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3. Drive Technologies

A far more complete discussion on drive technologies for IBM PCs can be found at the home page of The Enhanced IDE/Fast-ATA FAQ which is also regularly posted on Usenet News. There is also a site dedicated to ATA and ATAPI Information and Software.

Here I will just present what is needed to get an understanding of the technology and get you started on your setup.

3.1 Drives

This is the physical device where your data lives and although the operating system makes the various types seem rather similar they can in actual fact be very different. An understanding of how it works can be very useful in your design work. Floppy drives fall outside the scope of this document, though should there be a big demand I could perhaps be persuaded to add a little here.

3.2 Geometry

Physically disk drives consists of one or more platters containing data that is read in and out using sensors mounted on movable heads that are fixed with respects to themselves. Data transfers therefore happens across all surfaces simultaneously which defines a cylinder of tracks. The drive is also divided into sectors containing a number of data fields.

Drives are therefore often specified in terms of its geometry: the number of Cylinders, Heads and Sectors (CHS).

For various reasons there is now a number of translations between

Basically it is a mess and a source of much confusion. For more information you are strongly recommended to read the Large Disk mini-HOWTO

3.3 Media

The media technology determines important parameters such as read/write rates, seek times, storage size as well as if it is read/write or read only.

Magnetic Drives

This is the typical read-write mass storage medium, and as everything else in the computer world, comes in many flavours with different properties. Usually this is the fastest technology and offers read/write capability. The platter rotates with a constant angular velocity (CAV) with a variable physical sector density for more efficient magnetic media area utilisation. In other words, the number of bits per unit length is kept roughly constant by increasing the number of logical sectors for the outer tracks.

Typical values for rotational speeds are 4500 and 5400 RPM, though 7200 is also used. Very recently also 10000 RPM has entered the mass market. Seek times are around 10 ms, transfer rates quite variable from one type to another but typically 4-40 MB/s. With the extreme high performance drives you should remember that performance costs more electric power which is dissipated as heat, see the point on Power and Heating.

Note that there are several kinds of transfers going on here, and that these are quoted in different units. First of all there is the platter-to-drive cache transfer, usually quoted in Mbits/s. Typical values here is about 50-250 Mbits/s. The second stage is from the built in drive cache to the adapter, and this is typically quoted in MB/s, and typical quoted values here is 3-40 MB/s. Note, however, that this assumed data is already in the cache and hence for maximum readout speed from the drive the effective transfer rate will decrease dramatically.

Optical Drives

Optical read/write drives exist but are slow and not so common. They were used in the NeXT machine but the low speed was a source for much of the complaints. The low speed is mainly due to the thermal nature of the phase change that represents the data storage. Even when using relatively powerful lasers to induce the phase changes the effects are still slower than the magnetic effect used in magnetic drives.

Today many people use CD-ROM drives which, as the name suggests, is read-only. Storage is about 650 MB, transfer speeds are variable, depending on the drive but can exceed 1.5 MB/s. Data is stored on a spiraling single track so it is not useful to talk about geometry for this. Data density is constant so the drive uses constant linear velocity (CLV). Seek is also slower, about 100 ms, partially due to the spiraling track. Recent, high speed drives, use a mix of CLV and CAV in order to maximize performance. This also reduces access time caused by the need to reach correct rotational speed for readout.

A new type (DVD) is on the horizon, offering up to about 18 GB on a single disk.

Solid State Drives

This is a relatively recent addition to the available technology and has been made popular especially in portable computers as well as in embedded systems. Containing no movable parts they are very fast both in terms of access and transfer rates. The most popular type is flash RAM, but also other types of RAM is used. A few years ago many had great hopes for magnetic bubble memories but it turned out to be relatively expensive and is not that common.

In general the use of RAM disks are regarded as a bad idea as it is normally more sensible to add more RAM to the motherboard and let the operating system divide the memory pool into buffers, cache, program and data areas. Only in very special cases, such as real time systems with short time margins, can RAM disks be a sensible solution.

