Serial ATA Drives Making Headway


The venerable ATA hard drive,the mainstay of desktop PC storage for years,is about to get a face-lift as drive and component vendors continue to introduce new storage based on Serial ATA.

Serial ATA (SATA) is a natural evolution of the ATA specifications used in most hard drives today. SATA-based hard drives are software-compatible with ATA drives, meaning they work with the same operating systems, applications and drivers without modification.

However, SATA drives use a thinner cable and smaller connectors that make it easier to cool a PC, entry-level server or low-cost storage array, or to build a smaller one.


SERIAL ATA HARD DRIVES: FACTS and FIGURES
> Software-compatible with parallel ATA hard drives
>Smaller-diameter cable, up to 1 meter long, for easier routing and air flow
> Smaller connector to better match hard drives with smaller form factors
> Increased reliability via Cyclical Redundancy Checking (CRC)
> Increased performance of up to 150 Mbytes per second
> Computer chipsets to offer both parallel ATA and serial ATA compatibility
> Up to $15 less than parallel ATA drives

SATA drives also feature improved data throughput, speed and error correction when compared with ATA. Unlike ATA drives, SATA drives are hot-swappable. And because the drives feature point-to-point connections, master-slave settings no longer are necessary.

Most industry observers expect the shift to SATA to be quick, largely because the technical hurdles to adopting SATA are low.

Gartner Dataquest, for instance, expects that 98.4 percent of desktop and mobile PC hard drives will come with the SATA interface by 2006, compared with only 7.3 percent this year.

SATA adoption on the enterprise side is expected to be slower, however, as SATA hard drives are not designed for mission-critical tasks. Gartner Dataquest estimates that the combined SATA/ATA share of the enterprise hard-drive market will reach 24.6 percent in 2006, compared with 10.5 percent last year.

White-box builders and other solution providers have started seeing customer interest in SATA hard drives but say supplies are slow in coming.

Malcolm Mendonsa, co-owner at NetServ, a Santa Ana, Calif.-based solution provider and systems builder, said he placed an order for a SATA drive for testing but has not yet received it.

"We definitely want to see it and check it out," Mendonsa said. "Our policy with new technology is to build a computer for ourselves, pass it around, try it out. Regardless of what anyone says or any benchmarks they offer, we want to try it before we consider building it for customers."

Mendonsa initially thought SATA would be a good fit only in the desktop PC business. "But depending on customer environments and applications,and believe me, they are more diversified than in the past five years,we will definitely consider it for entry-level servers," he said.

Andy Kretzer, director of sales and marketing at Bold Data Technology, a Fremont, Calif.-based systems builder, said his company is already building SATA-equipped desktops for high-end gaming machines, even though the drives are priced high and still in short supply.

However, he said, the most beneficial use of SATA drives will be in rack-mount servers, because the smaller connector and cable help increase the flow of air in the servers. "However, motherboards for rack-mount servers don't have SATA connectivity yet," he said.

Seagate, which is currently the only volume supplier of SATA hard drives, recently added enterprise-class features to its drives.

Western Digital recently introduced SATA hard drives with enterprise-class features such as 10,000-rpm speed, a five-year warranty and 1 million hours meantime-between-failure reliability.

Maxtor, which is expected to start shipping SATA drives shortly, is late to market because its production lines for ATA hard drives were running at full capacity, a company spokesperson said.

Adaptec this month started shipping its first SATA host-bus adapter for RAID 0 and RAID 1 use, and priced it the same as its ATA adapter. LSI Logic and JMR Electronics this month demonstrated a SATA RAID solution with six Fujitsu SATA hard drives. Meanwhile, Asaca plans to introduce a video storage array with up to 48 Tbytes of SATA storage in April.

SATA finally gives customers a reason to use ATA drives for mass storage, said Diamond Lauffin, senior executive vice president of Nexsan Technologies, Woodland Hills, Calif.

The key to the success of SATA is in the simplicity of the connections, not the speed, Lauffin said. "So customers say, 'If SATA comes out at a higher price, why change?' " he said. "That's the sophisticated end user. For non-sophisticated users, they consider SATA because it's not ATA, [but] it has advanced technology compared to ATA."