Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Disk Interface Families Used in Personal Computers

Notable families of disk interfaces include:

  • Historical bit serial interfaces — connect a hard disk drive (HDD) to a hard disk controller (HDC) with two cables, one for control and one for data. (Each drive also has an additional cable for power, usually connecting it directly to the power supply unit). The HDC provided significant functions such as serial/parallel conversion, data separation, and track formatting, and required matching to the drive (after formatting) in order to assure reliability. Each control cable could serve two or more drives, while a dedicated (and smaller) data cable served each drive.
    • ST506 used MFM (Modified Frequency Modulation) for the data encoding method.
    • ST412 was available in either MFM or RLL (Run Length Limited) encoding variants.
    • Enhanced Small Disk Interface (ESDI) was an interface developed by Maxtor to allow faster communication between the processor and the disk than MFM or RLL.
  • Modern bit serial interfaces — connect a hard disk drive to a host bus interface adapter (today typically integrated into the "south bridge") with one data/control cable. (As for historical bit serial interfaces above, each drive also has an additional power cable, usually direct to the power supply unit.)
    • Fibre Channel (FC), is a successor to parallel SCSI interface on enterprise market. It is a serial protocol. In disk drives usually the Fibre Channel Arbitrated Loop (FC-AL) connection topology is used. FC has much broader usage than mere disk interfaces, and it is the cornerstone of storage area networks (SANs). Recently other protocols for this field, like iSCSI and ATA over Ethernet have been developed as well. Confusingly, drives usually use copper twisted-pair cables for Fibre Channel, not fibre optics. The latter are traditionally reserved for larger devices, such as servers or disk array controllers.
    • Serial ATA (SATA). The SATA data cable has one data pair for differential transmission of data to the device, and one pair for differential receiving from the device, just like EIA-422. That requires that data be transmitted serially. Similar differential signaling system is used in RS485, LocalTalk, USB, Firewire, and differential SCSI.
    • Serial Attached SCSI (SAS). The SAS is a new generation serial communication protocol for devices designed to allow for much higher speed data transfers and is compatible with SATA. SAS uses a mechanically identical data and power connector to standard 3.5" SATA1/SATA2 HDDs, and many server-oriented SAS RAID controllers are also capable of addressing SATA hard drives. SAS uses serial communication instead of the parallel method found in traditional SCSI devices but still uses SCSI commands.
  • Word serial interfaces — connect a hard disk drive to a host bus adapter (today typically integrated into the "south bridge") with one cable for combined data/control. (As for all bit serial interfaces above, each drive also has an additional power cable, usually direct to the power supply unit.) The earliest versions of these interfaces typically had a 8 bit parallel data transfer to/from the drive, but 16 bit versions became much more common, and there are 32 bit versions. Modern variants have serial data transfer. The word nature of data transfer makes the design of a host bus adapter significantly simpler than that of the precursor HDD controller.
    • Integrated Drive Electronics (IDE), later renamed to ATA, with the alias P-ATA ("parallel ATA") retroactively added upon introduction of the new variant Serial ATA. The original name reflected the innovative integration of HDD controller with HDD itself, which was not found in earlier disks. Moving the HDD controller from the interface card to the disk drive helped to standardize interfaces, and to reduce the cost and complexity. The 40 pin IDE/ATA connection transfers 16 bits of data at a time on the data cable. The data cable was originally 40 conductor, but later higher speed requirements for data transfer to and from the hard drive led to an "ultra DMA" mode, known as UDMA. Progressively faster versions of this standard ultimately added the requirement for an 80 conductor variant of the same cable; where half of the conductors provides grounding necessary for enhanced high-speed signal quality by reducing cross talk. The interface for 80 conductor only has 39 pins, the missing pin acting as a key to prevent incorrect insertion of the connector to an incompatible socket, a common cause of disk and controller damage.
    • EIDE was an unofficial update (by Western Digital) to the original IDE standard, with the key improvement being the use of direct memory access (DMA) to transfer data between the disk and the computer without the involvement of the CPU, an improvement later adopted by the official ATA standards. By directly transferring data between memory and disk, DMA eliminates the need for the CPU to copy byte per byte, therefore allowing it to process other tasks while the data transfer occurs.
    • Small Computer System Interface (SCSI), originally named SASI for Shugart Associates System Interface, was an early competitor of ESDI. SCSI disks were standard on servers, workstations, Commodore Amiga and Apple Macintosh computers through the mid-90s, by which time most models had been transitioned to IDE (and later, SATA) family disks. Only in 2005 did the capacity of SCSI disks fall behind IDE disk technology, though the highest-performance disks are still available in SCSI and Fibre Channel only. The length limitations of the data cable allows for external SCSI devices. Originally SCSI data cables used single ended (common mode) data transmission, but server class SCSI could use differential transmission, either low voltage differential (LVD) or high voltage differential (HVD). ("Low" and "High" voltages for differential SCSI are relative to SCSI standards and do not meet the meaning of low voltage and high voltage as used in general electrical engineering contexts, as apply e.g. to statutory electrical codes; both LVD and HVD use low voltage signals (3.3 V and 5 V respectively) in general terminology.)
Acronym or abbreviationMeaningDescription
SASIShugart Associates System InterfaceHistorical predecessor to SCSI.
SCSISmall Computer System InterfaceBus oriented that handles concurrent operations.
SASSerial Attached SCSIImprovement of SCSI, uses serial communication instead of parallel.
ST-506Seagate TechnologyHistorical Seagate interface.
ST-412Seagate TechnologyHistorical Seagate interface (minor improvement over ST-506).
ESDIEnhanced Small Disk InterfaceHistorical; backwards compatible with ST-412/506, but faster and more integrated.
ATAAdvanced Technology AttachmentSuccessor to ST-412/506/ESDI by integrating the disk controller completely onto the device. Incapable of concurrent operations.
SATASerial ATAModification of ATA, uses serial communication instead of parallel.

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