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Micro Channel Architecture (MCA) Bus

The MCA bus (also called the Micro Channel bus; MCA stands for "Micro Channel Architecture") was IBM's attempt to replace the ISA bus with something "bigger and better". When the 80386DX was introduced in the mid-80s with its 32-bit data bus, IBM decided (much like it did with the AT) to create a bus to match this width. MCA is 32 bits wide, and offers several significant improvements over ISA. (One of MCA's disadvantages was rather poor DMA controller circuitry.)

The MCA bus has some pretty impressive features considering that it was introduced in 1987, a full seven years before the PCI bus made similar features common on the PC. In some ways it was ahead of its time, because back then the ISA bus really wasn't a major performance limiting factor:

  • 32 Bit Bus Width: The MCA bus features a full 32 bit bus width, the same width as the VESA and PCI local buses. It had far superior throughput to the ISA bus.
  • Bus Mastering: The MCA bus supported bus mastering adapters for greater efficiency, including proper bus arbitration.
  • Plug and Play: MCA automatically configured adapter cards, so there was no need to fiddle with jumpers. This was eight years before Windows 95 brought PnP into the mainstream!

MCA had a great deal of potential. Unfortunately, IBM made two decisions that would doom MCA to utter failure in the marketplace. First, they made MCA incompatible with ISA; this means ISA cards will not work at all in an MCA system, one of the few categories of PCs for which this is true. The PC market is very sensitive to backwards-compatibility issues, as evidenced by the number of older standards that persist to this day (such as ISA!) Second, IBM decided to make the MCA bus proprietary. It in fact did this with ISA as well; however in 1981 IBM could afford to flex its muscles in this manner, while by this time the clone makers were starting to come into their own and weren't interested in bending to IBM's wishes.

These two factors, combined with the increased cost of MCA systems, led to the demise of the MCA bus. With the PS/2 now discontinued, MCA is dead on the PC platform, though it is still used by IBM on some of its RISC 6000 UNIX servers. It is one of the classical examples in the field of computing of how non-technical issues often dominate over technical ones.

Tip: This website contains a great deal of information on MCA-based PC equipment, including using it with Linux.

Next: Extended Industry Standard Architecture (EISA) Bus

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