SCSI stands for "Small Computer System Interface", and is a standard interface and command set for transferring data between devices on a computer bus. SCSI is pronounced "scuzzy" when spoken aloud, while occasional attempts to promulgate the more flattering pronunciation "sexy" have never succeeded.

SCSI is most commonly used for hard disks and tape storage devices, but also connects a wide range of other devices, including scanners, CD-ROM drives, CD recorders, and DVD drives. In fact, the entire SCSI standard promotes device independence, which means that theoretically anything can be made SCSI (SCSI printers actually exist).

In the past, SCSI was very popular on all kinds of computers. SCSI remains popular on high-performance workstations, servers, and high-end peripherals. Desktop computers and notebooks more typically use the ATA/IDE interfaces for hard disks and USB (which uses a subset of the SCSI command set for hard disks and floppy drives) for other devices.



In 1979, Shugart Associates introduced an interface called SASI (Shugart Associates System Interface). At the same time, NCR Corporation's Peripherals division (now Engenio), had developed a more sophisticated product called BYSE, and was developing an ASIC to implement it. In late 1981, NCR and Shugart agreed to merge the best features of the two solutions, and to jointly promote the concept as an ANSI standard. After several committee meetings and after a number of other companies decided to adopt the combined standard, it received the new name "SCSI." In 1986, with SCSI already in widespread use, ANSI approved the SCSI spec (as X3.131-1986). Since then, SCSI has developed as an industry-wide standard, capable of being applied to virtually any computer system (there were even SCSI implementations for the venerable Commodore 64 home computer). The first working SCSI ASIC was donated by NCR to the Smithsonian Museum.


SCSI has evolved over the years. Before summarizing the evolution, a distinction should be made between the terminology used in the SCSI standard itself, as promulgated by the T10 committee of INCITS, and common parlance, as codified by the SCSI trade association, SCSITA.

As of 2003, there have only been three SCSI standards: SCSI-1, SCSI-2, and SCSI-3. All SCSI standards have been modular, defining various capabilities which manufacturers can include or not. Individual vendors and SCSITA have given names to specific combinations of capabilities. For example, the term "Ultra SCSI" is not defined anywhere in the standard, but is used to refer to SCSI implementations that signal at twice the rate of "Fast SCSI." Such a signalling rate is not compliant with SCSI-2 but is one option allowed by SCSI-3. Similarly, no version of the standard requires low-voltage-differential (LVD) signalling, but products called Ultra-2 SCSI include this capability. This terminology is helpful to consumers, because "Ultra-2 SCSI" device has a better-defined set of capabilities than simply identifying it as "SCSI-3."

Starting with SCSI-3, the SCSI standard has been maintained as a loose collection of standards, each defining a certain piece of the SCSI architecture, and bound together by the SCSI Architectural Model. This change divorces SCSI's various interfaces from the command set, allowing devices that support SCSI commands to use any interface (including ones not otherwise specified by T10), and also allowing the interfaces that are defined by T10 to develop on their own terms. This change is also why there is no "SCSI-4".

No version of the standard has ever specified what kind of connector should be used. The connectors used by vendors have tended to evolve over time. Although SCSI-1 devices typically used bulky Blue Ribbon ("Centronics") connectors, and SCSI-2 devices typically "Mini-D" connectors, it is not correct to refer to these as "SCSI-1" and "SCSI-2" connectors.

The mainstream implementations of SCSI (in chronological order) are as follows, using common parlance:

SCSI interface overview
Interface Bus width Clock speed Bus bandwidth Max. cable length Max. number of devices
SCSI8 bits5 MHz5 MB/s6m8
Fast SCSI8 bits10 MHz10 MB/s1.5-3m8
Wide SCSI16 bits10 MHz20 MB/s1.5-3m16
Ultra SCSI8 bits20 MHz20 MB/s1.5-3m5-8
Ultra Wide SCSI16 bits20 MHz40 MB/s1.5-3m5-8
Ultra2 SCSI8 bits40 MHz40 MB/s12m8
Ultra2 Wide SCSI16 bits40 MHz80 MB/s12m16
Ultra3 SCSI16 bits40 MHz DDR160 MB/s12m16
Ultra-320 SCSI16 bits80 MHz DDR320 MB/s12m16
SSA1 bit400 MBit80 MB/s25m96
FC-AL1 bit2GBit2000 MB/s?127
iSCSIDependent upon IP network??
SAS 3Gbit1 bitN/A375 MB/s
per direction; full duplex
10m16,256 (128 per expander)


The original standard that was derived from SASI and formally adopted in 1986 by ANSI. SCSI-1 features an 8-bit bus (with parity), running asynchronously at 3.5 MB/s or 5 MB/s in synchronous mode, and a maximum bus cable length of 6 meters (just under 20 feet -- compare that to the 18 inch (0.45 meter) limit of the ATA interface). A variation on the original standard included a high-voltage differential (HVD) implementation whose maximum cable length was many times that of the single-ended versions.


