The purpose of this article is to provide just the right balance of technical detail to convey a good insight into

the innards of a hard disk drive and how if basically works without burdening the reader with excessive technical detail. HARD DISK ASSEMBLY. A hard disk drive consists of a motor, spindle, platters, read/write heads, actuator, frame, air filter, and electronics. The frame mounts the mechanical parts of the drive and is sealed with a cover. The sealed part of the drive is known as the Hard Disk Assembly or HDA. The drive electronics usually consists of one or more printed circuit boards mounted on the bottom of the HDA. A head and platter can be visualized as being similar to a record and playback head on an old phonograph, except the data structure of a hard disk is arranged into concentric circles instead of in a spiral as it on a phonograph record (and CD-ROM). A hard disk has one or more platters and each platter usually has a head on each of its sides. The platters in modern drives are made from glass or ceramic to avoid the unfavorable thermal characteristics of the aluminum platters found in older drives. A layer of magnetic material is deposited/sputtered on the surface of the platters and those in most of the drives I've dissected have shiny, chrome-like surfaces. The platters are mounted on the spindle which is turned by the drive motor. Most current IDE hard disk drives spin at 5,400, 7,200, or 10,000 RPM and 15,000 RPM drives are emerging.

HARD DISK DRIVE GUIDE How a Hard Disk Drive Works
Last updated: 2/27/2005

HEADS. The heads (or Winchester sliders) are spring-loaded airfoils and actually fly like an airplane above (or below) the surface of the platters at a distance measured in micro-inches. The air stream though which a head "fly" is caused by the motion of the platters spinning through the air inside the HDA. The platters drag the air along by friction. The higher pressure air between the heads and the platters is known as air bearing. The effect is somewhat like a puck in an air hockey game. The bottom of a head is called an air bearing surface. This sort of mechanism was introduced in the Winchester hard disk drive invented by IBM in 1973. The heads are extremely small electromagnets (about 1 mm square) and one is shown schematically to the right (for a prettier and more detailed picture with separate read and write elements, click here). Information is stored on the platters by sending pulses of current from the drive electronics to the head. The

direction of the current and thus the direction of the diverging magnetic field across the gap in the head determines the direction the magnetic domains (little bitty, molecular magnets) on a particular spot on the platter's magnetic coating, and, thus, whether the spot represents a binary one or zero. The domains essentially retain their directional bent (whether the computer is on or off) until "told" to do otherwise by the drive electronics, which take their orders from the rest of the computer and ultimately from software. The complexity of the mechanisms and methods associated with doing all of this will be omitted here. The heads are bonded to a metal suspension (or head arm), which is a small arm that holds the head in position above or beneath a disk. A head and suspension is called a head-gimbal assembly or HGA. The HGA's are stacked together Into a head-stack assembly, which is propelled across the disk surface by the actuator. The actuator on most recent hard disks employs a voice coil mechanism. It functions much like the voice coil in a loud speaker, thus its name. It consists of a curved magnet (or magnets--very strong ones) and a spring-loaded coil of fine wire which is attached to the read/write heads by head arms. The head arms are attached to, and pivot about an actuator shaft. When the drive electronics apply an electric current to the actuator coil, it interacts with the magnet and swings against the actuator spring. The heads rotate around the actuator shaft in the opposite direction of the coil movement, inward and outward from the center to the edges of the platters. If there is a power outage (e.g., you turn-off the computer) the spring, which counterbalances the electromagnetic force between the coil and magnet, takes over and automatically parks (lands them on skids or nanosliders--like pontoons on a sea plane) and locks the heads on a part of the platters called a landing zone (like an airport runway only curved) before they can crash (like an airplane) on, and mar that part of the surface of the platters where data is stored. When power is restored, the platters speed-up and the heads take off (like a tethered model airplane, except the ground moves--and those on the bottoms of the platters can fly up-side-down) and start flying again-an extraordinary mechanism... One no longer has to park a hard disk before moving the computer as was the case in times of old when actuators were moved by devices known as stepper motors. However, if the power jitters repeatedly or the drive is subjected whack from a frustrated user, a crash can occur.

HARD DISK DRIVE GUIDE How a Hard Disk Drive Works
Last updated: 2/5/2002

SERVO-FORMATTING. Try to visualize a thin, hollow cylinder passing through all of the platters in a hard disk drive. It would produce a circular track on each side of each platter. Now divide each tack into equal arcs or sectors. Well, that is exactly how a hard disk is organized. That is, Cylinders, Heads (which are equal the number of tracks/cylinder or platter sides), and Sectors are the coordinates of the data on a hard disk drive. There are two kinds of sectors on a hard disk. The first and at the very lowest level is the servo sector. When a hard disk is manufactured a special pattern is written in a code called a Gray code on the surface of the platters, while the drive is open in a clean room, 000 with an expensive machine called a servowriter. 001 A Gray Code is a binary code in which successive numbers differ 011 by only a single bit. Although many Gray Codes are possible, one 010 specific Gray Code is considered the Gray Code because of its efficiency in computation. This efficiency is why it is used for the 110 servo pattern instead of other binary codes. A three-bit Gray Code 111 is shown to the right. 101 Although there are other schemes, the Gray Code is written in a wedge at 100 the start of each sector (an embedded servo pattern) on most drives. There are a fixed number of servo sectors per track and the sectors are adjacent to one another. This pattern is permanent and cannot be changed by writing normal data to the drive. It also cannot be changed by low-level formatting (see below) the drive, as some may think. If it is changed, the drive has had it--kaput! The electronics use feedback from the heads, which read the Gray code pattern, to very accurately position, and constantly correct the radial position of the appropriate head over the desired track, at the beginning of each sector, to compensate for variations in platter geometry, caused by mechanical stress and thermo expansion and contraction. Altogether, the head positioning components form what is know as closed-loop servo system--a marvelous (and, perhaps, dangerous) thing to watch operate in a drive which has been opened.

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