Parallel ATA (PATA)

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Parallel ATA (PATA), originally AT Attachment, is an interface standard for the connection of storage devices such as hard disks, floppy drives, and optical disc drives in computers. The standard is maintained by X3/INCITS committee. It uses the underlying AT Attachment (ATA) and AT Attachment Packet Interface (ATAPI) standards.

The Parallel ATA standard is the result of a long history of incremental technical development, which began with the original AT Attachment interface, developed for use in early PC AT equipment. The ATA interface itself evolved in several stages original Integrated Drive Electronics (IDE) interface. As a result, many near-synonyms for ATA/ATAPI and its previous incarnations are still in common informal use. After the introduction of Serial ATA in 2003, the original ATA was renamed Parallel ATA, PATA for short.

Parallel ATA cables have a maximum allowable length of only 18 in (457 mm). Because of this limit, the technology normally appears as an internal computer storage interface. For many years ATA provided the most common and the least expensive interface for this application. It has largely been replaced by Serial ATA (SATA) in newer systems.

1992 80386 pc motherboard

History and terminology

The PATA standard was originally conceived as the “PC/AT Attachment” because its primary feature was a direct connection to the 16-bit ISA bus introduced with the IBM PC/AT. The “AT” in “IBM PC/AT” refers to “Advanced Technology,” but the ATA specifications simply use the name “AT Attachment”, to avoid possible trademark issues with IBM.

IDE and ATA-1

The term Integrated Drive Electronics refers not just to the connector and interface definition, but also to the fact that the drive controller is integrated into the drive, as opposed to a separate controller on or connected to the motherboard. The interface cards used to connect a parallel ATA drive to, for example, a PCI slot are not drive controllers: they are merely bridges between the host bus and the ATA interface. Since the original ATA interface is essentially just a 16-bit ISA bus in disguise, the bridge was especially simple in case of an ATA connector being located on an ISA interface card. The integrated controller presented the drive to the host computer as an array of 512-byte blocks with a relatively simple command interface. This relieved the mainboard and interface cards in the host computer of the chores of stepping the disk head arm, moving the head arm in and out, and so on, as had to be done with earlier ST-506 and ESDI hard drives. All of these low-level details of the mechanical operation of the drive were now handled by the controller on the drive itself. This also eliminated the need to design a single controller that could handle many different types of drives, since the controller could be unique for the drive. The host need only ask for a particular sector, or block, to be read or written, and either accept the data from the drive or send the data to it.

The interface used by these drives was standardized in 1994 as ANSI standard X3.221-1994, AT Attachment Interface for Disk Drives. After later versions of the standard were developed, this became known as “ATA-1”.

A short-lived, seldom-used implementation of ATA was created for the IBM XT and similar machines that used the 8-bit version of the ISA bus. It has been referred to as “XTA” or “XT Attachment”.

Second ATA interface

Mozart 16 ISA sound card

When PC motherboard makers started to include onboard ATA interfaces in place of the earlier ISA plug-in cards, there was usually only one ATA connector on the board, which could support up to two hard drives. At the time in combination with the floppy drive, this was sufficient for most people, and eventually it became common to have two hard drives installed. When the CD-ROM was developed, many computers would have been unable to accept these drives if they had been ATA devices, due to already having two hard drives installed. Adding the CD-ROM drive would have required removal of one of the drives.

SCSI was available as a CD-ROM expansion option at the time, but devices with SCSI were more expensive than ATA devices due to the need for a smart interface that is capable of bus arbitration. SCSI typically added US$100-300 to the cost of a storage device, in addition to the cost of a SCSI host adapter.

The less-expensive solution was the addition of a dedicated CD-ROM interface, typically included as an expansion option on a sound card. It was included on the sound card because early business PCs did not include support for more than simple beeps from the internal speaker, and tuneful sound playback was considered unnecessary for early business software. When the CD-ROM was introduced, it was logical to also add digital audio to the computer at the same time (for the same reason, sound cards tended to include a gameport interface for joysticks). An older business PC could be upgraded in this manner to meet the Multimedia PCstandard for early software packages that used sound (which required the sound card) and colorful video animation (which required the CD-ROM as floppy disks simply did not have the necessary data capacity).

The second drive interface initially was not well-defined. It was first introduced with interfaces specific to certain CD-ROM drives and it was common to find early sound cards with two or three separate connectors each designed to match a certain brand of CD-ROM drive. This evolved into the standard ATA interface for ease of cross-compatibility, though the sound card ATA interface still usually supported only a single CD-ROM and not hard drives.

SoundBlaster 32 ISA sound card

This second ATA interface on the sound card eventually evolved into the second motherboard ATA interface which was long included as a standard component in all PCs. Called the “primary” and “secondary” ATA interfaces, they were assigned to base addresses 0x1F0 and 0x170 on ISA bus systems.

EIDE and ATA-2

In 1994, about the same time that the ATA-1 standard was adopted, drives were introduced under a newer name, Enhanced IDE (EIDE). These included most of the features of the forthcoming ATA-2 specification and several additional enhancements. Other manufacturers introduced their own variations of ATA-1 such as “Fast ATA” and “Fast ATA-2”.

The new version of the ANSI standard, AT Attachment Interface with Extensions ATA-2 (X3.279-1996), was approved in 1996. It included most of the features of the manufacturer-specific variants.

ATA-2 also was the first to note that devices other than hard drives could be attached to the interface.

PATA Pin Diagram

Parallel ATA - PATA
Desription: Two ATA motherboard sockets on the left, with an ATA connector on the right.
Type: Internal storage device connector
Designed: 1986
Superseded by: Serial ATA (2003)
Hot Pluggable: No
External: No
Cable: 40 or 80 wires ribbon cable
Pins: 40
Width: 16 bits
Bitrate: 16 MB/s originally, later 33, 66, 100 and 133 MB/s
Max. devices: 2(master/slave)
Protocol: Parallel