Data organization requires careful planning, but the effort is guaranteed to simplify the way you handle your files.

By separating your personal and work related files from the operating system (OS) area to separate hard drives or partitions you are creating a professional, safe, and highly effective work environment.

Immediate benefits:

  • Less vulnerable to hardware failure
  • Your files are much less vulnerable to virus and malware attacks
  • Intuitive backup of your computer
  • Professional system structure that can help you work faster and get more things done
  • Despite the use of more storage areas you will experience a simplified data organization

How data organization can influence risk factors

Physically separating your files from the OS area will not eliminate, but significantly lower risk factors such as virus and hardware failure. Not only that, a segmentation of your content and OS offers an opportunity to optimize your workflow.

Virus and malware

Virus and malware is primarily designed to attack your operating system area so by separating your files from the OS area your files are isolated from much of risk. Added to that, you always have the option to re-install your OS or your latest disk image* at a moment’s notice.

One thing to keep in mind though, is that the relatively new and vicious trend, data ransomware**, is a threat to all disks and partitions that are connected to your computer and even your network.

Your first line of defense against all kind of attacks is to always use antivirus and firewall software from a reputable provider.

Personally I use Norton Security by Semantic with good results. It´s the least intrusive internet security software I have used so far and it doesn´t monopolize my processor as some programs tend to.

Secondly, the most important counter measure is setting up a consistent backup strategy to a source that is not connected to your computer or your network. This could be external hard drives or cloud storage.

Hardware failure

Computer hardware is always at risk of failing and if your assets are spread out on more storage devices you are obviously reducing the impact of hardware failure.

No matter how well everything seems to work you should never rely on your computer to the point of neglecting to regularly backup your data and perhaps even your system drive.

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Backup with ease

One of the things I enjoy the most by keeping my files separate from the OS is that my files are easily selectable from my backup software.

When you organize your computer files separately from the OS you always have clarity of what is Windows/OSx related and what is your work or personal files.

Personally, I use Acronis True Image for my regular local and off-site backups. As you can see in the screenshot below I have my work folder on a separate drive and since this one folder contains everything, I get a crystal clear way to select the source of my backup.

Acronis True Image 2016 source selection dialog

Related article: Organize Computer Files Wisely and Be More Productive

System backup

Once your OS has its own partition or separate hard drive you have the option to re-install the OS at a moment’s notice without much deliberation since you now hopefully have little of value mixed in with system and software files.

A few examples of exceptions can be:

  • Some programs are difficult to direct away from the main drive. A good example would be iTunes.
  • Software settings
  • Bookmarks
  • E-mail

Depending on your preferences and/or scale of your operation you can choose to also create a disk image* of your OS drive. However, backing up your OS drive can´t be done by copying the files or by creating a traditional backup of the files and folders in the OS area.

For that you need specialized software that is capable of this function. I always recommend Acronis True Image for this because this program offers this advanced feature along with traditional file backup and clone disk features at an attractive consumer level price tag.

What is a disk image?

A backup of the OS and all installations is called a “disk image” and this image contains every single element on the main OS drive including the boot sector and other parts of the system which can´t be copied manually.

A disk image enables you to “re-install a working installation in minutes instead of spending several hours or even days bringing everything up to full speed.

The image is basically an advanced copy of your main drive and the image can be recovered in a fraction of the time it takes to manually re-install the OS, software and updates.

Speed boost with separate drives

The categorized data organization enables your computer to read and write system and program data simultaneously and you are thereby eliminating or at least minimizing bottlenecks which can boost your workflow significantly.

In some cases, such as general office work, this advantage is theoretical or minimal at best but in other scenarios you can achieve wonders when you spread out the workload on more pieces of hardware.

The real advantage becomes apparent if you are working with graphical applications where real-time feedback is important as well as technically demanding on your hardware. This could be in areas like photo, video and music editing or computer graphics where the software is creating so-called scratch or preview files which improves the feedback speed.

Examples of software that work this way are: Photoshop, Premiere, and most other Adobe applications.

Scratch disk

If you often work with programs that use some kind of preview technique you can choose to take the disk separation philosophy even further by dedicating a full drive to work as a scratch disk.

If you go the distance and perhaps even pick a SSD drive as scratch disk you will be rewarded with the fastest workflow that a consumer level computer can muster. Even on a 2-3 year old i7 PC this setup is blazing fast and extremely stable. I enjoy and appreciate it every single day.