Flash RAM is today available in several 10's of megabytes in storage and one might be tempted to use it for fast, temporary storage in a computer. There is however a huge snag with this: flash RAM has a finite life time in terms of the number of times you can rewrite data, so putting swap, /tmp or /var/tmp on such a device will certainly shorten its lifetime dramatically. Instead, using flash RAM for directories that are read often but rarely written to, will be a big performance win.

In order to get the optimum life time out of flash RAM you will need to use special drivers that will use the RAM evenly and minimize the number of block erases.

This example illustrates the advantages of splitting up your directory structure over several devices.

Solid state drives have no real cylinder/head/sector addressing but for compatibility reasons this is simulated by the driver to give a uniform interface to the operating system.

3.4 Interfaces

There is a plethora of interfaces to chose from widely ranging in price and performance. Most motherboards today include IDE interface which are part of modern chipsets.

Many motherboards also include a SCSI interface chip made by Symbios (formerly NCR) and that is connected directly to the PCI bus. Check what you have and what BIOS support you have with it.


Once upon a time this was the established technology, a time when 20 MB was awesome, which compared to todays sizes makes you think that dinosaurs roamed the Earth with these drives. Like the dinosaurs these are outdated and are slow and unreliable compared to what we have today. Linux does support this but you are well advised to think twice about what you would put on this. One might argue that an emergency partition with a suitable vintage of DOS might be fitting.


Actually, ESDI was an adaptation of the very widely used SMD interface used on "big" computers to the cable set used with the ST506 interface, which was more convenient to package than the 60-pin + 26-pin connector pair used with SMD. The ST506 was a "dumb" interface which relied entirely on the controller and host computer to do everything from computing head/cylinder/sector locations and keeping track of the head location, etc. ST506 required the controller to extract clock from the recovered data, and control the physical location of detailed track features on the medium, bit by bit. It had about a 10-year life if you include the use of MFM, RLL, and ERLL/ARLL modulation schemes. ESDI, on the other hand, had intelligence, often using three or four separate microprocessors on a single drive, and high-level commands to format a track, transfer data, perform seeks, and so on. Clock recovery from the data stream was accomplished at the drive, which drove the clock line and presented its data in NRZ, though error correction was still the task of the controller. ESDI allowed the use of variable bit density recording, or, for that matter, any other modulation technique, since it was locally generated and resolved at the drive. Though many of the techniques used in ESDI were later incorporated in IDE, it was the increased popularity of SCSI which led to the demise of ESDI in computers. ESDI had a life of about 10 years, though mostly in servers and otherwise "big" systems rather than PC's.


Progress made the drive electronics migrate from the ISA slot card over to the drive itself and Integrated Drive Electronics was borne. It was simple, cheap and reasonably fast so the BIOS designers provided the kind of snag that the computer industry is so full of. A combination of an IDE limitation of 16 heads together with the BIOS limitation of 1024 cylinders gave us the infamous 504 MB limit. Following the computer industry traditions again, the snag was patched with a kludge and we got all sorts of translation schemes and BIOS bodges. This means that you need to read the installation documentation very carefully and check up on what BIOS you have and what date it has as the BIOS has to tell Linux what size drive you have. Fortunately with Linux you can also tell the kernel directly what size drive you have with the drive parameters, check the documentation for LILO and Loadlin, thoroughly. Note also that IDE is equivalent to ATA, AT Attachment. IDE uses CPU-intensive Programmed Input/Output (PIO) to transfer data to and from the drives and has no capability for the more efficient Direct Memory Access (DMA) technology. Highest transfer rate is 8.3 MB/s.

EIDE, Fast-ATA and ATA-2

These 3 terms are roughly equivalent, fast-ATA is ATA-2 but EIDE additionally includes ATAPI. ATA-2 is what most use these days which is faster and with DMA. Highest transfer rate is increased to 16.6 MB/s.


