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How Hard Disks Work


by Marshall Brain

6early every desktop co p$ter and server in $se today contains one or ore hard#disk drives. 7very ainfra e and s$perco p$ter is nor ally connected to h$ndreds of the . 8o$ can even find 9C:#type devices and ca corders that $se hard disks instead of tape. These billions of hard disks do one thing well ## they store changing digital infor ation in a relatively per anent for . They give co p$ters the ability to re e ber things when the power goes o$t.

!n this article" we'll take apart a hard disk so that yo$ can see what's inside" and also disc$ss how they organi5e the gigabytes of infor ation they hold in files3

Hard Disk Basics


Hard disks were invented in the 1;+,s. They started as large disks $p to ), inches in dia eter holding <$st a few egabytes. They were originally called (fi4ed disks( or (%inchesters( *a code na e $sed for a pop$lar !BM prod$ct.. They later beca e known as (hard disks( to disting$ish the fro (floppy disks.( Hard disks have a hard platter that holds the agnetic edi$ " as opposed to the fle4ible plastic fil fo$nd in tapes and floppies. /t the si plest level" a hard disk is not that different fro a cassette tape. Both hard disks and cassette tapes $se the sa e magnetic recording techni=$es described in How Tape :ecorders %ork. Hard disks and cassette tapes also share the a<or benefits of agnetic storage ## the agnetic edi$ can be easily erased and rewritten" and it will (re e ber( the agnetic fl$4 patterns stored onto the edi$ for any years. !n the ne4t section" we'll talk abo$t the ain differences between cassette tapes and hard disks.

Cassette Tape vs. Hard Disk


Let's look at the big differences between cassette tapes and hard disks:

The agnetic recording aterial on a cassette tape is coated onto a thin plastic strip. !n a hard disk" the agnetic recording aterial is layered onto a high#precision al$ in$ or glass disk. The hard#disk platter is then polished to irror#type s oothness. %ith a tape" yo$ have to fast#forward or reverse to get to any partic$lar point on the tape. This can take several in$tes with a long tape. &n a hard disk" yo$ can ove to any point on the s$rface of the disk al ost instantly. !n a cassette#tape deck" the read'write head to$ches the tape directly. !n a hard disk" the read'write head (flies( over the disk" never act$ally to$ching it. The tape in a cassette#tape deck oves over the head at abo$t ) inches *abo$t +.,c . per second. / hard#disk platter can spin $nderneath its head at speeds $p to 0",,, inches per second *abo$t 12, ph or )2) kph.3 The infor ation on a hard disk is stored in e4tre ely s all agnetic do ains co pared to a cassette tape's. The si5e of these do ains is ade possible by the precision of the platter and the speed of the edi$ .

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Beca$se of these differences" a odern hard disk is able to store an a a5ing a o$nt of infor ation in a s all space. / hard disk can also access any of its infor ation in a fraction of a second.

Capacity and >erfor ance


/ typical desktop achine will have a hard disk with a capacity of between 1, and ?, gigabytes. Data is stored onto the disk in the for of files. / file is si ply a na ed collection of bytes. The bytes ight be the /@C!! codes for the characters of a te4t file" or they co$ld be the instr$ctions of a software application for the co p$ter to e4ec$te" or they co$ld be the records of a data base" or they co$ld be the pi4el colors for a A!B i age. 6o atter what it contains" however" a file is si ply a string of bytes. %hen a progra r$nning on the co p$ter re=$ests a file" the hard disk retrieves its bytes and sends the to the C>C one at a ti e. There are two ways to

eas$re the perfor ance of a hard disk:

Data rate # The data rate is the n$ ber of bytes per second that the drive can deliver to the C>C. :ates between + and ?, egabytes per second are co on. Seek time # The seek ti e is the a o$nt of ti e between when the C>C re=$ests a file and when the first byte of the file is sent to the C>C. Ti es between 1, and ), illiseconds are co on.

The other i portant para eter is the capacity of the drive" which is the n$ ber of bytes it can hold.

!nside: 7lectronics Board


The best way to $nderstand how a hard disk works is to take a look inside. *6ote that OPENING A HA D DIS! "INS I#" so this is not so ething to try at ho e $nless yo$ have a def$nct drive.. Here is a typical hard#disk drive:

!t is a sealed al$ in$ bo4 with controller electronics attached to one side. The electronics control the read'write echanis and the otor that spins the platters. The electronics also asse ble the agnetic do ains on the drive into bytes *reading. and t$rn bytes into agnetic do ains *writing.. The electronics are all contained on a s all board that detaches fro the rest of the drive:

!nside: Beneath the Board


Cnderneath the board are the connections for the otor that spins the platters" as well as a highly#filtered vent hole that lets internal and e4ternal air press$res e=$ali5e:

:e oving the cover fro

the drive reveals an e4tre ely si ple b$t very precise interior:

!n this pict$re yo$ can see:


The platters # These typically spin at 0"D,, or 2"),, rp when the drive is operating. These platters are an$fact$red to a a5ing tolerances and are irror#s ooth *as yo$ can see in this interesting self#portrait of the a$thor... no easy way to avoid that3.. The arm # This holds the read'write heads and is controlled by the echanis in the $pper#left corner. The ar is able to ove the heads fro the h$b to the edge of the drive. The ar and its ove ent echanis are e4tre ely light and fast. The ar on a typical hard#disk drive can ove fro h$b to edge and back $p to +, ti es per second ## it is an a a5ing thing to watch3

!nside: >latters and Heads


!n order to increase the a o$nt of infor ation the drive can store" ost hard disks have m$ltiple platters. This drive has three platters and si4 read'write heads:

The echanis that oves the ar s on a hard disk has to be incredibly fast and precise. !t can be constr$cted $sing a high#speed linear otor.

Many drives $se a (%oice coil( approach ## the sa e techni=$e $sed to speaker on yo$r stereo is $sed to ove the ar .

ove the cone of a

@toring the Data


Data is stored on the s$rface of a platter in sectors and tracks. Tracks are concentric circles" and sectors are pie#shaped wedges on a track" like this:

/ typical track is shown in yellowE a typical sector is shown in bl$e. / sector contains a fi4ed n$ ber of bytes ## for e4a ple" )+D or +1). 7ither at the drive or the operating syste level" sectors are often gro$ped together into cl$sters. The process of low&le%el formatting a drive establishes the tracks and sectors on the platter. The starting and ending points of each sector are written onto the platter. This process prepares the drive to hold blocks of bytes. High&le%el formatting then writes the file#storage str$ct$res" like the file#allocation table" into the sectors. This process prepares the drive to hold files.