Hard drive

  • The role of the hard drive
  • Structure
  • How it works
  • Block mode
  • 32-bit mode
  • Technical specifications

The role of the hard drive

The hard drive is the component which is used to permanently store data, as opposed to RAM, which is erased whenever the computer is restarted, which is why the term mass storage device is sometimes used to refer to hard drives.

The hard drive is connected to the motherboard using a hard drive controller which acts as an interface between the processor and the hard drive. The hard drive controller manages the drives linked to it, interprets commands sent by the processor and routes them to the drive in question. Hard drives are generally grouped by interface as follows:

  • IDE
  • SCSI
  • Serial ATA

When the USB standard appeared, external cases which could connect a hard drive using a USB port were released, making hard drives easy to install and increasing storage capacity for macking backups. These are called external hard drives, as opposed to internal hard drives which are plugged directly into the motherboard; still, they are the same disks, even though they are connected to the computer using a case plugged into a USB port.


A hard drive is made up of not just one, but several rigid metal, glass, or ceramic disks, stacked very close to one another and called platters.

Hard drive

The disks turn very quickly around an axle (currently several thousand revolutions per minute) in a counter-clockwise direction. A computer works in binart mode, meaning that the data is stored in the form of 0s and 1s (called bits). Hard drives hold millions of these bits, stored very close to one another on a fine magntic layer a few microns thick, which is covered by a protective film.

They are read and written using read heads located on both sides of the platters. These heads are electromagnets which raise and lower themselves in order to read or write data. The read heads are only a few microns from the surface, separated by a layer of air created by the rotation of the disks, which generates a wind of about 250km/h (150 mph)! What's more, these disks are laterally mobile, so that the heads can sweep across their entire surface.

Structure of a hard drive (read heads)

However, the heads are linked to one another and only one of them can read or write at a given moment. The term cylinder is used to refer to all the data stored vertically on each of the disks.

This entire precision mechanism is contained within a fully airtight case, as the smallest particle can degrade the disk's surface. This is why hard drives are closed shut with seals, and the warning "Warranty void if removed", as only hard drive manufacturers can open them (in particle-free "cleanrooms").

How it works

The read/write heads are said to be "inductive", meaning that they can generate a magnetic field. This is especially important in writing: The heads, by creating positive or negative fields, polarise the disk surface in a very tiny area, so that when they are read afterwards, the polarity reversal completes a circuit with the read head, which is then transformed by an analog-digital converter (ADC) into a 0 or 1 which can be understood by the computer.

Tracks on a hard drive

The heads start writing data from the edge of the disk (track 0), then move onward towards the centre. The data is organized in concentric circles called "tracks", which are created by low-level formatting.

The tracks are separated into areas (between two radii) called sectors, containing data (generally at least 512 octets per sector).

Hard drive sectors

The term cylinder refers to all data found on the same track of different platters (i.e. above and below one another), as this forms a "cylinder" of data.

hard drive cylinders

Finally, the term clusters (also called allocation units) refers to minimum area that a file can take up on the hard drive. An operating system uses blocks, which are in fact groups of sectors (between 1 and 16 sectors). A small file may occupy multiple sectors (a cluster).

On old hard drives, addressing was done physically, by defining the position of the date from the coordinates Cylinder/Head/Sector (CHS).

Block mode

Block mode and 32-bit transfer are used to get the best performance out of your hard drive. Block mode involves transferring data in blocks, usually in 512-byte packets, which keeps the processor from having to process a large number of tiny one-bit packets. This way, the processor has the "time" to perform other operations.
Unfortunately, this data transfer mode is only useful for older operating systems (such as MS-DOS), as recent operating systems use their own hard drive manager, which makes this management system obsolete.

There is a BIOS option (IDE HDD block mode or Multi Sector Transfer) which can sometimes determine how many blocks can be managed at once. It is a number between 2 and 32. If you don't know it, there are several solutions available:

  • Check your hard drive's documentation
  • Search for the drive's specifications on the Internet
  • Carry out tests to determine it.

Still, block mode may generate errors in certain systems, due to redundancies in the hard drive manager. The system involves disabling one of the two managers:

  • the 32-bit software manager in the operating system;
  • block mode in the BIOS.

32-bit mode

32-bit mode (as opposed to 16-bit mode) is characterised by 32-bit data transfers. 32-bit transfer is comparable to 32 doors opening and closing all at once. In 32-bit mode, two 16-bit words (groups of bits) are transmitted one after another, then assembled.

The improvements in performance when switching from 16-bit mode to 32-bit mode are generally insignificant. In any event, it is no longer normally possible to select the mode, as the motherboard automatically determines which mode to use depending on the type of hard drive.

However, automatically selecting 32-bit mode may slow down IDE CD-ROM drives whose speed is higher than 24x when they are alone on an IDE ribbon cable. Indeed, when a CD-ROM drive is alone on the cable, the BIOS cannot tell if it is compatible with 32-bit mode (because it is looking for a hard drive), in which case it switches to 16-bit mode. In this case, the transfer speed (incorrectly called the transfer rate) will be lower than the one claimed by the manufacturer.

The solution is to plug the CD-ROM drive and a 32-bit-compatible hard drive into the same ribbon cable.

Technical specifications

  • Capacity: Amount of data which can be stored on a hard drive.
  • Transfer rate: Quantity of data which can be read or written from the disk per unit of time. It is expressed in bits per second.
  • Rotational speed: The speed at which the platters turn, expressed in rotations per minute (rpm for short). Hard drive speeds are on the order of 7200 to 15000 rpm. The faster a drive rotates, the higher its transfer rate. On the other hand, a hard drive which rotates quickly tends to be louder and heats up more easily.
  • Latency (also called rotational delay): The length of time that passes between the moment when the disk finds the track and the moment it finds the data.
  • Average access time: Average amount of time it takes the read head to find the right track and access the data. In other words, it represents the average length of time it takes the disk to provide data after having received the order to do so. It must be as short as possible.
  • Radial density: number of tracks per inch (tpi).
  • Linear density: number of bits per inch (bpi) on a given track.
  • Surface density: ratio between the linear density and radial density (expressed in bits per square inch).
  • Cache memory (or buffer memory): Amound of memory located on the hard drive. Cache memory is used to store the drive's most frequently-accessed data, in order to improve overall performance;
  • Interface: This refers to the connections used by the hard drive. The main hard drive interfaces are:
    • IDE/ATA
    • Serial ATA
    • SCSI
    • However, there are external cases used for connecting hard drives with USB or FireWire ports.
Ask a question
CCM is a leading international tech website. Our content is written in collaboration with IT experts, under the direction of Jean-François Pillou, founder of CCM.net. CCM reaches more than 50 million unique visitors per month and is available in 11 languages.
This document, titled « Hard drive », is available under the Creative Commons license. Any copy, reuse, or modification of the content should be sufficiently credited to CCM (ccm.net).

Subscribe To Our Newsletter!

The Best of CCM in Your Inbox

Subscribe To Our Newsletter!