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Hard Drive Firmware

November 20th, 2008

A Hard Drive can be compared to a small computer. It employs microprocessors to control both the physical behaviour of the various electro-mechanical components, and the logical operations that store and retrieve data as an arrangement of the magnetic particles on the disk surface. This operation is completely independent of the operation of the host PC. Like any computer, the hard drive needs its own software to control the operation of the microprocessors, but unlike a PC this software is limited to the drive’s operational functionality, and is not (and under normal circumstances cannot be) changed by the user. This hard drive ‘software’ is, as a result, more usually referred to as ‘Firmware’. The firmware carries out a range of functions, from what might be termed ‘Analogue’ functions such as controlling the spinning of the disc and positioning of the read/write heads, as well as the ‘Digital’ functions used to pass data files to and from the PC, keeping track of the location and parameters of the data files stored, and many, many more. Without firmware the drive is simply a collection of electronic components.

Just as the software on a PC can have problems, so the firmware can also cause a hard drive to fail if it becomes lost or corrupted. Statistical analysis shows that up to 60% of hard drive problems are due to firmware failure. Firmware problems can arise from a range of causes:

·Instability or failure of electronic components
·Accidental or inadvertent removal of power to the drive
·Deterioration of the magnetic response of the data recording surfaces

The latter cause is virtually inevitable over time, and the deterioration will accelerate the longer or more intensively the drive is used. Additionally the disk manufacturing process is not 100% perfect and as a result disks will commonly leave the factory already having problems with certain areas of the disk. These areas where the drive has problems correctly reading data from the disk are known as ‘Bad Sectors’. Sectors that fail simply because the data stored on them has become corrupted are known as ‘Logical’ bad sectors and these can be ‘repaired’ by re-recording the data correctly or in the correct format, however areas with problems arising from the magnetic response of the disk surface failing are known as ‘Physical’ bad sectors, and these cannot be repaired. Bad sectors of either kind can occur both in the data storage area of drive, but also in a ‘reserved’ area dedicated to storage of part of the drive firmware called the ‘Service Area’. User data area bad sectors can cause the loss or corruption of data files or reduced performance of the drive, bad sectors in the firmware area can lead to the drive failing completely. As the firmware area needs to be accessed every time the computer is switched on and every time drive is accessed, the chance of bad sectors becoming a problem in this area is consequently higher.

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