My personal setup is based on a Samsung SSD 850 PRO 256gb for the system drive and two Samsung SSD 850 EVO 128gb drives for work storage and scratch disk.

For passive long term storage I use a number of Western Digital Green drives. They run silently and so far they have not failed me.

How to setup a separated file system

The way to create a setup where you have your OS and work files separated depends on what kind of computer you are working on. The methods that I mention in the following are solutions that can be used in more than one scenario.

This is a quick walk-through. I will dig deeper in my next data management article where I focus exclusively on hardware for your home office backup and system setup.

Partitioning

Since many of you are probably working on laptops these days, the solution will most likely be installing your OS on a separate partition. A couple of exceptions are:

  • If you have the option to install two hard drives in your laptop
  • If you are working with some sort of network storage

If you are using a large format or older generation laptop you may have the option to install two hard drives. If your laptop has CD/DVD drive you often have the option to use the bay with an extra hard drive instead. This would enable you to work with two physically separated hard drives.

However, in most cases you only have one hard drive and creating two or more partitions is also a good and easy way to separate things even though this means that you have all your eggs in one basket. But it´s a perfect option for those of you who travel or work in different locations.

If you primarily work in your home office a better solution is the next topic.

NAS (Network Attached Storage)

Synology NASA fantastic way to take data organization to new heights is to work with a NAS device. Not only does this enable you to create a professional server like work environment and if you work in your home it also offers a multitude of network related advantages such as entertainment and file sharing possebilities.

A NAS device is basically a small computer with its own powered case and you connect with the NAS through your network connection or your WI-FI router.

While the term “NAS” covers everything from entry level one disk devices to large enterprise scale systems, a typically sized personal to small business size NAS is a 1-4 disk device.

Personal to small business scale devices range from 50-100$ entry level products which include the hard drive to more advanced 100-300$ products where you purchase the NAS and hard drives separately.

Is a NAS complicated to set up?

Breaking in a mainstream NAS is pretty straight forward. Products such as the Western Digital My Cloud Personal NAS come with disk and software installed and is ready to go without much debate.

The next level is products like the 2 disk Synology DS214se. Synology specializes in NAS devices ranging from one disk entry level devices to enterprise scale rack solutions. Synology is known to create excellent NAS hardware as well as software. I own an older generation 1 disk NAS and even then the hardware and software was excellent.

The latter option is obviously a technically more involving solution since you need to select and attach the hard drives yourself. However, while this may sound off-putting to some it´s actually as simple as inserting the hard drives into the case after which the NAS takes care of the formatting and preparation of the drive(s).

Simple external storage drives

Even though I can´t really recommend this option, it is possible to use simple external storage drives as your primary file storage.

The way to do this (on a PC) is attaching a disk or folder as a network drive. You should not simply use it directly since the drive is likely to receive a new drive letter at some point which will result in messy file paths.

With fast interfaces such as USB 3.0, eSATA and Thunderbolt, this could be an option if you want to try it out before investing in a more permanent solution.

Cloud storage

If you trust cloud storage with your files, this is yet another option that can be used as separate storage. Due to the nature of cloud storage this is also a good counter measure against the data ransomware issue.

Personally I am not a big believer in cloud storage for a couple of reasons:

  • You have no way of knowing where your data is stored and who actually has access
  • You obviously need an internet connection to access your data which would bring you to a grinding hold if you connection fails.

I suppose it´s a matter of taste and whether you trust the cloud.

Desktop users

Obviously, desktop users have more options when it comes to multiple drive setups and most computer cases are capable of facilitating at least 2-3 hard drives.

You also have the option to use the faster 3.5 inch traditional hard drives which have more capacity per dollar than the smaller 2.5 inch siblings for laptops.

Final thoughts

Creating a new system setup takes a little planning and could potentially involve some level of investment in new hardware. But a couple of ways that can get you going for free could be:

  • Partitioning
  • Cloud storage
  • External hard drives that you already own
  • Extra bare bone hard drives that you already own

I have worked with this basic data organization structure for several years and I truly recommend a setup that isolates the OS one way or another. Once you try a setup like this you will never again want to keep another important file near your operating system!

* Disk image: Full backup of your entire system partition that includes the OS, Programs, Settings, etc.
** Data ransomware: Malicious attack virus that takes control of your computer by encrypting your files followed by a ransom demand in order to release your data.