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SCSI Hard Disk Evolution and Construction

SCSI is not a disk interface, but a bus that supports SCSI bus interface adapters connected to disk and other device controllers. The first SCSI drives for PCs simply were standard ST-506/412 or ESDI drives with a separate SCSI bus interface adapter (sometimes called a bridge controller) that converted the ST-506/412 or ESDI interfaces to SCSI. This interface originally was in the form of a secondary logic board, and the entire assembly often was mounted in an external case.

The next step was to build the SCSI bus interface "converter" board directly into the drive's own logic board. Today, we call these drives embedded SCSI drives, because the SCSI interface is built in.

At that point, there was no need to conform to the absolute specifications of ST-506/412 or ESDI on the internal disk interface, because the only other device that the interface ever would have to talk to was built in as well. Thus, the disk-interface and controller-chipset manufacturers began to develop more customized chipsets that were based on the ST-506/412 or ESDI chipsets already available but offered more features and higher performance. Today, if you look at a typical SCSI drive, you often can identify the chip or chipset that serves as the disk controller on the drive as being exactly the same kind that would be used on an ST-506/412 or ESDI controller or as some evolutionary customized variation thereof.

If you follow the hard drive market, you usually will see that drive manufacturers offer most of their newer drives in both ATA-IDE and SCSI versions. In other words, if a manufacturer makes a particular 500MB IDE drive, you invariably will see that the company also make a SCSI model with the same capacity and specifications, which uses the same HDA (Head Disk Assembly) and even looks the same as the IDE version. If you study these virtually identical drives, the only major difference you will find is the additional chip on the logic board of the SCSI version, called a SCSI Bus Adapter Chip (SBIC).

Most drive manufacturers design their ATA-IDE and SCSI drives the same way, often using the very same Western Digital chips as well as disk controller and SCSI bus interface chips from other manufacturers. You now should be able to understand that most SCSI drives simply are "regular" ATA-IDE drives with SCSI bus logic added. This fact will come up again later in this chapter in the section "SCSI versus IDE", which discusses performance and other issues differentiating these interfaces.

Now think about this from a performance standpoint. If virtually all SCSI drives really are ATA-IDE drives with a SCSI Bus Interface Controller chip added, what conclusions can you draw?

First, no drive can perform sustained data transfers faster than the data can actually be read from the disk platters. In other words, the HDA limits performance to whatever it is capable of achieving. Drives can transmit data in short bursts at very high speeds, because they often have built-in cache or read-ahead buffers that store data. Many of the newer high-performance SCSI and ATA-IDE drives have 1MB or more of cache memory on-board! No matter how big or intelligent the cache is, however, sustained data transfer still will be limited by the HDA.

Data from the HDA must pass through the disk controller circuits, which, as you have seen, are virtually identical between similar SCSI and ATA-IDE drives. In the ATA-IDE drive, this data then is presented directly to the system bus. In the SCSI drive, however, the data must pass through a SCSI Bus Interface adapter on the drive, travel through the SCSI bus itself, and then pass through another SCSI Bus Interface controller in the SCSI host adapter card in your system. The longer route that a SCSI transfer must take makes this type of transfer slower than the much more direct ATA-IDE transfer.

The conventional wisdom has been that SCSI always is much faster than IDE; unfortunately, this wisdom usually is wrong! This incorrect conclusion was derived by looking at the raw SCSI and ISA bus performance capabilities. An 8-bit Fast SCSI-2 bus can transfer data at 10MBps , whereas the 16-bit ISA bus used directly by IDE drives can transfer data at rates ranging from 2MB to 8MBps. Based on these raw transfer rates, SCSI seems to be faster, but the raw transfer rate of the bus is not the limiting factor. Instead, the actual HDA and disk-controller circuitry place the limits on performance. Another point to remember is that unless you are using a PCI, VL-Bus, EISA, or 32-bit MCA SCSI adapter, the SCSI data-transfer speeds will be limited by the host bus performance as well as by the drive performance.

However, modern operating systems are multitasking, and SCSI devices (with all their additional controller circuitry) function independent of each other, unlike IDE. Therefore, data can be read and written to any of the SCSI devices simultaneously. This allows for smoother multitasking and increased overall data throughput. The most advanced operating systems, like Windows NT, even allow drive striping. A strip drive set is two or more drives that appear to the user as one drive. Data is split between the drives equally, again increasing overall throughput.

Single-Ended or Differential SCSI

"Normal" SCSI also is called single-ended SCSI. For each signal that needs to be sent across the bus, a wire exists to carry it. With differential SCSI, for each signal that needs to be sent across the bus, a pair of wires exists to carry it. The first in this pair carries the same type of signal that the single-ended SCSI carries. The second in this pair, however, carries the logical inversion of the signal. The receiving device takes the difference of the pair (hence the name differential), which makes it less susceptible to noise and allows for greater cable length. Because of this, differential SCSI can be used with cable lengths up to 25m, whereas single-ended SCSI is good only for 6m with standard asynchronous or synchronous transfers or for only 3m for Fast SCSI.

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