As storage devices become bigger and bigger in capacity, the areal
density (number of bits packed per physical square inch) increases;
hard drives are now hitting the limits. Hard drive manufacturers are now
pushing to increase the basic unit of data transfer in hard drives -
physical sector size - from 512 bytes to 4096 bytes (or
4KB) to improve storage efficiency and performance.
However, there are a lot of subsystems affected by this change
that are currently not ready to accept a 4K sector size.
The first hard drive, the RAMAC, was shipped on September 13, 1956. It
weighed 2,140 pounds and held a total of 5 megabytes (MB) of data on
fifty 24-inch platters. It was available for lease for $35,000 USD,
the equivalent of approximately $300,000 in today's dollars.
We have come a long way since then. Hard drive capacities are now
measured in terabytes, but some legacy parameters, such as the sector size,
have remained unchanged. The sector size is wired into a lot of data structures
in the kernel, for example, the i_blocks field of struct inode stores the
number of 512-byte physical blocks it occupies on the media. Even
though the core kernel deals with 512-byte sectors, the block
layer is capable of handling hardware with different length sector sizes.
Why the Change?
Any sort of data communication must contend with noise. This noise is also
present during the data transfer from the magnetic surface of the
physical hard drive platter to the head of the hard drive. Noise can
be introduced by physical defects on the hard drive platter. Noise
such as this is measured with respect to the signal strength, more
commonly known as Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR). As disk drive areal
density increases, the signal to noise ratio decreases, thereby
creating increased sensitivity to defects.
Hard Disk Drives have special reserved bits in addition to the packed data,
called the Error-Correcting Code (ECC) bits. Each physical data byte
sector block is followed by, besides other bytes, the ECC bytes on the
physical medium. ECC is responsible for the reliability of the data
transferred. Usually the Reed-Solomon
Algorithm is used to compute the ECC bits; to detect
and to a certain extent, correct the errors read; it is an efficient
algorithm to correct errors which come in bursts. The ECC bits are
placed immediately after the data bytes (as shown in the diagram below), so
the error, if any, can be
corrected as the disk spins.
Besides the ECC, the disk also has bits reserved before
the data bits, for the preamble, data sync mark; and the Inter Sector
Gap (ISG) after the ECC bits.
With the increase in areal density, more bits are packed in a square
inch of physical surface. A physical defect of, say 100 nanometers,
would require more ECC bits to correct than is needed at lower densities. The physical
defect induces more noise than signal hence the SNR decreases. This
requires more bytes packed in ECC fields of the sector to compensate
for the decrease in SNR and ensure the reliability of the
data stored on the disk. For example: on disks with a density of 215 kbpi (kilo bytes
per square inch), a 512-byte data sector requires 24 bytes of ECC; a format
efficiency (number of user data bytes vs total number of bytes on
disk) of 92%. With an increase of areal density to 750 kbpi,
each 512-byte sector requires 40 bytes per sector to achieve the same level
of disk reliability. The format efficiency of such a drive is 87%.
A sector size of 4096 bytes requires 100 bytes for ECC to
maintain the same level of reliability at an areal density of
750kbpi; that yields a format efficiency of 96%. As areal densities in disk drives
continue to increase, the physical size of each sector on the surface
of the disk become smaller. If the mean size and number of disk
defects and scratches does not scale at the same rate, then we expect
more sectors to be corrupted, and we expect the resulting burst errors
to more easily exceed the error correction capability of each sector.
Having larger sectors, would enable such burst errors to be detected
for larger sectors, hence decreasing the total ECC overhead.
Besides the ECC, the disk also has bits reserved before the data bits,
for the preamble, data sync mark, and the Inter Sector Gap (ISG).
Increasing the sector size to 4K from 512 bytes, would decrease the
occurrences of these fields, thus improving the format efficiency
For all of these reasons, the storage industry wants to move to larger
sector sizes. The IDEMA International Disk
Drive Equipment and Materials Association (IDEMA) was formed to
increase co-operation among competing hard drive brands. IDEMA is
responsible for the smooth transition of sector size from 512 bytes to
4Kbytes. Also, bigsector.org was
set up to maintain documentation of the transition. The documentation section
of bigsector.org contains more information about the transition.
This change affects a lot of areas in the storage system chain:
from the drive interface, the host interface, BIOS, OS to
applications such as partition managers. A change affecting so many subsystems
might not be readily acceptable to the market. To make a smooth
transition, the following stages are planned:
- 512 byte logical with 512 byte physical. This is the current state
of hard drives
- 512-byte logical with 4096-byte physical sector size. This would
facilitate a smooth transition from 512-byte to 4096-byte sector
- 4096-byte logical with 4096-byte physical sectors. This would be done once
all hardware and software would be aware of the underlying change and
geometry with respect to sector size. This change would first be seen
in SCSI devices and later in ATA devices.
During the transition phase (step 2), drives are planned to use
512 byte emulation, known as read-modify write (RMW). Read-modify-write
is a technique used to emulate 512-byte sector size over a 4K physical
sector size. Written data which does not correspond to full 4K sectors
would result in the drive first reading the existing 4K sector, modifying
the part of data which changed, and writing the 4K sector data back to
the drive. More information on RMW and its implementation can be
found in this set
of slides. Needless to say, RMW decreases the throughput of the device, though the shorter
ECC will compensate by giving an overall better performance
(hopefully). Such drives are expected to be commercially available in
the first quarter of 2011.
Matthew Wilcox recently posted a patch to support 4K
sectors according to the ATA-8
standard (PDF). The patch adds an interface function by
the name sector_size_supported(). Individual drivers are required to
implement this function and return the sector size used by the hardware. The size
returned is stored in the sect_size field of the ata_device structure.
This function returns 512 if the device does not recognize the ATA-8
command, or the driver does not implement the interface.
The sect_size is used instead of ATA_SECT_SIZE when the data
transfer is a multiple of 512-byte sectors.
The partitioning system and the bootloader will also require changes
because they rely on the fact that partitions start from the 63rd
sector of the drive, which is misaligned with the 4K sector boundary.
This problem will be solved, in the short term, by using the 4K physical - 512 byte logical
drives. The 512-byte sectors are aligned in a way that the 1st logical
sector starts from the 1st octant of the physical 1st 4K sector, as shown below.
scheme to coincide the logical and physical sectors to optimize
data storage and transfer is known as odd-aligned physical/logical
It can lead to other problems though:
odd-aligned sectors might misalign the data with
respect to filesystem blocks. Assuming a 4K page size, a
random read would require two 4K sector reads. This
is the reason, applications such as bootloaders and partitioning
systems should be ready for 4K sector size hard drives (step 3), for
overall throughput efficiency.
An increased sector size is required by hard drives to break the current limits
of hard drive capacity while minimizing the overhead of
error checking data. However, a smooth transition
will decide the acceptability of these drives in the market. The previous transition,
which broke the 8.4GB limit using Large Block Access (LBA), was easily
accepted. However, with so many drives in use currently, the
transition would be determined by the co-operation of various
subsystems of the data supply chain, such as filesystems and
applications dealing with hard drives.
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