Shingled Magnetic Recording

Shingled Magnetic Recording (SMR) is a magnetic storage data recording technology used in hard disk drives (HDDs) to provide increased areal density compared to same-generation drives using conventional magnetic recording (CMR) technology, resulting in a higher overall per-drive storage capacity.

SMR Overview

Conventional magnetic recording places gaps between recording tracks on HDDs to account for Track mis-registration (TMR) budget. These separators impact areal density, as portions of the platter surface are not being fully utilized. Shingled magnetic recording removes the gaps between tracks by writing tracks in an overlapping manner, forming a pattern similar to shingles on a roof. Physically, this is done by writing the data sequentially, then overlapping (or “shingling”) it with another track of data. By repeating this process, more data tracks can be placed on each magnetic surface. The figure below illustrates this principle.

SMR disks track organization

The write head designed for SMR drives is wider than required for a single track of data. It produces a stronger magnetic field suitable for magnetizing films of high coercivity. Once one track has been written, the recording head is advanced by only part of its width, so the next track will partially overwrite the previous one, leaving only a narrow band for reading.

Overlapping tracks are grouped into bands called zones of fixed capacity for more effective data organization and partial update capability. Recording gaps between zones are laid to prevent data overwrite by the wide write head from one zone to another.

SMR disks overlapping tracks

Fundamental Implications of SMR

Because of the shingled format of SMR, all data streams must be organized and written sequentially to the media. While the methods of SMR implementation may differ (see SMR Implementations section below), the data nonetheless must be written to the media sequentially. Consequently, should a particular data sector need to be modified or re-written, the entire “band” of tracks (zone) must be re-written. Because the modified data sector is potentially under another “shingle” of data, direct modification is not permitted, unlike traditional CMR drives

In the case of SMR, the entire row of shingles above the modified track of the sector to modify needs to be rewritten in the process. SMR hard disks still provide true random-read capability, allowing rapid data access like any traditional CMR drive. This makes SMR an excellent technology candidate for both active archive and higher-performance sequential workloads.

SMR Interface Implementations

The command interface of SMR disks can take different forms, referred to as models, with visible differences from the host and user point of view. It is important to understand these differences, as not all implementation options are appropriate for a particular storage application. The three models that are in use today are:

Host Managed Model

The host managed model does not provide backwards-compatibility with legacy host storage stacks, but rather, delegates management of the SMR sequential write constraint to the host. This is the key difference from drive managed disks: host managed devices do not allow any random write operations within (sequential write required) zones.

With the host managed model, the device blocks are organized in a number of zones ranging from one to potentially many thousands. There are two types of zones: sequential write required zones and optional conventional zones. Conventional zones, which typically occupy a very small percentage of the overall drive capacity, can accept random writes and are typically used to store metadata. Sequential write required zones occupy the majority of the overall drive capacity where the device enforces sequentiality of all write commands within each zone. It should be noted that with the Host Managed model, random read commands are supported and perform comparably to that of standard drives.

The host must manage all write operations to be in sequence within a particular sequential write required zone by following a write pointer. Once data is written to the zone, the write pointer increments to indicate the starting point of the next write operation in that zone. Any out-of-order writes, that is, a write operation not starting at the zone write pointer location, will force the drive to abort the operation and flag an error. Recovery from such an error is the responsibility of the controlling host software. This enforcement allows host managed devices to deliver predictable performance.

Drive Managed Model

In the drive managed SMR disk model the drive deals with the sequential write constraint internally, providing a backwards compatible interface. The performance characteristics of drive managed SMR disks will however depend on the applications used and workloads executed.

Host Aware Model

The host aware model is the superset of the host managed and drive managed models as it simultaneously preserves compatibility with legacy host storage stacks (backward compatibility with regular disks) and provides the same set of commands for a host to tightly control the disk write operation handling.

Similarly to drive managed disks, the performance of host aware disks when used as regular disks will depend on application and workload.

All host-side software support and optimization discussed in this site apply to host aware SMR disks when these devices are used similarly to host managed disks. focuses on host managed devices

The documentation pages of this site focus on host managed SMR disks. Drive managed and host aware disks used as regular devices are not discussed.

Governing Standards

A new specification of commands have been defined for SMR disks implementing the Host Managed and Host Aware models. These new command interfaces are all standards-based and developed by the INCITS T10 committee for SCSI drives and the INCITS T13 committee for ATA drives. There is no specific industry standard for the Drive Managed model because it is backward compatible and purely transparent to hosts.

SCSI Standard: ZBC

The Zoned Block Command (ZBC) revision 05 is the published approved standard defining the new zone management commands and read/write command behavior for Host Managed and Host Aware SCSI drives. Implemented in conjunction with the applicable clauses of the SPC-5 and SBC-4 specifications, the ZBC specifications define the model and command set extensions for zoned block devices.

The Zoned Block Commands specifications document is published as ANSI INCITS 536-2016: Information technology – Zoned Block Commands (ZBC) and can be purchased from the ANSI webstore. This document is available at no cost to INCITS T10 member companies. Contact INCITS for further information.

ATA Standard: ZAC

The INCITS Technical Committee T13 is responsible for all interface standards relating to the popular AT Attachment (ATA) storage interface used with many disk drive today. The Zoned Device ATA Command Set (ZAC) is the published approved standard specifying the command set that host systems use to access storage devices that implement the Host Aware Zones feature set or the Host Managed Zones feature set. This standard is an extension to the ATA implementation standards described in AT Attachment - 8 ATA/ATAPI Architecture Model (ATA8-AAM) and provides a common command set for systems manufacturers, system integrators, software suppliers, and suppliers of storage devices that provide one of the zones feature sets.

The Zoned Device ATA Command Set specifications document is published as INCITS 537-2016: Information technology – Zoned Device ATA Command Set (ZAC) and can be purchased from the ANSI webstore. This document is available at no cost to INCITS T13 member companies. Contact INCITS for further information.

Zone Block Commands

The ZAC and ZBC standards describe the set of commands necessary for a host application to manage zones of a Host Managed or Host Aware drive. While these two standards describe commands for two separate protocols (SCSI and ATA), the zone management commands defined are semantically identical and the behavior of read and write commands defined are also compatible. In addition to the zone management commands, the ZBC and ZAC standards also both define the zone models discussed in the SMR Interface Implementations section.

Both standards define five zone management commands as extensions to the disk basic command set similar to that of a CMR drive.