This item is from the Yet Another Enhanced IDE/Fast-ATA/ATA-2 FAQ, by John Wehman and Peter den Haan with numerous contributions by others. (v1.92).
32-bit disk access (32BDA), also known as FastDisk, is a set of protected-mode drivers that direct int13 calls to the hard disk controller through a protected mode interface. For the latter the hard disk controller has to supply an appropriate virtual device driver (VxD).
Windows ships with one such driver built in: *wdctrl. Unfortunately, this device only supports controllers that are strictly compatible with the WD1003 standard; this excludes SCSI, ATA-2, LBA or CHS translation, disks with more than 1024 cylinders and even some commonplace features of ATA such as block mode. If it detects one of these during the initialization phase it will refuse to load. In today's computers, this means that *wdctrl will rarely do the job and an external VxD must be used.
32BDA has two advantages over disk access through the BIOS. First, since the FastDisk VxD is re-entrant, it enables Windows to use virtual memory for DOS sessions. Using virtual memory without 32BDA could create a deadlock situation if a page fault is generated during the execution of BIOS routines. Since the BIOS is not re-entrant, it is not possible to use a BIOS call to read the page from disk until the first BIOS call has terminated; on the other hand, this BIOS thread must remain suspended until the swapped out page has been read.
So 32BDA enables Windows to manage memory much more efficiently with one or more DOS sessions open.
The second advantage of 32-bit disk access is that it saves two (relatively slow) switches between virtual and protected mode per disk I/O call. Take, for instance, a disk read performed by a DOS application. In the absence of 32BDA, each such call causes the following sequence of events:
1 Application calls INT21 to read from disk 2 Windows traps the call, switches to protected mode 3 Windows switches to real mode, returns to DOS 4 DOS makes int13 call to BIOS disk routines 5 Windows traps the call, switches to protected mode 6 Windows switches to real mode, returns to BIOS 7 BIOS acts upon int13 call and does the read 8 Windows traps the return from int13, switches to PM 9 Windows switches to RM, returns the result to DOS 10 DOS receives the result, passes on to application 11 Windows traps the return from DOS, switches to PM 12 Windows switches to RM, returns result to application 13 Application receives the result from the INT21 call
Using 32-bit disk access replaces steps 6 to 8 by a single call to the FastDisk VxD. This removes two mode switches, resulting in a usually small disk performance improvement. (Steps 3-11 also apply to native Windows applications).