Killer serial: is ATA ready for the enterprise?

Here's what storage vendors want you to believe about serial ATA (SATA) technology: It's a faster, more reliable version of the standard parallel ATA interface. It will eventually replace the older technology, and it's breathlessly awaited by the storage community. That's about two-thirds right.

"Serial ATA will be the standard interface in two years or less," says John Monroe, a vice president at Gartner Inc., Stamford, CT. "We'll see the death of parallel ATA."

Comparing SATA, parallel ATA, SCSI and Fibre Channel

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ATA 100mb/s shared/channeled Shared bus master/slave 2
SATA 150mb/s dedicated per device Point to point 1 (expandable to 128)
SATA II 300mb/s dedicated per device Point to point 1 (expandable to 128)
SCSI 320MB/s shared/channel Shared bus 15
Source: Intel Corp.
ATA 2" 40 (plus 40 conductors) 18"
SATA 5/16" 22 (7 signal) 1 meter
SATA II 5/16" 22 (7 signal) 6 meters
SCSI 1 3/4" 68 or 80 12 meters
SCSI 180g 7,200 $997 $5.53
IDE* 180g 7,200 $249 $1.38
FC 72g 10,000 $4,559 $62.62
Source: Mike Wendt, 3ware Inc.

*SATA drives are expected to be approximately 10% higher than IDE.

But "breathlessly awaited by storage managers?" When was the last time you ever heard of someone becoming breathless over a computer part? (Perhaps one that didn't work.)

"We're sold on SCSI, and we're not really looking to swap what's reliable for what's slower and unproven. Call me crazy, but if it ain't broke ..." says Rick Bauer, chief information officer at The Hill School, a private preparatory school in Pottstown, PA.

Monroe says that this attitude isn't unusual in an enterprise storage setting. Enterprise storage markets are the ideal definition of conservatism, says Monroe. "Change comes slowly to the glass house."

Storage managers in those environments are loathe to buy a pig in a poke, says Ted Vojnovich, network-attached storage (NAS) systems designer and architect at IBM Storage Systems Group in Tucson, AZ. "I've been on several different customer councils, and one of the things we run into talking about serial ATA is that the IT guys want to see that it has proven reliability. They want to make sure that it does prove to be as reliable as Fibre Channel or SCSI," he says.

Most products aren't on the market yet, or are very newly introduced. Seagate has its Barracuda drive, and companies such as Intel and 3ware have serial ATA RAID controller cards. But in general, serial ATA has been slow to hit the market. "I initially forecasted at least 200,000 drives delivered this year, and there's been nowhere near that," says Gartner's Monroe.

Trickling to market
No matter how long it takes the technology to trickle into the market, it will arrive eventually. And as disk drive manufacturers hit high speed with their production volume, big subsystem makers such as Dell, Compaq, and IBM will have a steady supply of serial ATA products to add to their products. It's clear that serial ATA will eventually have a significant impact on the storage market. The questions are: Where will it make its inroads, and what will this mean to storage managers?

The general wisdom is that serial ATA will start to broadly ramp up over the next year as Intel comes out with a chipset supporting serial ATA, and drive production reaches critical mass. Jason Ziller, a technology initiatives manager at Intel Corp. who chairs the serial ATA working group responsible for developing technical specifications, says he expects to see it first on high-end desktop units and low-end servers. "Serial ATA will ramp top to bottom in desktops but bottom to top in servers," he says.

Price will determine how fast serial ATA creeps into IS shops. Most experts agree that when serial ATA prices rival parallel ATA, serial ATA will take off. After all, faster and more reliable technology at the same price - what's not to like?

"The whole disk drive market is driven by cents per megabyte and capacity," says Robert Cecil, Ph.D., the network director at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, a hospital in Cleveland, OH. "So if SATA comes in as a cheaper solution, it wins hands down - end of discussion."

This was first published in January 2003

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