A new, faster DMA mode that is approximately twice the speed of EIDE PIO-Mode 4 (33 MB/s). Disks with and without Ultra-ATA can be mixed on the same cable without speed penalty for the faster adapters. The Ultra-ATA interface is electrically identical with the normal Fast-ATA interface, including the maximum cable length.

The ATA/66 was superceeded by ATA/100 and very recently we have now gotten ATA/133. While the interface speed has iproved dramatically the disks are often limited by platter-to-cache limites which today stands at about 40 MB/s.

For more information read up on these overviews and whitepapers from Maxtor: Fast Drives Technology on the ATA/133 interface and Big Drives Technology on breaking the 137 GB limit.


A new, standard has been agreed upon, the Serial-ATA interface, backed by the The Serial ATA group who made the announcement in August 2001.

Advantages are numerous: simple, thin connectors rather than old cumbersome cable mats that also obstructued air flow, higher speeds (about 150 MB/s) and backward compatibility.


The ATA Packet Interface was designed to support CD-ROM drives using the IDE port and like IDE it is cheap and simple.


The Small Computer System Interface is a multi purpose interface that can be used to connect to everything from drives, disk arrays, printers, scanners and more. The name is a bit of a misnomer as it has traditionally been used by the higher end of the market as well as in work stations since it is well suited for multi tasking environments.

The standard interface is 8 bits wide and can address 8 devices. There is a wide version with 16 bit that is twice as fast on the same clock and can address 16 devices. The host adapter always counts as a device and is usually number 7. It is also possible to have 32 bit wide busses but this usually requires a double set of cables to carry all the lines.

The old standard was 5 MB/s and the newer fast-SCSI increased this to 10 MB/s. Recently ultra-SCSI, also known as Fast-20, arrived with 20 MB/s transfer rates for an 8 bit wide bus. New low voltage differential (LVD) signalling allows these high speeds as well as much longer cabling than before.

Even more recently an even faster standard has been introduced: SCSI 160 (originally named SCSI 160/m) which is capable of a monstrous 160 MB/s over a 16 bit wide bus. Support is scarce yet but for a few 10000 RPM drives that can transfer 40 MB/s sustained. Putting 6 such drives on a RAID will keep such a bus saturated and also saturate most PCI busses. Obviously this is only for the very highest end servers per today. More information on this standard is available at The Ultra 160 SCSI home page

Adaptec just announced a Linux driver for their SCSI 160 host adapter. More information will come when more information becomes available.

Now also SCSI/320 is available.

The higher performance comes at a cost that is usually higher than for (E)IDE. The importance of correct termination and good quality cables cannot be overemphasized. SCSI drives also often tend to be of a higher quality than IDE drives. Also adding SCSI devices tend to be easier than adding more IDE drives: Often it is only a matter of plugging or unplugging the device; some people do this without powering down the system. This feature is most convenient when you have multiple systems and you can just take the devices from one system to the other should one of them fail for some reason.

There is a number of useful documents you should read if you use SCSI, the SCSI HOWTO as well as the SCSI FAQ posted on Usenet News.

SCSI also has the advantage you can connect it easily to tape drives for backing up your data, as well as some printers and scanners. It is even possible to use it as a very fast network between computers while simultaneously share SCSI devices on the same bus. Work is under way but due to problems with ensuring cache coherency between the different computers connected, this is a non trivial task.

SCSI numbers are also used for arbitration. If several drives request service, the drive with the lowest number is given priority.

Note that newer SCSI cards will simultaneously support an array of different types of SCSI devices all at individually optimized speeds.

3.5 Cabling

I do not intend to make too many comments on hardware but I feel I should make a little note on cabling. This might seem like a remarkably low technological piece of equipment, yet sadly it is the source of many frustrating problems. At todays high speeds one should think of the cable more of a an RF device with its inherent demands on impedance matching. If you do not take your precautions you will get a much reduced reliability or total failure. Some SCSI host adapters are more sensitive to this than others.

Shielded cables are of course better than unshielded but the price is much higher. With a little care you can get good performance from a cheap unshielded cable.

