Small Computer System Interface

SCSI (pronounced "scuzzy") stands for Small Computer System Interface and is a general-purpose interface used for connecting many types of devices to a PC. This interface has its roots in SAS I, the Shugart Associates System Interface.

SCSI is the most popular interface for attaching high-speed disk drives to higher-performance PCs, such as workstations or network servers. SCSI is also very flexible; it is not only a disk interface, but is also a systems-level interface allowing many types of devices to be connected, including scanners and printers.

SCSI is a bus that supports as many as 7 or 15 total devices. Multichannel adapters exist that can support up to 7 or 15 devices per channel. The SCSI controller, called the host adapter, functions as the gateway between the SCSI bus and the PC system bus. Each device on the bus has a controller built in.

The SCSI bus does not talk directly with devices such as hard disks; instead, it talks to the controller that is built in to the drive. A single SCSI bus can support as many as 8 or 16 physical units, usually called SCSI IDs. One of these units is the SCSI host adapter card in your PC; the other 7 or 15 can be other peripherals.

You could have hard disks, tape drives, CD-ROM drives, a graphics scanner, or other devices attached to a single SCSI host adapter. Most systems can support up to four host adapters, each with up to 15 devices, for a total of 60 devices! There are even dual-channel adapters that could double that figure.

SCSI is a fast interface, generally suited to high-performance workstations, servers, or anywhere the ultimate in performance for a storage system interface is needed. The latest Ultra4 (Ultra320) SCSI version supports transfer speeds of up to 320MB per second (MBps)!

An even faster version is being developed, called Ultra5 (Ultra640), which will transfer at 640MBps. By comparison, parallel ATA (also known as IDE) transfers at speeds up to 133MBps, whereas the new Serial ATA transfers at 150MBps.

When you purchase a SCSI device such as a SCSI hard disk, you usually are purchasing the device, controller, and SCSI adapter in one circuit; as such the device is ready to connect directly to the SCSI bus. This type of drive usually is called an embedded SCSI device—the SCSI interface is built in.

For example, most SCSI hard drives are technically the same as their ATA counterparts except for the addition of the SCSI bus adapter circuits (normally a single chip) added to the controller board.

You do not need to know what type of controller is inside the SCSI drive because your system cannot talk directly to the controller as though it were plugged into the system bus, like on a standard ATA drive. Instead, communications go through the SCSI host adapter installed in the system bus.

You can access the drive only with the SCSI protocols. Apple originally rallied around SCSI as being an inexpensive way out of the bind in which it put itself with the Macintosh.

When the engineers at Apple realized their mistake in making the Macintosh a closed system (with no expansion slots), they decided that the easiest way to gain expandability was to build a SCSI port into the system, which is how external peripherals were originally added to the slotless Macs.

Of course, in keeping with Apple tradition, they used a nonstandard SCSI connector. Now that Apple is designing systems with expansion slots, Universal Serial Bus (USB), and FireWire (also known as iLink or IEEE-1394), the nonstandard Apple SCSI interface has been dropped from most Macs as a built-in option.

Because PC systems always have been expandable, the push toward SCSI has not been as urgent. With up to eight or more bus slots supporting various devices and controllers in PC-compatible systems, it seemed as though SCSI was not as necessary for system expansion.

In fact, with modern PCs sporting inexpensive built-in USB ports for external expansion, in most cases SCSI devices are necessary only when top performance is a critical issue. However, USB 2.0 as well as IEEE-1394a/b offer performance comparable to many of the lower-speed versions of SCSI and should be considered as an alternative for devices such as external hard drives and scanners.

In fact, for most anything except server-oriented hard disk drives, you should probably choose one of the other interfaces over SCSI. SCSI originally became popular in the PC-based workstation and server market because of the performance and expandability it offers.

One block that stalled acceptance of SCSI in the early PC marketplace was the lack of a real standard; the SCSI standard originally was designed by one company and then turned into a committee-controlled public standard. Since then, no single manufacturer has controlled it.

In the beginning, SCSI adapters lacked the capability to boot from hard disks on the SCSI bus. Booting from these drives and using a variety of operating systems was a problem that resulted from the lack of a software interface standard.

The standard BIOS software in PC systems is designed to talk to ST-506/412, ESDI, or ATA hard disks and devices. SCSI is so different from ATA that a new set of ROM BIOS routines is necessary to support the system so it can self-boot.

Also, this BIOS support is unique to the SCSI host adapter you are using; so, unless the host adapter is built in to your motherboard, this support won't be found in your motherboard BIOS. Instead, SCSI host adapters are available with BIOS support for SCSI hard disk drives right on the SCSI host adapter itself.

Because of the lead taken by Apple in developing systems software (operating systems and ROM) support for SCSI, peripherals connect to Apple systems in fairly standard ways. Until recently, this type of standard-setting leadership was lacking for SCSI in the PC world.

This situation changed dramatically with Windows 95 and later versions, which include drivers for most popular SCSI adapters and peripherals on the market. These days, Windows 98/Me, Windows 2000, and Windows XP include even more drivers and support for SCSI adapters and devices built in.

Many PC manufacturers have standardized SCSI for high-end systems. In these systems, a SCSI host adapter card is placed in one of the slots, or the system has a SCSI host adapter built in to the motherboard. This arrangement is similar in appearance to the ATA interface because a single cable runs from the motherboard to the SCSI drive.

SCSI supports as many as 7 or 15 additional devices per bus (some of which might not be hard disks), whereas ATA supports only 4 devices (2 per controller). Additionally, SCSI supports more types of devices other than hard disks than ATA supports.

ATA devices must be a hard disk, an ATA-type CD-ROM drive, a tape drive, an LS-120 or LS-240 SuperDisk drive, a Zip drive, and so on. Systems with SCSI drives are easy to upgrade because virtually any third-party SCSI drive will plug in and function.