Cylinder, head, and sector of a hard drive.

Cylinder-head-sector, also known as CHS, was an early method for giving addresses to each physical block of data on a hard disk drive. In the case of floppy drives, for which the same exact diskette medium can be truly low-level formatted to different capacities, this is still true.

Though CHS values no longer have a direct physical relationship to the data stored on disks, virtual CHS values (which can be translated by disk electronics or software) are still being used by many utility programs.



CHS addressing is the process of identifying individual sectors on a disk by their position in a track, where the track is determined by the head and cylinder numbers. The terms are explained bottom up, for disk addressing the sector is the smallest unit. Disk controllers can introduce address translations to map logical to physical positions, e.g., zone bit recording stores fewer sectors in shorter (inner) tracks, physical disk formats are not necessarily cylindrical, and sector numbers in a track can be skewed.


A sector is the smallest storage unit that is addressable by a hard drive, and all information stored by the hard drive is recorded in sectors. Common sector sizes are 512 bytes for hard disks and 2048 bytes for CDs and DVDs, but other sizes such as 128 and 1024 were also used.[1][2] Vendors of hard drives and software developers have created Advanced Format, a standard for data stored in physical sectors of 4096 bytes,[3] while still permitting access on logical sectors of 512 bytes in a scheme known as 512e.[4]

In CHS addressing the sector numbers always start at 1, there is no sector 0. For physical disk geometries the maximal sector number is determined by the low level format of the disk. However, for disk access with the BIOS, the sector number was encoded in six bits, resulting in a maximal number of 63=64-1 sectors per track, where 64=2**6 corresponds to six bits. The maximum 63 is still in use for virtual CHS geometries.


A device called a head reads and writes data in hard drive by manipulating the magnetic medium that composes the surface of an associated disk platter. Naturally, a platter has 2 sides and thus 2 surfaces on which data can be manipulated; usually there are 2 heads per platter, one on each side. (Sometimes the term side is substituted for head, since platters might be separated from their head assemblies, as with the removable media of a floppy drive.)

The CHS addressing supported in old BIOS code used eight bits for up to 256 heads counted as head 0 up to 255 (hex. FFh). However, some long-forgotten[citation needed] software supported only 255 heads, causing no problems for physical disks at this time with fewer heads. In essence erroneous 255 is still in use for virtual 255×63 geometries. This historical oddity can affect the maximum disk size in old BIOS INT 13h code as well as old PC DOS or similar operating systems:

1024×255×63×(512 byte/sector)=8032.5 MB, but actually 1024×256×63×(512 byte/sector)=8064 MB yields what is known as 8 GB limit.[5] In this context relevant definition of 8 GB = 8192 MB is another incorrect limit, because it would require CHS 1024×256×64 with 64 sectors per track.


The tracks are the thin concentric circular strips of sectors. At least one head is required to read a single track. With respect to disk geometries the terms track and cylinder are closely related. For a single or double sided floppy disk track is the common term; and for more than two heads cylinder is the common term. Strictly speaking a track is a given CH combination consisting of SPT sectors, while a cylinder consists of SPT×H sectors.

Tracks and cylinders are counted from 0, i.e., track 0 is the first (outer-most) track on floppy or other cylindrical disks. Old BIOS code supported ten bits in CHS addressing with up to 1024 cylinders (1024=2**10). Adding six bits for sectors and eight bits for heads results in the 24 bits supported by BIOS interrupt 13h. Subtracting the disallowed sector number 0 in 1024×256 tracks corresponds to 128 MB for a sector size of 512 bytes (128 MB=1024×256×(512 byte/sector)); and 8192-128=8064 confirms the (roughly) 8 GB limit.[6]


A cylinder comprises the same track number on each platter, spanning all such tracks across each platter surface that is able to store data (without regard to whether or not the track is "bad"). Thus, it is a three-dimensional structure. Any track comprising part of a specific cylinder can be written to and read from while the actuator assembly remains stationary, and one way in which hard drive manufacturers have increased drive access speed has been by increasing the number of platters which can be read at the same time.

