How do Hard Disk Drives Work?

An introduction to HDD storage

How do HDDs function?


A hard disk drive (HDD) is a data storage device used for storing and retrieving digital information using rapidly rotating platters coated with magnetic material. HDDs are non-volatile media, meaning that data is still stored even when the device is turned off. An HDD consists of one or more rigid (“hard”) rapidly rotating discs (platters) with magnetic heads arranged on a moving actuator arm to read and write data to the surfaces.

The primary characteristics of an HDD are its capacity and performance. Capacity is specified in unit prefixes corresponding to powers of 1000: a 1-terabyte (TB) drive has a capacity of 1,000 gigabytes (GB; where 1 gigabyte = 1 billion bytes).

On the right is a very informative video introduction to hard disk drives from the It provides an excellent summary of the information provided below.


Magenetism and data storage

Magnetic cross section & frequency modulation encoded binary data

Magnetic cross section & frequency modulation encoded binary data

An HDD records data by magnetizing a thin film of ferromagnetic material on a disk. Sequential changes in the direction of magnetization represent binary data bits. The data is read from the disk by detecting the transitions in magnetization. User data is encoded using an encoding scheme, such as run-length limited encoding,which determines how the data is represented by the magnetic transitions.

A typical HDD design consists of a spindle that holds flat circular disks, also called platters, which hold the recorded data. The platters are made from a non-magnetic material, usually aluminium alloy, glass, or ceramic, and are coated with a shallow layer of magnetic material typically 10–20 nm in depth, with an outer layer of carbon for protection. For reference, a standard piece of copy paper is 0.07–0.18 millimetre (70,000–180,000 nm).

The platters in contemporary HDDs are spun at speeds varying from 4,200 rpm in energy-efficient portable devices, to 15,000 rpm for high performance servers. Most consumer HDDs operate at a speed of 7,200 rpm.

Information is written to and read from a platter as it rotates past devices called read-and-write heads that operate very close (often tens of nanometers) over the magnetic surface. The read-and-write head is used to detect and modify the magnetization of the material immediately under it. In modern drives there is one head for each magnetic platter surface on the spindle, mounted on a common arm. An actuator arm moves the heads on an arc across the platters as they spin, allowing each head to access almost the entire surface of the platter as it spins. The arm is moved using a voice coil actuator or in some older designs a stepper motor.

HDD flyingheight

The distance between the read/write head (pictured on the left) is minute. On older HDDs it is approximately 100nm, on modern HDDs it is 10nm. Contamination , in this case a dust particle, is very large relatively. Consequently it is essential to handle HDDs in a clean environment.

In modern drives, the small size of the magnetic regions creates the danger that their magnetic state might be lost because of thermal effects. To counter this, the platters are coated with two parallel magnetic layers, separated by a 3-atom layer of the non-magnetic element ruthenium, and the two layers are magnetized in opposite orientation, thus reinforcing each other. Another technology used to overcome thermal effects to allow greater recording densities is perpendicular recording, first shipped in 2005, and as of 2007 the technology was used in many HDDs.



HDD Components

Components of a HDDA typical HDD has two electric motors; a spindle motor that spins the disks and an actuator (motor) that positions the read/write head assembly across the spinning disks. The disk motor has an external rotor attached to the disks; the stator windings are fixed in place. Opposite the actuator at the end of the head support arm is the read-write head; thin printed-circuit cables connect the read-write heads to amplifier electronics mounted at the pivot of the actuator. The head support arm is very light, but also stiff; in modern drives, acceleration at the head reaches 550 g-force.

The actuator is a permanent magnet and moving coil motor that swings the heads to the desired position.

The voice coil itself is shaped rather like an arrowhead, and made of doubly coated copper magnet wire. The surface of the magnet is half N pole, half S pole, with the radial dividing line in the middle, causing the two sides of the coil to see opposite magnetic fields and produce forces that add instead of cancelling. Currents along the top and bottom of the coil produce radial forces that make the actuator arm move.

The HDD’s electronics control the movement of the actuator and the rotation of the disk, and perform reads and writes on demand from the disk controller. Feedback of the drive electronics is accomplished by means of special segments of the disk dedicated to servo feedback. The spinning of the disk also uses a servo motor. Modern disk firmware is capable of scheduling reads and writes efficiently on the platter surfaces and remapping sectors of the media which have failed.


Error handling

Modern drives make extensive use of error correction codes (ECCs), particularly Reed–Solomon error correction or low-density parity-check codes. These techniques store extra bits, determined by mathematical formulas, for each block of data; the extra bits allow many errors to be corrected invisibly. The extra bits themselves take up space on the HDD, but allow higher recording densities to be employed without causing uncorrectable errors, resulting in much larger storage capacity.

Typical HDDs attempt to “remap” the data in a physical sector that is failing to a spare physical sector—hopefully while the errors in the bad sector are still few enough that the ECC can recover the data without loss. The S.M.A.R.T-Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology system counts the total number of errors in the entire HDD fixed by ECC and the total number of remappings, as the occurrence of many such errors may predict HDD failure.


HDD Failure

Due to the extremely close spacing between the heads and the disk surface, HDDs are vulnerable to being damaged by a head crash—a failure of the disk in which the head scrapes across the platter surface, often grinding away the thin magnetic film and causing data loss. Head crashes can be caused by electronic failure, a sudden power failure, physical shock, contamination of the drive’s internal enclosure, wear and tear, corrosion, or poorly manufactured platters and heads.

The HDD’s spindle system relies on air pressure inside the disk enclosure to support the heads at their proper flying height while the disk rotates. HDDs require a certain range of air pressures in order to operate properly. The connection to the external environment and pressure occurs through a small hole in the enclosure (about 0.5 mm in breadth), usually with a filter on the inside (the breather filter). If the air pressure is too low, then there is not enough lift for the flying head, so the head gets too close to the disk, and there is a risk of head crashes and data loss. Specially manufactured sealed and pressurized disks are needed for reliable high-altitude operation, above about 3,000 m (9,800 ft). Modern disks include temperature sensors and adjust their operation to the operating environment. Breather holes can be seen on all disk drives—they usually have a sticker next to them, warning the user not to cover the holes. The air inside the operating drive is constantly moving too, being swept in motion by friction with the spinning platters. This air passes through an internal recirculation (or “recirc”) filter to remove any leftover contaminants from manufacture, any particles or chemicals that may have somehow entered the enclosure, and any particles or outgassing generated internally in normal operation. Very high humidity for extended periods can corrode the heads and platters.