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Hard Drive Cleaning Best Practices

With the amount of data we handle today and ever-increasing files sizes, it’s only a matter of time before managed services providers (MSPs) find themselves dealing with customers having full C drives. A hard drive that is at or near capacity will slow you down, turning once-simple tasks into time-consuming endeavors, and inhibit your ability to smoothly update installations and add new programs and applications. Regularly cleaning your customers’ hard drives is one thing MSPs should be doing to help maximize space and boost performance.

Beyond performance and functionality, knowing how to clean hard drives is a critical component of security—keeping unnecessary, sensitive files and data around increases your surface of attack exposure. If you’re going to decommission, donate, or recycle a computer, then it’s also important to learn how to properly wipe clean a hard drive so no trace of sensitive information remains.

What is taking up space on my hard drive?

Programs and applications that come bundled into the software you’re using on a daily basis can take up the most space on your hard drive without you even knowing they’re there. Other hidden culprits include old (often redundant) Windows system files that remain after a new Windows update has been implemented.

Many day-to-day files also take up more space than you may realize, especially if hidden duplicates abound. Space taken up by photos and videos in particular can add up quickly, due to advancements made in high-quality image capture. You should also look for temporary files used by other programs. Chrome browser caches, for example, can take up a sizeable chunk of your C drive and must be cleared regularly.

In addition to file type and size, it’s important to be aware of where your files are living. Content on your desktop and in synced OneDrive folders, as well as anything stored in your downloads or recycle bin, all consume space.

How do I clean up my hard drive?

When it comes to how to clean a hard drive, a number of tools and tips exist to help you remove unnecessary files and applications. Storage Sense and Disk Cleanup are two common Windows features that make it easy for you to view file sizes and remove those that are no longer needed. While Disk Cleanup is technically the predecessor of Storage Sense, it’s still widely available and considered the tool of choice for many IT professionals.

The steps needed to remove temporary files with Disk Cleanup vary slightly depending on which version of Windows you’re using, but they all follow roughly the same pattern:

  1. Open “Start”
  2. Search for “Disk Cleanup” and click it when it appears
  3. Use the “Drives” drop-down menu and select the C drive
  4. Click the “OK” button
  5. Click the “Cleanup system files” button
  6. Select the boxes next to the files you want to delete (temporary internet files, downloaded program files, recycle bin, etc.)
  7. Click “OK” and then “Delete Files” when asked if you’re sure you want to delete

Like Disk Cleanup, Storage Sense empowers you to manually view and delete temporary and junk files, quickly freeing space and boosting drive efficiency. The tool can also be configured to automatically remove temporary files and those in your recycle and download bin.

Follow these steps to remove files using Storage sense:

  1. Open “Settings.”
  2. Click on “System.”
  3. Click on “Storage.”
  4. Under the “Storage sense” section, click the “Free up space now option,” or the “Temporary files” box under “Local Disk C” if you’re running the Windows 10 May 2019 update.
  5. Select the content you want to remove, such as downloads, temporary files, recycle bin, delivery optimized files, etc.
  6. Hit “Remove.”

To automate your Storage Sense and stay ahead of hard drive overload, follow these steps:

  1. Open “Settings.”
  2. Click on “System.”
  3. Click on “Storage.”
  4. Under the “Storage sense” section, click the “Change how we free up space automatically” option, or, if you’re running the May 2019 Update, click the “Configure Storage Sense” or “Run it now” option under the “Storage” section.
  5. Turn the “Storage sense” toggle switch on.
  6. Use the “Run Storage” sense drop-down menu and select when (every day, week, month, etc.) you’d like Storage sense to delete temporary files and those in the recycle and downloads bin.

Disk Cleanup and Storage Sense are great options for getting started with hard drive cleaning, but there are many more options to consider. A few of the most effective include:

  • Uninstalling programs: Applications and games consume large amounts of storage space. It’s important to regularly determine which programs are no longer serving a purpose and remove them from your hard drive. To do this, navigate to the control panel and select “Uninstall a panel.” You’ll be guided to a list of all your programs, which you can view by file size, and prompted to select those you’d like to uninstall.
  • Eliminating duplicates: Duplicates as a result of repetitive downloads serve no purpose and only add to the clutter of your hard drive. You can use the CCleaner to search for and eliminate these pesky files manually, or enlist the support of a third-party application designed to quickly detect duplicate files for you. There are many tools out there that can sift through duplicates within Windows and other applications.
  • Disabling hibernation: Hibernation is the Windows 10 feature that allows users to turn off their computer while saving the current session, allowing them to continue their work with ease when they start back up. Although extremely convenient, Hibernation can take up a large amount of disk space. Disabling this function is a smart move to make when cleaning a hard drive. To do so, open your Windows Control Panel and select “Power Options” followed by the “choose what the power buttons do” link. You’ll then see a “change settings that are currently available” link—select this and uncheck the box next to “Hibernate.”
  • Manage cloud-based folders: Cloud-based file storing programs like OneDrive and Dropbox are great when files are accessed online only. However, when synced to the hard drive, storage quickly becomes a problem. This is especially true if the folders contain videos or photo albums. Make large folders available online-only and reserve synced folders for those you access on a daily basis.
  • Compressing files and apps: New Technology File System (NTFS) boasts a built-in compression feature that can reduce the size of files, folders, and entire drives. Windows 10 also has Compact OS, a tool that can compress applications. Just note, both of these features involve potential risks. NTFS compression may impact system performance while Compact OS could potentially lead to irreversible damage to your installation. These forms of compression should be used only when all other hard drive cleaning practices have been implemented, or in cases where immediate storage is needed and a full backup of the PC exists.

How to wipe clean a hard drive

While cleaning your hard drive helps you maximize storage space and improve system functioning, wiping your hard drive clears every trace of personal and sensitive data. If you plan on donating or recycling an outdated employee computer, an entire hard drive wipe is in order.

Many people assume that deleting old files and browser history is all that’s needed to clear their hard drive. But the reality is, cybercriminals can run data recovery software to access your deleted files and get a hold of private information. A full wipe will protect you—and your customers—from this type of attack.

Before you wipe clean a hard drive, make sure to first back up your information on a new computer, external hard drive, or web service to ensure you have access to all essential files in the future. When you’re ready to wipe your computer clean, there are a few options to consider:

  • Third-party software: Several software programs exist that can completely erase your hard drive beyond the point of data recovery techniques. Darik’s Boot and Nuke (DBAN) is one of the most common. DBAN relies on a random number generator to wipe and overwrite all information on your drive multiple times over. Just note—DBAN works only on traditional drives, not solid state drives (SSD).
  • Manual hard drive wipe: some people prefer to go beyond third-party software and physically ensure their hard drive is entirely clear. This can be done by removing your hard drive and putting a rare earth magnet to it. You can also physically dismantle the hard drive if you have no plans on reusing it.
  • New installation: Rewriting the existing hard drive with a new, clean installation of the computer’s original operating system will also erase existing data. This method is often preferred by those who plan to reuse a computer from one employee to another.

Whether you need to simply clean up and secure more space on your existing hard drive or wipe an entire system clear, these tips should get you started.

For more tips on managing the computers under your management, check out the rest of our blog.

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