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4. Definitions

4.1. Warning

Many definitions about drives are only virtual. That is they are used, but the hardware is often quite different from the expected description. Usually this have no odd result, any mass storage have to be seen as a black box.

4.2. Bytes

Computers counts with binaries, 1 & 0, 1111100001110... To be able to read this better, humans uses nibbles (4 bits) often shown as Hexadecimal numbers from 0 to f (0123456789abcdef). Nibbles are usually grouped by two and this gives a byte. The most used memory unit is byte and it's multiples, KiB (Kilo Bytes), MiB (Mega Bytes), GiB (Gigabytes). The "i" denotes the binary use (0ne Ki is 1024, not 1000), the uppercase "B" denotes Bytes, not bits.

4.3. Sectors

Sometime, the word blockis used in place of sectors.

Mass storage devices (at least the ones we are dealing with here) store bytes in "Sectors" of 512 Bytes. This is uneven, because any sector count have to be divided by two to have the KiB number, so most partitonning software accepts letters k (KiB), m (MiB), g... as options. Wise ones do not make any case difference.

Sector size is the available byte count. The true sector is bigger, as it have to include housekeeping data. You don't have to worry about that.

Notice that as of 03-22-2006, the IDEMA annouced a new sector size of 4kiB (4096 Bytes): doc file, can be openned with

4.4. Heads

Rotating mass storage devices uses heads. True heads are the physical electromechanical device that writes and read the magnetic track. Drives being made of rotating plates, the plates have two sides, so disks can have two head by plate. Having two plates (frequent) you have four heads.

Heads are writing through very complex system, see detailed info here:

4.5. Tracks

Plates are rotating. When a head is still, the plate rotation and the width of the head are defining a track.

Heads are moving from the external part of the plate to the inner part, step by steps. Each step defines a new track.

4.6. Cylinders

Heads are moving together, all at the same time. They may rotate - on they own center, not the plate center, of course. They also may have a linear move. You can see an example of linear moving head in any cdreader, looking at the move of the laser head. Most disks are as shown by this wikipedia image

When you think of all the tracks defined by each head at the same time, you have a cylinder. So on a rotating drive, all the tracks of the same cylinder are read or written at the same time. The actual data is spread on all the plates. The way the data is actually written is up to the drive manufacturer, not the user.

4.7. Disks

Small disks are used directly as a hole bunch of sectors. Basic programs can access data directly on sectors. Many do (like dd or any partitionning programm).

But we live in a world of extremely high capacity mass storage. Terabytes is normal nowaday (2009), when a complete Linux system can live on a floppy (1440 bytes). So there is a need of making several parts from a mass storage device, though the partitions.

4.8. Partitions

Partitioning is a means to divide a single drive into many logical drives. A partition is a contiguous set of sectors. To lessen the heads travel, partitions can be "aligned" on the cylinder size, that is use an integer number of cylinder. This is not always done, but should as it have many other advantages for recovery.

4.9. Partition Table

As you can have many partitions, you need to have a partition table. This partition table is stored in the very beginning of the drive. It's very unlikely that you will have to change this table directly writing bytes with an hexadecimal editor, so we wont say more on the position of the table.

There are many Operating Systems all around that all share similar hardware and as many partition systems. We will look only at what one can find in a PC, even if it's not easy to define that nowaday. Say, for us, a PC is any computer able to run Linux (I know, it's not always true).

Each of these partition kinds are noted in the table by a special flag called "type" ("t" in fdisk). Most known are type 83 for Linux partitions and 82 for Linux swap (hex numbers).

Notice that most Operating Systems can share partition tables. At least, if a disk is hardware compatible with several systems, these systems should be able to see what the others have done, not to erase a drive by accident. I can't say for sure that its true in the real life.

4.10. File Systems

Partitions can be accessed directly as sectors, as any part of the disk, but are usually filled with a file system. File system and partitions are related only because a file system is in a partition, but that's all. You can have a disk without partition but with a file system or have partitions without file system (the swap partition beeing the most well known). For details on file systems, see Wikipedia.

In summary, file systems allow storing data in files with human readable names and to sort the files in a friendly way, for example as directories, subdirectories, text, images...

4.11. Files and Nodes

Nearly all what you can find on a mass storage partition, beside sectors, from an user point of view, is a file. But computers are curious geeks and you can treat files like disks if you want. Using the "loop" system, default in most Linux kernels, one can partition the inside of the file, create file systems on it and mount it. This is specially handy for experiments.

Some of these files are devicesor nodes. Partitions are not files and are accessed via special nodes we will see later. These nodes are not created by touch but by mknode. Use with caution. Nodes need a type ( cfor "character" or "b" for block) and major and minor numbers. For what we need, major numbers are disk numbers and minor numbers are partition numbers. The list is visible in /proc/partitions

        cat /proc/partitions
major minor  #blocks  name

   8     0  488386584 sda
   8     1   52436128 sda1
   8     2          1 sda2
   8     5    2104483 sda5
   8     6   20972826 sda6
   8     7   52436128 sda7
   8     8  360434308 sda8

        #mknod b 8 9 /dev/sda9

Creates a /dev/sda9 node of no nuse, given this don't create partition, only the node. In a usual Linux distribution, nodes are dynamically created at boot time, so nobody should have to do so. However, sometime the automatic system fails.