Next in the hierarchy is magnetic disk (hard disk). Disk storage is two orders of magnitude cheaper than RAM per bit and often two orders of magnitude larger as well. The only problem is that the time to randomly access data on it is close to three orders of magnitude slower. This low speed is due to the fact that a disk is a mechanical device, as shown in the following figure.

Structure of a disk drive

A disk comprises one or more metal platters that rotate at 5400, 7200, or 10,800 rpm A mechanical arm pivots over the platters from the corner, similar to the pickup arm on an old 33 rpm phonograph for playing vinyl records. Information is written onto the disk in a series of concentric circles. At any given arm position, each of the heads can read an annular region called a track. Together, all the tracks for a given arm position form a cylinder.

Each track is divided into some number of sectors, typically 512 bytes per sector. On modern disks, the outer cylinders include more sectors than the inner ones. Moving the arm from one cylinder to the next one takes about 1 msec. Moving it to a random cylinder normally takes 5 msec to 10 msec, depending on the drive. Once the arm is on the correct track, the drive must wait for the needed sector to rotate under the head, an additional delay of 5 msec to 10 msec, depending on the drive's rpm. Once the sector is under the head, reading or writing occurs at a rate of 50 MB/sec on low-end disks to 160 MB/sec on faster ones.

Several computers support a scheme known as virtual memory, which we will discuss at some length in "MEMORY MANAGEMENT". This scheme makes it possible to run programs larger than physical memory by placing them on the disk and using main memory as a kind of cache for the most heavily executed parts. This scheme needs remapping memory addresses on the fly to convert the address the program generated to the physical address in RAM where the word is located. This mapping is done by a part of the CPU called the MMU (Memory Management Unit), as shown in "COMPUTER HARDWARE REVIEW" figure.

The existence of caching and the MMU can have a major impact on performance. In a multiprogramming system, when switching from one program to another, sometimes called a context switch, it may be compulsory to flush all customized blocks from the cache and change the mapping registers in the MMU. Both of these are expensive operations and programmers try hard to stay away from them. We will see some of the implications of their tactics later.


virtual memory, multiprogramming system, main memory