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Fragmentation occurs when the file system cannot or will not allocate enough contiguous space to store a complete file as a unit, but instead puts parts of it in gaps between existing files (usually those gaps exist because they formerly held a file that the operating system has subsequently deleted or because the file system allocated excess space for the file in the first place). Larger files and greater numbers of files also contribute to fragmentation and consequent performance loss. Defragmentation attempts to alleviate these problems.

In the maintenance of file systems, defragmentation is a process that reduces the amount of fragmentation. It does this by physically organizing the contents of the mass storage device used to store files into the smallest number of contiguous regions (fragments). It also attempts to create larger regions of free space using compaction to impede the return of fragmentation. Some defragmentation utilities try to keep smaller files within a single directory together, as they are often accessed in sequence.

Defragmentation is advantageous and relevant to file systems on electromechanical disk drives. The movement of the hard drive's read/write heads over different areas of the disk when accessing fragmented files is slower, compared to accessing the entire contents of a non-fragmented file sequentially without moving the read/write heads to seekother fragments.