This standard was introduced in 1989 and gave rise to the Fast SCSI and Wide SCSI variants. Fast SCSI doubled the maximum transfer rate to 10 MB/s and Wide SCSI doubled the bus width to 16 bits on top of that (to reach 20 MB/s). However, these improvements came at the minor cost of a reduced maximum cable length to 3 meters. SCSI-2 also specified a 32-bit version of Wide SCSI, which used 2 16-bit cables per bus; this was largely ignored by SCSI device makers, and was officially retired in SCSI-3.


Before Adaptec and later SCSITA codified the terminology, the first parallel SCSI devices that exceeded the SCSI-2 capabilities were simply designated SCSI-3. These devices, also known as Ultra SCSI and fast-20 SCSI, were introduced in 1992. The bus speed doubled again to 20 MB/s for narrow (8 bit) systems and 40 MB/s for wide. The maximum cable length stayed at 3 meters but ultra SCSI developed an undeserved reputation for extreme sensitivity to cable length and condition (faulty cables, connectors or terminators were often to blame for instability problems).


This standard was introduced c. 1997 and featured a low voltage differential (LVD) bus. For this reason ultra-2 is sometimes referred to as LVD SCSI. Using LVD technology, it became possible to allow a maximum bus cable length of 12 meters (almost 40 feet!), with much greater noise immunity. At the same time, the data transfer rate was increased to 80 MB/s. Ultra-2 SCSI actually had a relatively short lifespan, as it was soon superseded by ultra-3 (ultra-160) SCSI.


Also known as Ultra-160 SCSI and introduced toward the end of 1999, this version was basically an improvement on the ultra-2 standard, in that the transfer rate was doubled once more to 160 MB/s by the use of double transition clocking. Ultra-160 SCSI offered new features like cyclic redundancy check (CRC), an error correcting process, and domain validation.


This is the ultra-160 standard with the data transfer rate doubled to 320 MB/s. Nearly all new SCSI hard drives being manufactured at the time of this writing (October 2003) are actually ultra-320 devices.


Ultra-640 (otherwise known as Fast-320) was promulgated as a standard (INCITS 367-2003 or SPI-5) in early 2003. Ultra-640 doubles the interface speed yet again, this time to 640 MB/s. Ultra640 pushes the limits of LVD signaling; the speed limits cable lengths drastically, making it impractical for more than one or two devices. Because of this, most manufacturers have skipped over Ultra640 and are developing for Serial Attached SCSI instead.


iSCSI preserves the basic SCSI paradigm, especially the command set, almost unchanged. iSCSI advocates project the iSCSI standard, an embedding of SCSI-3 over TCP/IP, as displacing Fibre Channel in the long run, arguing that Ethernet data rates are currently increasing faster than data rates for Fibre Channel and similar disk-attachment technologies. iSCSI could thus address both the low-end and high-end markets with a single commodity-based technology.

Serial SCSI

Three recent versions of SCSI SSA, FC-AL and Serial Attached SCSI break from the traditional parallel SCSI standards and perform data transfer via serial communications.


Note: Ultra-2, ultra-160 and ultra-320 devices may be freely mixed on the LVD bus with no compromise in performance, as the host adapter will negotiate the operating speed and bus management requirements for each device. Single-ended devices should not be attached to the LVD bus, as doing so will force all devices to run at the slower single-ended speed. Support for single-ended interfaces has been deprecated in the SPI-5 standard (which describes Ultra-640), so future devices may not be electrically backward compatible.

Caution: Modern Single Connector Attachment (SCA) devices may be connected to older controller/drive chains by using SCA adapters. Although these adapters often have auxillary power connectors, use caution: it is possible to quickly destroy the drive by connecting external power. Always try the drive without auxillary power first.

SCSI devices are generally backward-compatible, i.e., it is possible to connect an ultra-3 SCSI hard disk to an ultra-2 SCSI controller and use it (though with reduced speed and feature set).

Each SCSI device (including the computer's host adapter) must be configured to have a unique SCSI ID on the bus. Also, the SCSI bus must be terminated with a terminator. Both active and passive terminators are in common use, with the active type much preferred (and required on LVD buses). Improper termination is a common problem with SCSI installations.

It is possible to convert a wide bus to a narrow one, with widedevices closer to the adapter. To do this properly requires a cable which terminates the wide part of the bus. This is sometimes referred to as a cable with high-9 termination. Specific commands allow the host to determine the active width of the bus. This arrangement is discouraged.


SCSI buses must always be terminated at both ends.

There are four ways to terminate:

  1. Internal
  2. External
  3. Passive
  4. Active - the standard resistance for active SCSI terminators is 100 ohms.

See Termination Tutorial (

External links

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