Partition Table

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The following information about Partition Tables only applies to hard disk drives. Most other storage devices use other partitioning techniques, if they even use partitioning at all.



Main article: MBR (x86)

The Master Boot Record is the traditional way of storing partition information about a hard disk, along with some boot code. That is, the Partition Table is contained inside the MBR, which is stored in the first sector (cylinder 0, head 0, sector 1 -- or, alternately, LBA 0) of the hard drive. (See the MBR article for the overall structure and contents of the MBR.)

Almost all PCs still use an MBR for booting hard disks, and for storing partition information on hard disks. Traditional MBRs are nearly obsolete at this time, because the 32 bit design of the LBA fields in the Partition Table begins to "overflow" when dealing with disks larger than 2Tb. The successor to the MBR system is GPT (see below). There were other proposed new standards for the MBR, but the GPT won the battle.

Information about primary partitions and an extended partition is contained in a 64-byte data structure located in the MBR. This Partition Table conforms to a standard layout that is independent of the operating system. Each Partition Table entry is 16 bytes long, making a maximum of four entries available. Each entry starts at a predetermined offset from the beginning of the sector, as follows:

Partition number Offset
Partition 1 0x01BE (446)
Partition 2 0x01CE (462)
Partition 3 0x01DE (478)
Partition 4 0x01EE (494)

Note: Naming the partition table entries as "1" through "4" is for convenience only. The partition table entries are not required to be in any kind of order.

Each of the four Partition Table entries contains the following elements, in the following structure:

Offset Size Description
0x00 1 byte Boot indicator bit flag: 0 = no, 0x80 = bootable (or "active")
0x01 1 byte Starting head
0x02 6 bits Starting sector (Bits 6-7 are the upper two bits for the Starting Cylinder field.)
0x03 10 bits Starting Cylinder
0x04 1 byte System ID
0x05 1 byte Ending Head
0x06 6 bits Ending Sector (Bits 6-7 are the upper two bits for the ending cylinder field)
0x07 10 bits Ending Cylinder
0x08 4 bytes Relative Sector (to start of partition -- also equals the partition's starting LBA value)
0x0C 4 bytes Total Sectors in partition


  • Any one of the partitions may be "active" (ie. bootable).
  • At most one partition should be active.
  • The Partition Table entries are not aligned on 4 byte boundaries (if the MBR is itself loaded into memory on a 4 byte boundary).
  • Therefore, neither are the two uint32_t LBA entry values -- so the LBA values cannot be copied directly into a register.
  • All the entry values are encoded little-endian. Take note of this if fetching the uint32_t LBA entry values two bytes at a time, even on little-endian systems.
  • The Cylinder, Head, Sector fields (taken together) are only 3 bytes (24 bits) long.
  • Sector values (in the CHS fields) of 0 are illegal.
  • CHS fields "max out" on a drive that is approximately 8GB in size -- and are therefore useless on almost all current drives.
  • For drives smaller than 8GB, the LBA fields and the CHS fields must "match" when the values are converted into the other format.
  • For drives bigger than 8GB, generally the CHS fields are set to Cylinder = 1023, Head = 254 or 255, Sector = 63 -- which is considered an invalid setting.
  • If a Partition Table entry is unused, then it should be set to all 0.
  • A System ID byte value of 0 is the definitive indicator for an unused entry.
  • Any other illegal value (CHS Sector = 0 or Total Sectors = 0) may also indicate an unused entry.

The System ID byte

The System ID byte is supposed to indicate what filesystem is contained on the partition (ie. Ext2, ReiserFS, FAT32, NTFS, ...). There was never any standard created for the System ID byte -- which means that Microsoft went and tried to hog almost all of the possible values. See the links below for tables of values of the System ID byte, for filesystems that have been lucky enough to acquire their own value by common consensus.

If you create your own custom filesystem, then you can simply pick a System ID value for your filesystem that seems to be unused. There is also an attempt to standardize the use of System ID value = 0x7f (by the Alt-OS gang), to cover all custom filesystems that follow the standard -- however, their effort seems to be losing steam.

Extended Partitions

Extended partitions are a way of adding more than 4 partitions to a partition table.

The partition table may have one and only one entry that has the SystemID 0x5 (or 0xF). This describes an extended partition.

An extended partition is one physical partition that is subpartitioned into "logical" partitions. So, the partition table entry describing it has a StartLBA and NumSectors that describe the space inside which any number of logical partitions may sit.

At the start of an extended partition is an extended partition table. This takes exactly the same form as a normal partition table, apart from most of the fields are unused. Only two of the partition entries are used - the first one describes the desired logical partition, and the second one is a link (much like a linked list) that points at another extended partition table. The size should officially include the logical partition that follows with it. The remaining two entries are not used and should be left zeroed out.

Note that the StartLBA fields in these extended partition table entries are relative to the start of the extended partition itself.


Main article: GPT

GPT is an updated Partition Table standard, that has been adopted as the recommended partition mechanism under UEFI. It does not contain the artificial 24 bit or 32 bit limitations of the MBR Partition Tables. It also contains enhancements to the concept of partition tables, in general, and is significantly more complex than the MBR scheme.

See Also


External Links

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