gibson. "I use the boot sector feature of Diskeeper about once a month to maintain high performance and reliability in our PCs."

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