ATA Standards

Control Data Corporation (CDC; its disk drive division was later called Imprimis), Western Digital, and Compaq actually created what could be called the first ATA IDE interface drive and were the first to establish the 40-pin ATA connector pinout.

The first ATA IDE drive was a 5 1/4'' half-height CDC Wren II 40MB drive with an integrated WD controller and was initially used in the first Compaq 386 systems in 1986.

Compaq was the first to incorporate a special bus adapter in its system to adapt the 98-pin AT-bus (also known as ISA) edge connector on the motherboard to a smaller 40-pin, header-style connector into which the drive would plug.

The 40-pin connectors were all that was necessary because it was known that a disk controller never would need more than 40 of the ISA bus lines. Smaller 2 1/2'' ATA drives found in notebook computers use a superset 44-pin connection, which includes additional pins for power.

The pins from the original ISA bus used in ATA are the only signal pins required by a standard-type AT hard disk controller. For example, because a primary AT-style disk controller uses only interrupt request (IRQ) line 14, the primary motherboard ATA connector supplies only that IRQ line; no other IRQ lines are necessary.

Even if your ATA interface is integrated within the motherboard chipset South Bridge or I/O Controller Hub chip (as it would be in newer systems) and runs at higher bus speeds, the pinout and functions of the pins are still the same as the original design taken right off the ISA bus.

Eventually, the 40-pin ATA connector and drive interface design was placed before one of the ANSI standards committees that, in conjunction with drive manufacturers, ironed out some deficiencies, tied up some loose ends, and then published what was known as the CAM ATA (Common Access Method AT Attachment) interface.

The CAM Committee was formed in October 1988, and the first working document of the AT Attachment interface was introduced in March 1989. Before the CAM ATA standard, many companies that followed CDC, such as Conner Peripherals (which later merged with Seagate Technology), made proprietary changes to what had been done by CDC.

As a result, many older ATA drives from the late 1980s are very difficult to integrate into a dual-drive setup that has newer drives. By the early 1990s, most drive manufacturers brought their drives into full compliance with the official standard, which eliminated many of these compatibility problems.

Some areas of the ATA standard have been left open for vendor-specific commands and functions. These vendor-specific commands and functions are the main reason it is so difficult to low-level format ATA drives.

To work to full capability, the formatter you are using typically must know the specific vendor-unique commands for rewriting sector headers and remapping defects. Unfortunately, these and other specific drive commands differ from OEM to OEM, clouding the "standard" somewhat. Most ATA drive manufacturers have formatting software available on their Web sites.

Standard ATA is a 16-bit parallel interface, meaning that 16 bits are transmitted simultaneously down the interface cable. A new interface called Serial ATA was officially introduced in late 2000 and is being adopted in systems starting in 2003.

Serial ATA (SATA) sends 1 bit down the cable at a time, enabling thinner and smaller cables to be used and providing higher performance due to the higher cycling speeds allowed. SATA is a completely new and updated physical interface design, while remaining compatible on the software level with Parallel ATA.

ATA refers to the parallel version, whereas Serial ATA is explicitly referenced as SATA. Figure 1 shows how the power and data cables used by SATA compare in size to those used by Parallel ATA.

Serial ATA power and data cables

The primary advantage of ATA drives over the older, separate controller-based interfaces and newer host bus interface alternatives, such as SCSI and IEEE-1394 (iLink or FireWire), is cost. Because the separate controller or host adapter is eliminated and the cable connections are simplified, ATA drives cost much less than a standard controller and drive combination.

In terms of performance, ATA drives are often some of the highest performance drives available—but they can also be among the lowest performance drives. This apparent contradiction is a result of the fact that all ATA drives are different.

You can't make a blanket statement about the performance of ATA drives because each drive is unique. The high-end models, however, offer performance equal or superior to that of any other type of drive on the market for a single-user, single-tasking operating system.


Although ATA-1 had been used since 1986 before being published as a standard, and although it was first published in 1988 in draft form, ATA-1 wasn't officially approved as a standard until 1994 (committees often work slowly).

ATA-1 defined the original AT Attachment interface, which was an integrated bus interface between disk drives and host systems based on the ISA (AT) bus. These major features were introduced and documented in the ATA-1 specification:

  • 40/44-pin connectors and cabling

  • Master/slave or cable select drive configuration options

  • Signal timing for basic Programmed I/O (PIO) and Direct Memory Access (DMA) modes

  • Cylinder, head, sector (CHS) and logical block address (LBA) drive parameter translations supporting drive capacities up to 228–220 (267,386,880) sectors, or 136.9GB

ATA-1 was officially published as ANSI X3.221-1994, AT Attachment Interface for Disk Drives, and was officially withdrawn on August 6, 1999. ATA-2 and later are considered backward-compatible replacements.

Although ATA-1 supported theoretical drive capacities up to 136.9GB (228–220 = 267,386,880 sectors), it did not address BIOS limitations that stopped at 528MB (1024x16x63 = 1,032,192 sectors). The BIOS limitations would be addressed in subsequent ATA versions because, at the time, no drives larger than 528MB had existed.


Approved in 1996, ATA-2 was a major upgrade to the original ATA standard. Perhaps the biggest change was almost a philosophical one. ATA-2 was updated to define an interface between host systems and storage devices in general and not only disk drives. The major features added to ATA-2 as compared to the original ATA standard include

  • Faster PIO and DMA transfer modes

  • Support for power management

  • Support for removable devices

  • PCMCIA (PC Card) device support

  • Identify Drive command that reports more information

  • Defined standard CHS/LBA translation methods for drives up to 8.4GB in capacity

The most important additions in ATA-2 were the support for faster PIO and DMA modes, as well as methods to enable BIOS support up to 8.4GB. The BIOS support was necessary because, although ATA-1 was designed to support drives of up to 136.9GB in capacity, the PC BIOS could originally handle drives of up to 528MB.

Adding parameter-translation capability now allowed the BIOS to handle drives up to 8.4GB. ATA-2 also featured improvements in the Identify Drive command that enabled a drive to tell the software exactly what its characteristics are; this is essential for both Plug and Play (PnP) and compatibility with future revisions of the standard.

ATA-2 was also known by unofficial marketing terms such as fast-ATA or fast-ATA-2 (Seagate/Quantum) and EIDE (Enhanced IDE, Western Digital). ATA-2 was officially published as ANSI X3.279-1996 AT Attachment Interface with Extensions.


First published in 1997, ATA-3 was a comparatively minor revision to the ATA-2 standard that preceded it. It consisted of a general cleanup of the specification and had mostly minor clarifications and revisions. The most major changes included the following:

  • Eliminated single-word (8-bit) DMA transfer protocols.

  • Added SMART (Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology) support for prediction of device performance degradation.

  • LBA mode support was made mandatory (previously it had been optional).

  • Added security mode, allowing password protection for device access.

  • Recommendations for source and receiver bus termination to solve noise issues at higher transfer speeds.

ATA-3 has been officially published as ANSI X3.298-1997, AT Attachment 3 Interface. ATA-3, which builds on ATA-2, adds improved reliability, especially of the faster PIO mode 4 transfers; however, ATA-3 does not define any faster modes.

ATA-3 also adds a simple password-based security scheme, more sophisticated power management, and SMART This enables a drive to keep track of problems that might result in a failure and therefore avoid data loss. SMART is a reliability prediction technology that was initially developed by IBM.