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How A Hard Drive Works
A hard disk uses rigid rotating platters
(disks). Each platter has a planar magnetic surface on which digital data
may be stored. Information is written to the disk by transmitting an electromagnetic
flux through an antenna or read-write
head that is very close to a magnetic material, which in turn changes
its polarization due to the flux. The information can be read by a read-write
head which senses electrical change as the magnetic fields pass by in
close proximity as the platter rotates.
A typical hard disk drive design consists of a central axis or spindle
upon which the platters spin at a constant rotational velocity. Moving
along and between the platters on a common armature are read-write heads,
with one head for each platter face. The armature moves the heads radially
across the platters as they spin, allowing each head access to the entirety
of the platter.
The associated electronics control the movement of the read-write armature
and the rotation of the disk, and perform reads and writes on demand from
the disk controller. Modern drive firmware is capable of scheduling reads
and writes efficiently on the disk surfaces and remapping sectors of the
disk which have failed.
Also, most major hard drive and motherboard vendors now support S.M.A.R.T.
technology, by which impending failures can often be predicted, allowing
the user to be alerted in time to prevent data loss.
The (mostly) sealed enclosure protects the drive internals from dust,
condensation, and other sources of contamination. The hard disk's read-write
heads fly on an air bearing (a cushion of air) only nanometres above the
disk surface. The disk surface and the drive's internal environment must
therefore be kept immaculately clean to prevent damage from fingerprints,
hair, dust, smoke particles, etc. given the submicroscopic gap between
the heads and disk.
Contrary to popular belief, a hard disk drive does not contain a vacuum.
Instead, the system relies on air pressure inside the drive to support
the heads at their proper flying height while the disk is in motion. Another
common misconception is that a hard drive is totally sealed. A hard disk
drive requires a certain range of air pressures in order to operate properly.
If the air pressure is too low, the air will not exert enough force on
the flying head, the head will not be at the proper height, and there
is a risk of head crashes and data loss. (Specially manufactured sealed
and pressurized drives are needed for reliable high-altitude operation,
above about 10,000 feet. This does not apply to pressurized enclosures,
like an airplane cabin.) Modern drives include temperature sensors and
adjust their operation to the operating environment.
Hard disk drives are not airtight. They have a permeable filter (a breather
filter) between the top cover and inside of the drive, to allow the pressure
inside and outside the drive to equalize while keeping out dust and dirt.
The filter also allows moisture in the air to enter the drive. Very high
humidity year-round will cause accelerated wear of the drive's heads (by
increasing stiction, or the tendency for the heads to stick to the disk
surface, which causes physical damage to the disk and spindle motor).
You can see these breather holes on all drives -- they usually have a
warning sticker next to them, informing the user not to cover the holes.
The air inside the operating drive is constantly moving too, being swept
in motion by friction with the spinning disk platters. This air passes
through an internal filter to remove any leftover contaminants from manufacture,
any particles that may have somehow entered the drive, and any particles
generated by head crash.
Due to the extremely close spacing of the heads and disk surface, any
contamination of the read-write heads or disk platters can lead to a head
crash - a failure of the disk in which the head scrapes across the platter
surface, often grinding away the thin magnetic film. For Giant Magnetoresistive
(GMR) heads in particular, a minor head crash from contamination (that
does not remove the magnetic surface of the disk) will still result in
the head temporarily overheating, due to friction with the disk surface,
and renders the disk unreadable until the head temperature stabilizes.
Head crashes can be caused by electronic failure, a sudden power failure,
physical shock, wear and tear, or poorly manufactured disks. Normally,
when powering down, a hard disk moves its heads to a safe area of the
disk, where no data is ever kept (the landing zone). However, especially
in old models, sudden power interruptions or a power supply failure can
result in the drive shutting down with the heads in the data zone, which
increases the risk of data loss. Newer drives are designed such that the
rotational inertia in the platters is used to safely park the heads in
the case of unexpected power loss. IBM pioneered drives with "head unloading"
technology that lifts the heads off the platters onto "ramps" instead
of having them rest on the platters, reducing the risk of stiction. Other
manufacturers also use this technology.
Apple has created a technology for their PowerBook line of laptop computers
called Sudden Motion Sensor, or SMS. When an instant movement detected
by the built-in motion sensor in the PowerBook, internal hard disk heads
automatically unload themselves into the parking zone to reduce the risk
of any potential data loss or scratches made.
Spring tension from the head mounting constantly pushes the heads towards
the disk. While the disk is spinning, the heads are supported by an air
bearing and experience no physical contact wear. The sliders (the part
of the heads that are closest to the disk and contain the pickup coil
itself) are designed to reliably survive a number of landings and takeoffs
from the disk surface, though wear and tear on these microscopic components
eventually takes its toll. Most manufacturers design the sliders to survive
50,000 contact cycles before the chance of damage on startup rises above
50%. However, the decay rate is not linear - when a drive is younger and
has fewer start/stop cycles, it has a better chance of surviving the next
startup than an older, higher-mileage drive (as the head literally drags
along the drive's surface until the air bearing is established). For example,
the Maxtor DiamondMax series of desktop hard drives are rated to 50,000
start-stop cycles. This means that no failures attributed to the head-disk
interface were seen before at least 50,000 start-stop cycles during testing.
Using rigid platters and sealing the unit allows much tighter tolerances
than in a floppy disk. Consequently, hard disks can store much more data
than floppy disk, and access and transmit it faster. In 2005, a typical
workstation hard disk might store between 80 GB and 500 GB of data, rotate
at 7,200 to 10,000 rpm, and have a sequential transfer rate of over 50
MB/s. The fastest workstation and server hard drives spin at 15,000 rpm.
Notebook hard drives, which are physically smaller than their desktop
counterparts, tend to be slower and have less capacity. Most spin at only
4,200 rpm or 5,400 rpm, though the newest top models spin at 7,200 rpm.
A hard disk is generally accessed over one of a number of bus types,
including ATA (IDE, EIDE), Serial ATA, SCSI, SAS, FireWire (aka IEEE 1394),
USB, and Fibre Channel.
Back in the days of the ST-506 interface, the data encoding scheme was
also important. The first ST-506 disks used Modified Frequency Modulation
(MFM) encoding (which is still used on the common "1.44 MB" (1.4 MiB)
3.5-inch floppy), and ran at a data rate of 5 megabits per second. Later
on, controllers using 2,7 RLL (or just "RLL") encoding increased this
by half, to 7.5 megabits per second; it also increased drive capacity
Many ST-506 interface drives were only certified by the manufacturer
to run at the lower MFM data rate, while other models (usually more expensive
versions of the same basic drive) were certified to run at the higher
RLL data rate. In some cases, the drive was overengineered just enough
to allow the MFM-certified model to run at the faster data rate; however,
this was often unreliable and was not recommended. (An RLL-certified drive
could run on a MFM controller, but with 1/3 less data capacity and speed.)
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