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Hard disks were invented in the 1950s. They started as large disks up to 20 inches in diameter holding just a few megabytes. They were originally called "fixed disks" or "Winchesters" (a code name used for a popular IBM product). They later became known as "hard disks" to distinguish them from "floppy disks." Hard disks have a hard platter that holds the magnetic medium, as opposed to the flexible plastic film found in tapes and floppies. At the simplest level, a hard disk is not that different from a cassette tape. Both hard disks and cassette tapes use the same magnetic recording techniques described in How Tape Recorders Work. Hard disks and cassette tapes also share the major benefits of magnetic storage the magnetic medium can be easily erased and rewritten, and it will "remember" the magnetic flux patterns stored onto the medium for many years.


Capacity and Performance
A typical desktop machine will have a hard disk with a capacity of between 10 and 40 gigabytes. Data is stored onto the disk in the form of files. A file is simply a named collection of bytes. The bytes might be the ASCII codes for the characters of a text file, or they could be the instructions of a software application for the computer to execute, or they could be the records of a data base, or they could be the pixel colors for a GIF image. No matter what it contains, however, a file is simply a string of bytes. When a program running on the computer requests a file, the hard disk retrieves its bytes and sends them to the CPU one at a time.
There are two ways to measure the performance of a hard disk:

Data rate - The data rate is the number of bytes per second that the drive can deliver to the CPU. Rates between 5 and 40 megabytes per second are common.

Seek time - The seek time is the amount of time between when the CPU requests a file and when the first byte of the file is sent to the CPU. Times between 10 and 20 milliseconds are common.
The other important parameter is the capacity of the drive, which is the number of bytes it can hold.

Storing the Data
Data is stored on the surface of a platter in sectors and tracks. Tracks are concentric circles, and sectors are pie-shaped wedges on a track, like this:
A typical track is shown in yellow; a typical sector is shown in blue. A sector contains a fixed number of bytes -- for example, 256 or 512. Either at the drive or the operating system level, sectors are often grouped together into clusters.

The process of low-level formatting a drive establishes the tracks and sectors on the platter. The starting and ending points of each sector are written onto the platter. This process prepares the drive to hold blocks of bytes. High-level formatting then writes the file-storage structures, like the file-allocation table, into the sectors. This process prepares the drive to hold files.