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Solve Disk Imaging Problems (Part 2)

January 4th, 2009

Disabling Auto-Relocation and SMART Attribute Processing

While the methods outlined in the previous section go a long way to obtaining an image of the data, other problems remain.

When drive firmware identifies a bad sector, it may remap the sector to a reserved area on the disk that is hidden from the user (Figure 3). This remapping is recorded in the drive defects table (G-list). Since the bad sector could not be read, the data residing in the substitute sector in the reserved area is not the original data. It might be null data or some other data in accordance with the vendor-specific firmware policy, or even previously remapped data in the case where the G-list was modified due to corruption.

Moreover, system software is unaware of the remapping process. When the drive is asked to retrieve data from a sector identified as bad, the drive firmware may automatically redirect the request to the alternate sector in the reserved area, without notifying the system before the error is returned. This redirection occurs despite the fact that the bad sector is likely still readable and only contains a small number of bytes with errors.

disk imaging
Figure 3: G-List Remapping
This process performed by drive firmware is known as bad sector auto-relocation. This process can and should be turned off before the imaging process begins. Auto-relocation on a drive with read instability not only obscures instances when non-original data is being read, it is also time-consuming and increases drive wear, possibly leading to increased read instability.

Effective imaging software should be able to turn off auto-relocation so that it can identify problem sectors for itself and take appropriate action, which ensures that the original data is being read.

Unfortunately, the ATA specification does not have a command to turn off auto-relocation. Therefore imaging software should use vendor-specific ATA commands to do this.

A similar problem exists with Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology (SMART) attributes. The drive firmware constantly recalculates SMART attributes and this processing creates a large amount of overhead that increases imaging time and the possibility of further drive degradation. Imaging software should be able to disable SMART attribute processing.

Other drive preconfiguration issues exist, but auto-relocation and SMART attributes are among the most important that imaging software should address.

Increasing Transfer Speed with UDMA Mode

Modern computers are equipped with drives and ATA controllers that are capable of the Ultra Direct Memory Access (UDMA) mode of data transfer. With Direct Memory Access (DMA), the processor is freed from the task of data transfers to and from memory. UDMA can be thought of as an advanced DMA mode, and is defined as data transfer occurring on both the rise and fall of the clock pulse, thus doubling the transfer speed compared to ordinary DMA.

Both DMA and UDMA modes are in contrast to the earlier Programmed Input Output (PIO) mode in which the processor must perform the data transfer itself. Faster UDMA modes also require an 80-pin connector, instead of the 40-pin connector required for slower UDMA and DMA.

The advantages are obvious. Not only does UDMA speed up data transfer, but the processor is free to perform other tasks.

While modern system software is capable of using UDMA, imaging software should be able to use this data transfer mode on a hardware-level (bypassing system software) as well. If the source and destination drives are on separate IDE channels, read and write transfers can occur simultaneously, doubling the speed of the imaging process. Also, with the computer processor free, imaged data can be processed on the fly. These two advantages can only be achieved if the imaging software handles DMA/UDMA modes, bypassing system software. Most imaging tools currently available on the market use system software to access the drive and so don’t have these advantages.

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