Theres a fundamental barrier between fans of open-source software and the world of Microsoft Windows, and no, its not the $299 list price of Windows XP Professional. Its actually a very real communication problem based on differences between Windows and Linuxs file systems—the structures that operating systems use to file away data on a computer. Think of the file system as a simple spreadsheet: It associates a filename with an index in a file allocation table. When you ask your computer to open a document, the OS checks this table to determine where on the hard drive it stored the file, down to the precise sector on your disk. Windows uses a file system called NTFS, todays Linux distributions primarily use ext3, and like two warring tribes, the two barely speak. Fortunately, theres a handy tool from Paragon Software Group called NTFS for Linux, which acts like an interpreter for these battling nations.
A Brief History of FAT Time
Since Windows 95, Microsoft systems have used the FAT32 file system—unsurprisingly, a roundabout acronym for 32-bit File Allocation Table. FAT evolved over the years from its origins in MS-DOS, and has been kept around mainly for its simplicity and elegance: The FAT system stores very little information about the contents of a file, and virtually all existing OSs can read it. But it has its limitations: Files cant grow past 4GB, and you cant format volumes greater than 32GB during Windows installation, though you can mount them and possibly even create them later. And because of limitations in the 16-bit ScanDisk utility from Windows 95 and 98, partitions over 128GB or so cant be read by the earlier OSs—clearly, a nagging issue in todays computing world.
To address these issues, first with Windows NT and later with Win XP, Microsoft introduced NTFS, short for New Technology File System. (Pretty clever with those acronyms, eh?) NTFS is a richer system than FAT 32. It stores information about individual files, read/write permissions, creation dates, and more as metadata. This solved a number of problems, including the file-size issues, and created one big one: NTFS is a proprietary system, and Microsoft has never released any information about how it works. In other words, Windows XP takes FATs killer compatibility and throws it out the window.