CHS addressing starts at 0 0 1 with a maximal value 1023 255 63 for 24=10+8+6 bits, or 1023 254 63 for 24 bits limited to 255 heads. CHS values used to specify the geometry of a disk have to count cylinder 0 and head 0 resulting in a maximum 1024 256 63 or 1024 255 63 for 24 bits with 256 or 255 heads. In CHS tuples specifying a geometry S actually means sectors per track, and where the (virtual) geometry still matches the capacity the disk contains C×H×S sectors. As larger hard disks have come into use, a cylinder has become also a logical disk structure, standardised[citation needed] at 16 065 sectors (16065=255×63).

CHS addressing with 28 bits (EIDE and ATA-2) permits eight bits for sectors still starting at 1, i.e., sectors 1…255, four bits for heads 0…15, and sixteen bits for cylinders 0…65535.[7] This results in a roughly 128 GB limit; actually 65536×16×255=267386880 sectors corresponding to 130560 MB for a sector size of 512 bytes.[5] The 28=16+4+8 bits in the ATA-2 specification are also covered by Ralf Brown's Interrupt List, and an old working draft of this now expired standard was published.[8]

With an old BIOS limit of 1024 cylinders and the ATA limit of 16 heads[9] the combined effect was 1024×16×63=1032192 sectors, i.e., a 504 MB limit for sector size 512. BIOS translation schemes known as ECHS and revised ECHS mitigated this limitation by using 128 or 240 instead of 16 heads, simultaneously reducing the numbers of cylinders and sectors to fit into 1024 128 63 (ECHS limit: 4032 MB) or 1024 240 63 (revised ECHS limit: 7560 MB) for the given total number of sectors on a disk.[5]

Blocks and Clusters

The Unix communities employ the term block to refer to a sector or group of sectors. For example, the Linux fdisk utility normally displays partition table information using 1024-byte blocks, but also uses the word sector to help describe a disk's size in the phrase, 63 sectors per track.

Clusters are allocation units for data on various file systems (FAT, NTFS, etc.), where data mainly consists of files. Clusters are not directly affected by the physical or virtual geometry of the disk, i.e., a cluster can begin at a sector near the end of a given CH track, and end in a sector on the physically or logically next CH track.

CHS to LBA mapping

CHS tuples can be mapped onto LBA (Logical Block Addressing) addresses using the following formula:

A = ( c \cdot N_{\mathrm{heads}} + h ) \cdot N_{\mathrm{sectors}} + (s - 1)

Where A is the LBA address, Nheads is the number of heads on the disk, Nsectors is the number of sectors per track, and (c,h,s) is the CHS address.

A Logical Sector Number  formula in the ECMA-107 standard for FAT file systems matches exactly the LBA formula given above: Logical Block Address and Logical Sector Number (LSN) are synonyms.[1] The formula does not use the number of cylinders, but requires the number of heads and the number of sectors per track in the disk geometry, because the same CHS tuple addresses different logical sector numbers depending on the geometry. Examples:

For geometry 1020 16 63 of a disk with 1028160 sectors CHS 3 2 1 is LBA  3150=(3* 16+2)* 63
For geometry 1008 4 255 of a disk with 1028160 sectors CHS 3 2 1 is LBA  3570=(3*  4+2)*255
For geometry  64 255 63 of a disk with 1028160 sectors CHS 3 2 1 is LBA 48321=(3*255+2)* 63
For geometry 2142 15 32 of a disk with 1028160 sectors CHS 3 2 1 is LBA  1504=(3* 15+2)* 32

In 2002 the ATA-6 specification introduced an optional 48 bits logical block addressing and declared CHS addressing as obsolete, but still allowed to implement the ATA-5 translations.[10] Unsurprisingly the CHS to LBA translation formula given above also matches the last ATA-5 CHS translation. In the ATA-5 specification CHS support was mandatory for up to 16 514 064 sectors and optional for larger disks. The ATA-5 limit corresponds to CHS 16383 16 63 or equivalent disk capacities (16514064=16383×16×63=1032×254×63), and requires 24=14+4+6 bits (16383+1=2**14).[11]


Earlier hard drives used in the PC, such as MFM and RLL drives, divided each cylinder into an equal number of sectors, so the CHS values matched the physical properties of the drive. A drive with a CHS tuple of 500 4 32 would have 500 tracks per side on each platter, two platters (4 heads), and 32 sectors per track, with a total of 32 768 000 bytes (31.25 MB).

