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[ The PC Guide | Systems and Components Reference Guide | Motherboard and System Devices | System Buses | System Bus Types | Older Bus Types ]

Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) Bus

The most common bus in the PC world, ISA stands for Industry Standard Architecture, and unlike many uses of the word "standard", in this case it actually fits. The ISA bus is still a mainstay in even the newest computers, despite the fact that it is largely unchanged since it was expanded to 16 bits in 1984! The ISA bus eventually became a bottleneck to performance and was augmented with additional high-speed buses, but ISA persists because of the truly enormous base of existing peripherals using the standard. Also, there are still many devices for which the ISA's speed is more than sufficient, and will be for some time to come (standard modems being an example).

(As a side note, after 17 years it appears that ISA may finally be going the way of the dodo. Market leaders Intel and Microsoft want to move the industry away from the use of the ISA bus in new machines. My personal prediction is that they will succeed in this effort, but that it will take at least five years to do it fully. There are few standards in the PC world as pervasive as ISA, and the hundreds of millions of existing ISA cards will ensure that ISA sticks around for some time.)

The choices made in defining the main characteristics of the ISA bus--its width and speed--can be seen by looking at the processors with which it was paired on early machines. The original ISA bus on the IBM PC was 8 bits wide, reflecting the 8 bit data width of the Intel 8088 processor's system bus, and ran at 4.77 MHz, again, the speed of the first 8088s. In 1984 the IBM AT was introduced using the Intel 80286; at this time the bus was doubled to 16 bits (the 80286's data bus width) and increased to 8 MHz (the maximum speed of the original AT, which came in 6 MHz and 8 MHz versions).

Later, the AT processors of course got faster, and eventually data buses got wider, but by this time the desire for compatibility with existing devices led manufacturers to resist change to the standard, and it has remained pretty much identical since that time. The ISA bus provides reasonable throughput for low-bandwidth devices and virtually assures compatibility with almost every PC on the market.

Many expansion cards, even modern ones, are still only 8-bit cards (you can tell by looking at the edge connector on the card; 8-bit cards use only the first part of the ISA slot, while 16-bit cards use both parts). Generally, these are cards for which the lower performance of the ISA bus is not a concern. However, access to IRQs 9 through 15 is provided through wires in the 16-bit portion of the bus slots. This is why most modems, for example, cannot be set to the higher-number IRQs. IRQs cannot be shared among ISA devices.

Next: Micro Channel Architecture (MCA) Bus


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