hot plugging

What is hot plugging?

Hot plugging is the addition of a component to a running computer system without significant interruption to the operation of the system. Hot plugging a device does not require a restart of the system. This is especially useful for systems that must always stay running, such as a server.

Common examples of hot-pluggable devices include hard disk drives and solid-state drives, which can be added to a storage system; or USB devices, mice, keyboards and printers, which can be added to a personal computer.

The defining characteristic of hot plugging is that the system is not interrupted. The word hot refers to the fact that a machine is running and still hot when a device is being plugged in. The opposite of hot plugging is cold plugging, in which the device is interrupted or powered off.

How does hot plugging work?

Hot plugging might involve some administrative action on the part of the user. For example, if the user is plugging in a new hard drive, the system will require the user to mount it after installation. The removal of the hard drive likewise requires the user to eject it.

Many devices are designed to be hot plugged without much thought to the mechanics of it on the part of the user, such as HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) cords and USBs. However, other larger-scale devices or less ubiquitous technologies require the user to know if it is hot-plug capable, as not every device is. For example, devices with an Integrated Drive Electronics storage interface are not hot-pluggable and have largely been replaced by Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) drives, which are.

To hot plug a device safely, the device must be designed to protect against electric shocks that can occur from connecting two charged devices. To mitigate this, devices might have a staggered pin design at the point of connection to ensure the circuit is connected in the right order. The receiving device might also have some sort of shield or covering plate to keep components from generating static when touching each other and, subsequently, shorting out.

Without protection, electrical shock can damage the component, the computer, the user or all three. In addition, a mechanism must be in place in the computer's operating system and the device to recognize the removal or addition of a device. This mechanism often takes the form of a driver.

Which devices can be hot plugged safely?

Any device that a user can connect to a running computer and begin operating immediately can be hot plugged.

A common example is one with a USB connection. A mouse, printer, portable hard drive and keyboard are all examples of devices, or peripherals, that use a USB connection and, therefore, can be hot plugged safely.

A power supply can also usually be hot plugged into a computer system with no problems. Another common hot-pluggable connection is HDMI, which has a hot plug detect mechanism to notify the other device. Other examples include FireWire and some Small Computer System Interface, or SCSI, devices.

Many modern server and mainframe components can be hot plugged as well, such as Peripheral Component Interconnect Express, or PCIe, and SATA drives.

Hot plugging vs. hot swapping

Hot plugging and hot swapping are often treated as interchangeable terms, but there is a difference. Hot plugging is the attachment of a system component while the system is running. Hot swapping is the replacement of a component while the system is running. They are often mistakenly used for each other because they both refer to the addition or subtraction of removable media from uninterrupted systems -- in other words, adding or removing components without affecting the computer's operation.

Hot swapping is more useful when a part breaks down and needs to be replaced to maintain a working system. Hot plugging is more useful for attaching expansions to a system, such as a device that offers extra data storage, or linking to another attached computer system for the purpose of data synchronization.

Hot swapping can also refer to the practice of altering a program's running code without stopping the execution of the program. One example of this -- hot plugging in software -- is VMware's vSphere hot plug function, where the user can add memory or compute power to their virtual machine by enabling the feature. Processors and memory are traditionally only cold-pluggable/swappable, but virtualization makes it possible through software.

Potential hot plugging issues

Problems can arise when users attempt to hot plug devices that were not designed for it. This can cause electrical issues, permanently damaging the component or injuring the user. Sometimes, devices that were designed to be hot plugged malfunction, and users report hardware failure after hot plugging another component.

As consumer storage technology advances, more products are designed to be hot plugged without a second thought. However, hot plugging older devices can sometimes cause an unexpected reaction, so cold swapping is usually a safer option.

This was last updated in July 2023

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