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Fortunately, it is impossible to damage the servo information through any normal reading and writing to a hard disk. Drives are designed so that servo information cannot be overwritten, even during low-level formatting of a drive. One myth that has been circulating (especially with respect to IDE drives) is that you can damage the servo information by improper low-level formatting. This is not true. An improper low-level format may compromise the performance of the drive, but the servo information is totally protected and cannot be overwritten.

The track-following capabilities of a servo-controlled, voice-coil actuator eliminates the positioning errors that occur over time with stepper motor drives. Voice-coil drives simply are not affected by conditions such as thermal expansion and contraction of the platters. In fact, many voice-coil drives today perform a special thermal-recalibration procedure at predetermined intervals while they run. This procedure usually involves seeking the heads from cylinder 0 to some other cylinder one time for every head on the drive. As this sequence occurs, the control circuitry in the drive monitors how much the track positions have moved since the last time the sequence was performed, and a thermal calibration adjustment is calculated and stored in the drive’s memory. This information then is used every time the drive positions to ensure the most accurate positioning possible.

Most drives perform the thermal-recalibration sequence every five minutes for the first half-hour that the drive is powered on and then once every 25 minutes after that. With some drives (such as Quantum, for example), this thermal-calibration sequence is very noticeable; the drive essentially stops what it is doing, and you hear rapid ticking for a second or so. At this time, some people think that their drive is having a problem reading something and perhaps is conducting a read retry, but this is not true. Most of the newer intelligent drives (IDE and SCSI) employ this thermal-recalibration procedure for ultimate positioning accuracy.

As multimedia applications grew, thermal recalibration became a problem with some manufacturer's drives. The thermal recalibration sequence could interrupt a data transfer, which would make audio and video playback jitter. These companies released special A/V (Audio Visual) drives that would hide the thermal recalibration sequences and not let them ever interrupt a transfer. Most of the newer IDE and SCSI drives are A/V capable, which means the thermal recalibration sequences will not interrupt a transfer such as a video playback.

While we are on the subject of automatic drive functions, most of the drives that perform thermal-recalibration sequences also automatically perform a function called a disk sweep. This procedure is an automatic head seek that occurs after the drive has been idle for a period of time (for example, nine minutes). The disk-sweep function moves the heads to a random cylinder in the outer portion of the platters, which is considered to be the high float-height area because the head-to-platter velocity is highest. Then, if the drive continues to remain idle for another period, the heads move to another cylinder in this area, and the process continues indefinitely as long as the drive is powered on.

The disk-sweep function is designed to prevent the head from remaining stationary above one cylinder in the drive, where friction between the head and platter eventually would dig a trench in the media. Although the heads are not in direct contact with the media, they are so close that the constant air pressure from the head floating above a single cylinder causes friction and excessive wear.

Wedge Servo

Some early servo-controlled drives used a technique called a wedge servo. In these drives, the gray-code guidance information is contained in a "wedge" slice of the drive in each cylinder immediately preceding the index mark. The index mark indicates the beginning of each track, so the wedge-servo information was written in the PRE-INDEX GAP, which is at the end of each track. This area is provided for speed tolerance and normally is not used by the controller. Figure 1-4 shows the servo-wedge information on a drive.

FIG. 1-4  A wedge servo.

Some controllers, such as the Xebec 1210 that IBM used in the XT, had to be notified that the drive was using a wedge servo so that they could shorten the sector timing to allow for the wedge-servo area. If they were not correctly configured, these controllers would not work properly with such drives. Many people believed — erroneously — that the wedge-servo information could be overwritten in such cases by an improper low-level format. This, however, is not the case; all drives using a wedge servo disable any write commands and take control of the head select lines whenever the heads are above the wedge area. This procedure protects the servo from any possibility of being overwritten, no matter how hard you try. If the controller tried to write over this area, the drive would prevent the write, and the controller would be unable to complete the format. Most controllers simply do not write to the PRE-INDEX GAP area and do not need to be configured specially for wedge-servo drives.

The only way that the servo information normally could be damaged is by a powerful external magnetic field (or perhaps by a head crash or some other catastrophe). In such a case, the drive would have to be sent in for repair and re-servoing.

One problem is that the servo information appears only one time every revolution, which means that the drive often needs several revolutions before it can accurately determine and adjust the head position. Because of these problems, the wedge servo never was a popular design; it no longer is used in drives.

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