In hard disk drives, firmware is the software code that controls, and is embedded in, the physical hard drive hardware. Since modern hard disks have internal microprocessors, they also have internal “software” that runs them. These routines are what run the control logic and make the drive work. Of course this isn’t really software in the conventional sense, because these instructions are embedded into read-only memory. This code is analogous to the system BIOS: low-level, hardware-based control routines, embedded in ROM. It is usually called firmware, with the word “firm” intending to connote something in between “hard” and “soft”. The functions that run the logic board’s circuitry could be implemented strictly with hardware devices, as was done with early drives. However, this would be expensive and inflexible for today’s sophisticated controllers, since it would make it difficult to update or adapt the logic to match changes in hard disks or the devices they interface with.

Much the way the system BIOS benefits from being in a changeable ROM chip that can be modified relatively easily, the hard disk’s firmware does as well. In fact, in many drives the firmware can be updated under software control, very much the same way that a flash BIOS works. Unlike the system BIOS, this is only very rarely done, when a particular sort of problem exists with the firmware logic that can be fixed without requiring a physical hardware change. If you suspect that your drive needs new firmware, check the drive manufacturer’s web site. There you will find the instructions that tell you if you need an update, and if so, how to accomplish it.

Hard drive firmware is typically found on a flash memory chip on the hard drive PCB. Often the firmware will need to access various drive unique parameters from the hard disk platter surface during operation to ensure the correct functioning of the hard drive at all times.

The firmware controls all aspects of the internal hard drive operation –

* When a hard drive is powered on, it is the firmware that is responsible for correctly configuring the hard drive and putting it in a ready state that will then allow the host PC to load the Operating System.
* During the operation of the hard drive it is the firmware that ensures the correct operation of the hard drive, allowing it to correctly interact with other components on the system (eg. the operating system)
* When the hard drive is powered down, a shutdown sequence is executed by the firmware that ensures the hard drive powers down correctly so that it will operate successfully the next time it is powered on.

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