ATA/IDE drives were much more efficient at storing data and have replaced the now archaic MFM and RLL drives. They use zone bit recording (ZBR), where the number of sectors dividing each track varies with the location of groups of tracks on the surface of the platter. Tracks nearer to the edge of the platter contain more blocks of data than tracks close to the spindle, because there is more physical space within a given track near the edge of the platter. Thus, the CHS addressing scheme cannot correspond directly with the physical geometry of such drives, due to the varying number of sectors per track for different regions on a platter. Because of this, many drives still have a surplus of sectors (less than 1 cylinder in size) at the end of the drive, since the total number of sectors rarely, if ever, ends on a cylinder boundary.

An ATA/IDE drive can be set in the system BIOS with any configuration of cylinders, heads and sectors that do not exceed the capacity of the drive (or the BIOS), since the drive will convert any given CHS value into an actual address for its specific hardware configuration. This however can cause compatibility problems.

For operating systems such as Microsoft DOS or older version of Windows, each partition must start and end at a cylinder boundary. Only some of the most modern operating systems (Windows XP included) may disregard this rule, but doing so can still cause some compatibility issues, especially if the user wants to perform dual booting on the same drive. Microsoft does not follow this rule with internal disk partition tools since Windows Vista. [12]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Volume and File Structure of Disk Cartridges for Information Interchange". Standard ECMA-107 (2nd ed.). ECMA. 1995. Retrieved 2011-07-30. 
  2. ^ "Standard Floppy Disk Formats Supported by MS-DOS". KB75131. Microsoft Knowledge Base. 2003-05-12. Retrieved 2011-07-31. 
  3. ^ "Western Digital’s Advanced Format: The 4K Sector Transition Begins". AnandTech. 2009-12-18. Retrieved 2011-07-29. 
  4. ^ "Advanced Format Technology Brief" (PDF). Hitachi. 2010. p. 1.$file/AFtechbrief.pdf. Retrieved 2011-08-01. "512 byte emulation is sometimes referred to as 512e" 
  5. ^ a b c Andries Brouwer (2004-11-01). "History of BIOS and IDE limits". Large Disk HOWTO v2.5. Retrieved 2011-07-30. 
  6. ^ "Windows NT 4.0 supports maximum of 7.8-GB system partition". Microsoft. 2007-02-23. Retrieved 2011-07-30. 
  7. ^ "5K500.B SATA OEM Specification Revision 1.2" (PDF). Hitachi. 2009-03-17. p. 51.$file/TS5K500.B_OEMSpec_r12a.pdf. Retrieved 2011-07-29. 
  8. ^ "ATA-2" (PDF). X3T10/0948D. INCITS Technical Committee T13 AT Attachment. 1996-03-18. Retrieved 2011-07-30. 
  9. ^ "ATA-1" (PDF). X3T10/791D. INCITS Technical Committee T10 SCSI Storage Interfaces. 1994. Retrieved 2011-07-30. 
  10. ^ "ATA-6" (PDF). T13/1410D. INCITS Technical Committee T10 SCSI Storage Interfaces. 2002. p. 22. Retrieved 2011-07-30. "In standards ATA/ATAPI-5 and earlier, a CHS translation was defined. This translation is obsolete but may be implemented as defined in ATA/ATAPI-5." 
  11. ^ "ATA-5" (PDF). T13/1321D. INCITS Technical Committee T10 SCSI Storage Interfaces. 2000. p. 19. Retrieved 2011-07-30. "If the device’s capacity is greater than or equal to one sector and less than or equal to 16,514,064 sectors, then the device shall support CHS translation." 
  12. ^ "KB931760". Microsoft Windows XP Support. Microsoft Knowledge Base. 2009-07-23. Retrieved 2011-07-30. 

External links

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