More information on SCSI cabling and termination can be found at various web pages around the net.

3.6 Host Adapters

This is the other end of the interface from the drive, the part that is connected to a computer bus. The speed of the computer bus and that of the drives should be roughly similar, otherwise you have a bottleneck in your system. Connecting a RAID 0 disk-farm to a ISA card is pointless. These days most computers come with 32 bit PCI bus capable of 132 MB/s transfers which should not represent a bottleneck for most people in the near future.

As the drive electronic migrated to the drives the remaining part that became the (E)IDE interface is so small it can easily fit into the PCI chip set. The SCSI host adapter is more complex and often includes a small CPU of its own and is therefore more expensive and not integrated into the PCI chip sets available today. Technological evolution might change this.

Some host adapters come with separate caching and intelligence but as this is basically second guessing the operating system the gains are heavily dependent on which operating system is used. Some of the more primitive ones, that shall remain nameless, experience great gains. Linux, on the other hand, have so much smarts of its own that the gains are much smaller.

Mike Neuffer, who did the drivers for the DPT controllers, states that the DPT controllers are intelligent enough that given enough cache memory it will give you a big push in performance and suggests that people who have experienced little gains with smart controllers just have not used a sufficiently intelligent caching controller.

3.7 Multi Channel Systems

In order to increase throughput it is necessary to identify the most significant bottlenecks and then eliminate them. In some systems, in particular where there are a great number of drives connected, it is advantageous to use several controllers working in parallel, both for SCSI host adapters as well as IDE controllers which usually have 2 channels built in. Linux supports this.

Some RAID controllers feature 2 or 3 channels and it pays to spread the disk load across all channels. In other words, if you have two SCSI drives you want to RAID and a two channel controller, you should put each drive on separate channels.

3.8 Multi Board Systems

In addition to having both a SCSI and an IDE in the same machine it is also possible to have more than one SCSI controller. Check the SCSI-HOWTO on what controllers you can combine. Also you will most likely have to tell the kernel it should probe for more than just a single SCSI or a single IDE controller. This is done using kernel parameters when booting, for instance using LILO. Check the HOWTOs for SCSI and LILO for how to do this.

Multi board systems can offer significant speed gains if you configure your disks right, especially for RAID0. Make sure you interleave the controllers as well as the drives, so that you add drives to the md RAID device in the right order. If controller 1 is connected to drives sda and sdc while controller 2 is connected to drives sdb and sdd you will gain more paralellicity by adding in the order of sda - sdc - sdb - sdd rather than sda - sdb - sdc - sdd because a read or write over more than one cluster will be more likely to span two controllers.

The same methods can also be applied to IDE. Most motherboards come with typically 4 IDE ports:

where the two primaries share one flat cable and the secondaries share another cable. Modern chipsets keep these independent. Therefore it is best to RAID in the order hda - hdc - hdb - hdd as this will most likely parallelise both channels.

3.9 Speed Comparison

The following tables are given just to indicate what speeds are possible but remember that these are the theoretical maximum speeds. All transfer rates are in MB per second and bus widths are measured in bits.


IDE             :        8.3 - 16.7
Ultra-ATA       :       33 - 66

SCSI            :
                        Bus width (bits)

Bus Speed (MHz)         |        8      16      32
 5                      |        5      10      20
10  (fast)              |       10      20      40
20  (fast-20 / ultra)   |       20      40      80
40  (fast-40 / ultra-2) |       40      80      --

Bus Types

ISA             :        8-12
EISA            :       33
VESA            :       40    (Sometimes tuned to 50)

                        Bus width (bits)

Bus Speed (MHz)         |       32      64
33                      |       132     264
66                      |       264     528

3.10 Benchmarking

This is a very, very difficult topic and I will only make a few cautious comments about this minefield. First of all, it is more difficult to make comparable benchmarks that have any actual meaning. This, however, does not stop people from trying...

