Technology News: How a Hard Drive Works

Published: 17th April 2012
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Let's get back to fundamentals. It is amazing how many people, technology news professionals or not, have no idea how their computer's hard drive – the basis of the long-term storage on your system – works. Understanding how it operates will make it easier for you to maintain and even repair your hard drive, increasing your computer's speed and longevity.

A hard drive is a storage device that reads and records data as magnetized particles on a platter. The platters, which you can visualize as thin dinner plates of metal, spin and little arms that look like the needle on a record player move back and forth across them, reading or writing data through magnetic changes.

The data on your hard drive is stored wherever the computer finds space, willy-nilly across the drive. Today's drives have from one to four platters pancaked into one unit with arms moving between. These are usually 3.5 inches in diameter for most computers while smaller devices will have varying sizes of drive platter down to one inch.

A motor inside the drive spins the platters through the central spindle on which they turn. Most standard computer hard drives spin at a rate of 4,200 to 10,000 rpms and generally the faster the rotations, the faster the read/write speed of the drive for technology news.

All of this is controlled and sorted by two important components: the printed circuit control board and the FAT. The printed circuit board has all of the software components that are built-in and that run the hard drive's operations. These are what control the spin rate, the movement of the arms, the moving of data to and from the computer's processor, etc. The control board also has a cache or temporary memory storage space for storing information that is to be written or to be sent to the computer. This storage buffer allows the hard drive to overcome limitations in write speeds and data transfers as well as to more easily multi-task without slowing down the system.

The File Allocation Table (FAT) is a central database the hard drive uses to track where individual files are on the drive. Since information is stored on the drive in pure bits (“on” or “off” also cited as “1” and “0”), files are not always stored at the same location, but can be spread throughout the platters. The FAT keeps track of where these individual bits and parts are located. The FAT is formatted and determined by the operating system in use on the drive. Every partition will have it's own FAT.

Hard drive maintenance is often semi-automated in today's operating systems. Windows 7, for instance, has built-in tools that default to being able to automatically tune the hard drives on the computer. Other tools, such as Symantec's Norton suite, can also do this.

Optimization usually centers around two things: scanning the drive for defects and organizing the technology news data for faster reading.

Most hard drives are sealed inside an aluminum container which is mounted into the computer on brackets meant for this purpose. The sealed container is hermetically closed in order to keep dust and debris from fouling the hard drives. Opening the seal will nearly always result in a ruined drive or a drive that fails in time. The brackets for mounting are important because they keep the drive stable (it generates small G forces with spinning), but they also cushion some shock when the computer is moved or bumped. If the hard drive is reading or writing when a shock like this occurs, it can “scratch” itself, though this doesn't happen often anymore.

The hard drive is the long-term memory of your computer and is where all of your data is kept and used. Next to the processor, the hard drive is the most important piece of hardware in your system and should be taken care of. Of course, it should go without saying that the best insurance you can have against hard drive failure are proper and regular backups.

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