SATA II still on rocky road

A new industry spec for SATA, collectively known as SATA II, looks to improve the interface. But problems with its implementation still remain.

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Confusion reigns when it comes to SATA II -- the moniker given to the new industry specification for SATA drives that, in itself, is vague and unclear.

Representatives of LSI Logic Corp. and Western Digital Corp., who held a press briefing and small conference in Westford, Mass., yesterday with the goal of "educating the public" about SATA II, admitted that the SATA II label would be more accurate if it was SATA 3G or SATA I/O. SATA 3G refers to its throughput, 3 Gbps and SATA I/O refers to focus of improvement, I/O transfer rates -- but the name SATA II was adopted because it differentiates the new specifications from earlier SATA products, known as SATA I.

But even that differentiation remains unclear, the representatives explained, because most of the criteria for what makes a SATA II system are "optional."

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Among the enhancements on SATA I that SATA II can offer are 3 Gbps transfer speed (SATA I drives max out at 1.5 Gbps), native command queuing (NCQ), asynchronous signal recovery, soft settings preservation, hot-plugging, power management and diagnostic tools, according to Western Digital's director of enterprise marketing, Hubbert Smith.

However, Smith noted that only one of the two "main features" -- the 3 Gbit speed and NCQ -- are necessary to let a product earn the label of SATA II, and not all vendors will offer all features. In fact, Smith said, many probably won't.

"Because certain features are optional and because you need someone on the other end of the wire to be able to communicate with the new interface, it'll probably be quite some time before we see end users getting the full benefits of it," according to Brian Garrett, a senior analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group. "It's going to stall the adoption process."

Right now, Garrett said, vendors are leaning toward the 3 Gbps distinction, rather than NCQ, in developing SATA II drives, but end users might feel differently about what's important. And for users to ask for and get what they want from vendors will take even longer, according to Garrett. "It took three to four years with SCSI," he said.

"You have to wait for operating systems design and release cycles," Garrett pointed out. "If the benefit hasn't been quantified for it yet, why should an operating system developer invest the manpower on the other side of the wire with implementing this?"

"We're getting there," Smith said. "We've figured out the most significant problems, but we're not there yet. It's not a short putt."

Smith's co-presenter, LSI Logic product manager Steve Looby, deepened the mystery with his talk about a "perfect storm" of potential problems that may be worsened or raised by the use of SATA II systems.

High transfer speeds and lower cost disks are the two main attractions of SATA II systems, Looby said. But at the same time, these advances will make a vast number of high-capacity drives affordable for users. This can lead to wiring problems among many drives and cooling problems as hotter drives are placed closer together in small spaces, and difficulty with SAS interconnection fabrics.

As a result, Looby said, RAID itself, specifically RAID-6, will become more necessary using SATA II systems because with larger and more complex disk systems the potential for double disk failure increases.

Asked if the new SATA II spec addresses RAID-6 specifically or that "perfect storm" of problems, Looby said, "No. We're just noting the problem."

SATA II systems are still at least six months away from widespread distribution, according to the presenters.

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