Instead one can use benchmarking to diagnose your own system, to check it is going as fast as it should, that is, not slowing down. Also you would expect a significant increase when switching from a simple file system to RAID, so a lack of performance gain will tell you something is wrong.

When you try to benchmark you should not hack up your own, instead look up iozone and bonnie and read the documentation very carefully. In particular make sure your buffer size is bigger than your RAM size, otherwise you test your RAM rather than your disks which will give you unrealistically high performance.

A very simple benchmark can be obtained using hdparm -tT which can be used both on IDE and SCSI drives.

For more information on benchmarking and software for a number of platforms, check out ACNC benchmark page as well as this one and also The Benchmarking-HOWTO.

There are also official home pages for bonnie, bonnie++ and iozone.

Trivia: Bonnie is intended to locate bottlenecks, the name is a tribute to Bonnie Raitt, "who knows how to use one" as the author puts it.

3.11 Comparisons

SCSI offers more performance than EIDE but at a price. Termination is more complex but expansion not too difficult. Having more than 4 (or in some cases 2) IDE drives can be complicated, with wide SCSI you can have up to 15 per adapter. Some SCSI host adapters have several channels thereby multiplying the number of possible drives even further.

For SCSI you have to dedicate one IRQ per host adapter which can control up to 15 drives. With EIDE you need one IRQ for each channel (which can connect up to 2 disks, master and slave) which can cause conflict.

RLL and MFM is in general too old, slow and unreliable to be of much use.

3.12 Future Development

SCSI-3 is under way and will hopefully be released soon. Faster devices are already being announced, recently an 80 MB/s and then a 160 MB/s monster specification has been proposed and also very recently became commercially available. These are based around the Ultra-2 standard (which used a 40 MHz clock) combined with a 16 bit cable.

Some manufacturers already announce SCSI-3 devices but this is currently rather premature as the standard is not yet firm. As the transfer speeds increase the saturation point of the PCI bus is getting closer. Currently the 64 bit version has a limit of 264 MB/s. The PCI transfer rate will in the future be increased from the current 33 MHz to 66 MHz, thereby increasing the limit to 528 MB/s.

The ATA development is continuing and is increasing the performance with the new ATA/100 standard. Since most ATA drives are slower in sustained transfer from platter than this the performance increase will for most people be small.

More interesting is the Serial ATA development, where the flat cable will be replaced with a high speed serial link. This makes cabling far simpler than today and also it solves the problem of cabling obstructing airflow over the drives.

Another trend is for larger and larger drives. I hear it is possible to get 75 GB on a single drive though this is rather expensive. Currently the optimum storage for your money is about 30 GB but also this is continuously increasing. The introduction of DVD will in the near future have a big impact, with nearly 20 GB on a single disk you can have a complete copy of even major FTP sites from around the world. The only thing we can be reasonably sure about the future is that even if it won't get any better, it will definitely be bigger.

Addendum: soon after I first wrote this I read that the maximum useful speed for a CD-ROM was 20x as mechanical stability would be too great a problem at these speeds. About one month after that again the first commercial 24x CD-ROMs were available... Currently you can get 40x and no doubt higher speeds are in the pipeline.

A project to encapsulate SCSI over TCP/IP, called iSCSI has started, and one Linux iSCSI implementation has appeared.

3.13 Recommendations

My personal view is that EIDE or Ultra ATA is the best way to start out on your system, especially if you intend to use DOS as well on your machine. If you plan to expand your system over many years or use it as a server I would strongly recommend you get SCSI drives. Currently wide SCSI is a little more expensive. You are generally more likely to get more for your money with standard width SCSI. There is also differential versions of the SCSI bus which increases maximum length of the cable. The price increase is even more substantial and cannot therefore be recommended for normal users.

In addition to disk drives you can also connect some types of scanners and printers and even networks to a SCSI bus.

Also keep in mind that as you expand your system you will draw ever more power, so make sure your power supply is rated for the job and that you have sufficient cooling. Many SCSI drives offer the option of sequential spin-up which is a good idea for large systems. See also Power and Heating.

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