System Bus Types, Functions, and Features

The heart of any motherboard is the various buses that carry signals between the components. A bus is a common pathway across which data can travel within a computer. This pathway is used for communication and can be established between two or more computer elements.

The PC has a hierarchy of different buses. Most modern PCs have at least three buses; some have four or more. They are hierarchical because each slower bus is connected to the faster one above it. Each device in the system is connected to one of the buses, and some devices (primarily the chipset) act as bridges between the various buses.

The main buses in a modern system are as follows:

  • Processor bus. Also called the front-side bus (FSB), this is the highest-speed bus in the system and is at the core of the chipset and motherboard. This bus is used primarily by the processor to pass information to and from cache or main memory and the North Bridge of the chipset. The processor bus in a modern system runs at 66MHz, 100MHz, 133MHz, 200MHz, 266MHz, 400MHz, 533MHz, or 800MHz and is normally 64 bits (8 bytes) wide.

  • AGP bus. This is a high-speed 32-bit bus specifically for a video card. It runs at 66MHz (AGP 1x), 133MHz (AGP 2x), 266MHz (AGP 4x), or 533MHz (AGP 8x), which allows for a bandwidth of up to 2,133MBps. It is connected to the North Bridge or Memory Controller Hub of the chipset and is manifested as a single AGP slot in systems that support it.

  • PCI bus. This is usually a 33MHz 32-bit bus found in virtually all newer 486 systems and Pentium and higher processor systems. Some newer systems include an optional 66MHz 64-bit version—mostly workstations or server-class systems.

This bus is generated by either the chipset North Bridge in North/South Bridge chipsets or the I/O Controller Hub in chipsets using hub architecture. This bus is manifested in the system as a collection of 32-bit slots, normally white in color and numbering from four to six on most motherboards. High-speed peripherals, such as SCSI adapters, network cards, video cards, and more, can be plugged into PCI bus slots.

  • ISA bus. This is an 8MHz 16-bit bus that has disappeared from recent systems after first appearing in the original PC in 8-bit, 5MHz form and in the 1984 IBM AT in full 16-bit 8MHz form. It is a very slow-speed bus, but it was ideal for certain slow-speed or older peripherals.

It has been used in the past for plug-in modems, sound cards, and various other low-speed peripherals. The ISA bus is generated by the South Bridge part of the motherboard chipset, which acts as the ISA bus controller and the interface between the ISA bus and the faster PCI bus above it. The Super I/O chip usually was connected to the ISA bus on systems that included ISA slots.

Some newer motherboards feature a special connector called an Audio Modem Riser (AMR) or a Communications and Networking Riser (CNR). These are dedicated connectors for cards that are specific to the motherboard design to offer communications and networking options.

They are not designed to be general-purpose bus interfaces, and few cards for these connectors are offered on the open market. Usually, they're offered only as an option with a given motherboard.

They are designed such that a motherboard manufacturer can easily offer its boards in versions with and without communications options, without having to reserve space on the board for optional chips. Normal network and modem options offered publicly, for the most part, will still be PCI based because the AMR/CNR connection is somewhat motherboard specific.

Several hidden buses exist on modern motherboards—buses that don't manifest themselves in visible slots or connectors. I'm talking about buses designed to interface chipset components, such as the Hub Interface and the LPC bus.

The Hub Interface is a quad-clocked (4x) 66MHz 8-bit bus that carries data between the MCH and ICH in hub architecture chipsets made by Intel. It operates at a bandwidth of 266MBps and was designed as a chipset component connection that is faster than PCI and yet uses fewer signals for a lower-cost design.

Some recent workstation/server chipsets from Intel use faster versions of the hub interface. The most recent chipsets from major third-party vendors also bypass the PCI bus with direct high-speed connections between chipset components.

In a similar fashion, the LPC bus is a 4-bit bus that has a maximum bandwidth of 6.67MBps; it was designed as an economical onboard replacement for the ISA bus. In systems that use LPC, it typically is used to connect Super I/O chip or motherboard ROM BIOS components to the main chipset.

LPC is nearly as fast as ISA and yet uses far fewer pins and enables ISA to be eliminated from the board entirely. The system chipset is the conductor that controls the orchestra of system components, enabling each to have its turn on its respective buses.

Many of the buses use multiple data cycles (transfers) per clock cycle to achieve greater performance. Therefore, the data transfer rate is higher than it would seem for a given clock rate, which allows for an easy way to take an existing bus and make it go faster in a backward-compatible way.

Memory Bus

The memory bus is used to transfer information between the CPU and main memory—the RAM in your system. This bus is connected to the motherboard chipset North Bridge or Memory Controller Hub chip. Depending on the type of memory your chipset (and therefore motherboard) is designed to handle, the North Bridge runs the memory bus at various speeds.

The best solution is if the memory bus runs at the same speed as the processor bus. Systems that use PC133 SDRAM have a memory bandwidth of 1,066MBps, which is the same as the 133MHz CPU bus. In another example, Athlon systems running a 266MHz processor bus also run PC2100 DDR-SDRAM, which has a bandwidth of 2,133MBps—exactly the same as the processor bus in those systems.

In addition, systems running a Pentium 4 with its 400MHz processor bus also use dual-channel RDRAM memory, which runs 1,600MBps for each channel, or a combined bandwidth (both memory channels run simultaneously) of 3,200MBps, which is exactly the same as the Pentium 4 CPU bus.

Pentium 4 systems with the 533MHz bus run dual-channel DDR PC2100 or PC2700 modules, which match or exceed the throughput of the 4,266MBps processor bus. Running memory at the same speed as the processor bus negates the need for having cache memory on the motherboard.

That is why when the L2 cache moved into the processor, nobody added an L3 cache to the motherboard. Some very high-end processors, such as the Itanium and Itanium 2, have integrated 2MB–4MB of full-core speed L3 cache into the CPU. Eventually, this should make it down to more mainstream desktop systems.

Need for Expansion Slots

The I/O bus or expansion slots enable your CPU to communicate with peripheral devices. The bus and its associated expansion slots are needed because basic systems can't possibly satisfy all the needs of all the people who buy them. The I/O bus enables you to add devices to your computer to expand its capabilities.

The most basic computer components, such as sound cards and video cards, can be plugged into expansion slots; you also can plug in more specialized devices, such as network interface cards, SCSI host adapters, and others.