Magazine article Technology & Learning

The Chinese Puzzle: Files, Directories, and Folders

Magazine article Technology & Learning

The Chinese Puzzle: Files, Directories, and Folders

Article excerpt

It's not a pleasant situation, but eventually, it will happen to YOU! You'll sit down at the computer and begin looking for that mission-critical file--you know, something like your thesis or the report you've been working on the past two months. It's on your hard disk drive, of that much you are certain, but it's not where you thought it would be. The more time you spend looking for it, the higher your anxiety level becomes.

This situation is not uncommon in computing today. Because so many computer systems are now equipped with hard disk drives that can hold huge amounts of data, users are discovering that there is more to storing information than simply choosing the SAVE command. They must also learn a little about how information is organized and saved on a disk drive.

Program Vs. Data Files

In the world of computers, there are two broad categories of computer files you should know about.

Program files consist of commands that tell the microprocessor, the brain of a computer, what to do. Word processing software, for example, consists of one or more program files that help the microprocessor perform the various functions needed to create the electronic "paper" you see on your computer screen. In contrast, data files contain the work you've done on the computer. The letters, reports, and other documents you create with your word processig software are saved to the disk in the form of data files. In short, program files are the tools for creating data files.

If you're an MS-DOS user, you can tell the difference between program and data files stored on your hard drive by calling up your directory (when you see the C:, type dir and press Emer). Program files have the extension .EXE after their names (WP.EXE) because they can be EXEcuted. Data files have many different extensions, but some common ones are .DAT (word processing file), .DBF (database file), and .EPS (encapsulated PostScript, a graphics file).

In the Mac World where all files are represented by small pictures called icons, the difference is even more obvious. Program files are represented by individually designed symbols (often pictured in color on color Macs), while data files generally look something like pieces of paper with one comer turned down.

How Files Are Organized on a Hard Drive

In the good old days before computers, information about a particular topic was typically stored in a manila folder in a file cabinet. To look for seventh-grader Pat Smith's file, you'd go to the file cabinet, pull out the second drawer (where grade 7 information is kept) and search in the front section (where Ms. Jordan's class of seventh-graders is located). You would then have no trouble finding Pat Smith's information because the student files would be arranged alphabetically.

Now let's look at how files are organized and stored on a hard drive. In the MS-DOS world (of IBM and compatible computers), files are arranged on the hard drive in a hierarchy. The system is similar to the way information is listed in the Yellow Pages of the telephone book: A major category AUTOMOBILE is followed by a subcategory AUTOMOBILE DEALERS, and the individual vendors are listed thereafter. Major categories are called directories, and subcategories are referred to as subdirectories. Individual files are stored where appropriate within these directories. Information about a student named Pat Smith, therefore, might be stored in a file named SMITH within a subdirectory called JORDAN as part of a directory called GRADE7.

But how do you access Smith's file when you're sitting at your start-up screen? …

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